Stephen Harper could really use an angry, implacable opponent blasting him for signing free-trade agreements. Without it, the voters might not really reward him for the deals he's done.
Just look at what happened last week: The long-awaited text of the Canada-European Union trade agreement was leaked, to deafening silence. Industry groups and political parties yawned and blinked and didn't find much to say. Next month, Mr. Harper is expected to hold a signing ceremony at a Canada-EU summit, but if the recent past is a guide, the pomp may give way to disengagement.
Here's the rub for Mr. Harper: His trade deals will be a major part of his legacy, but they've been so uncontroversial, they might not win many votes next year.
The Liberals are for the EU free-trade agreement. When they make up their mind, the NDP probably will be, too, albeit with reservations.
That's a far cry from 1988, when free trade with the United States was seen as a country-changing milestone, and opponents were up in arms. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney used it to win re-election.
Mr. Harper's EU agreement isn't, as he claims, bigger than U.S. free trade. But the EU deal is still an accomplishment with a capital A. So is the agreement he signed earlier this year with South Korea, the first in Asia. Mr. Harper closed major deals with substantial trade partners.
The trouble is, his opponents won't make an issue of it. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau talks up trade, suggesting to voters he'd have done the same. That's easy to say, because the hard part is launching talks and closing a deal. But voters usually don't cast ballots to thank leaders for what they've done, they vote based on what they'd do differently in the future.
So far, the Conservatives can't get a good tiff going. And they've tried.
When they announced (prematurely) last year that they had completed negotiations, they tried to pump up the issue by declaring the NDP was opposed – but New Democrats refused to declare their position until the final text is released. Without an opponent, the government issued hundreds of press releases declaring benefits for every hamlet, held dozens of events and launched hearings. They didn't get huge reaction. It had been discounted in the political market.
The government's success in lining up backing from provinces and industry groups has, ironically, reduced attention. More generally, free trade is now widely accepted, so opposition beyond a relatively small minority depends on whether the trading partner is a little scary to Canadians. South Korea isn't. Neither is the EU.
"I think if this were the U.S. or China or even India, it would be more controversial," said Jason Langrish, executive director of the Canada Europe Roundtable for Business. That probably means less mileage for Mr. Harper, he said: "It would be politically useful if this were to become a wedge issue."
That doesn't mean there's no political value for Conservatives. Mr. Harper promised free-trade deals, so he needed to close one. It adds to his chief narrative that he is focused on the economy. Trade deals are part of his political identity, even if they do not become vote-switchers. They make discussion about trade positive ground for Conservatives.
But it's not easy to push debate to that ground. The Conservatives are trying, spinning that they've signed 45 trade deals, compared with five signed by Liberals between 1993 and 2005. They count each EU nation separately, plus many small deals with countries such as Honduras. No matter: If an opponent calls them on it, the Conservatives can tout their record.
They'd do better with a real opponent. The NDP is still their best hope. Leader Thomas Mulcair would probably like to signal his party is not against trade by accepting the EU deal. New Democrats have endorsed smaller deals, such as one with Jordan. But they still have internal differences to broker. That might mean endorsing it while criticizing aspects such as investor-state arbitration.
The Conservatives can only hope they decide instead to outright oppose it. Mr. Harper needs a fight. Otherwise, he might be rewarded in history books, but not in the ballot box.