MISSION INDIA: PM Stephen Harper says Canada-India trade links must come faster

Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper gets a blessing from a priest inside the Sri Someshwara temple in Bangalore Nov. 8, 2012. Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

MARK KENNEDY
POSTMEDIA NEWS

BANGALORE, India — Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared Thursday that India’s democratic system is partly responsible for the slow pace of change as Canada tries to boost trade ties with the South Asian giant.

Harper made the comments at a news conference as he neared the end of a trip to India, during which the focus was on fostering better political relations and increasing bilateral trade and investment.

Canada wants to sign a free trade deal with India next year and reach a pact that will gave legal protections to Canadian business people who invest in India. Progress on both those fronts has been slow.

Harper indicated Thursday he was frustrated, but understands the limits on India’s government.

“I think I am very clear that we need to go farther and faster,” he said.

Harper met India’s senior leaders, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whose coalition government is on shaky ground and has appeared paralyzed by an inability to get opposition consent for economic reforms to allow more foreign investment.

“What we do have to realize when we deal with India, as opposed to some other countries that we’re dealing with in the developing world – this country is a democracy,” said Harper.

“And that means that governments cannot simply dictate a whole set of policy changes to happen the next day. That means governments must develop consensus behind policy changes. And that, in this country is not easy. We understand that.”

“At the same time I’m also a believer that although democracy can slow things down from time to time, in the long term, democracy produces more robust consensus. That means better things for the long-term trajectory.”

Harper said he believes the Singh government sincerely wants to expand foreign trade and that it is clear that “Canada is a top priority in that regard.”

He said it wasn’t always that way, insisting that when he replaced the governing Liberals in office in 2006, Canada-India relations were “frozen”.

Harper wants to boost Canada-India bilateral trade to $15 billion by 2015.

“I think we’re making significant progress.”

During his trip, Harper delivered a speech at the World Economic Forum in New Delhi in which he urged India to strike a free trade agreement with Canada.

Harper noted that the two countries have now reached deals to allow the export of Canadian uranium for the Indian nuclear power industry, as well as a pact that makes it easier for people to work temporarily in each country.

Meanwhile, after eight years of negotiations, the countries are still toiling away behind the scenes on an agreement to give investors legal protections — with no clue of when — or if — a deal will be successfully reached.

Perhaps most importantly, Harper has publicly committed his government to reach a comprehensive free trade agreement with India sometime in 2013.

There have been five rounds of talks, with the next negotiating session set to occur next week in Ottawa.

In his Wednesday speech to the Forum, Harper attached a sense of urgency to the negotiations.

“Friends, here’s the bottom line. The world is moving quickly. Canada and India must also.”

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