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Liberals need TPP pact to fade quickly as an issue

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau holds up his party's platform at a press conference in Waterloo, Ont.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

It was fitting that Justin Trudeau released his party's election platform at the very same time leaders from Canada and 11 other nations were heralding the completion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks. The Liberals have a credible shot at winning this election and forming the next government. But for that to happen, they need the TPP to disappear as an issue.

One wise observer of the scene does think it will disappear. The new agreement will not be a major factor in the election, predicts pollster Nik Nanos. The Liberals no doubt devoutly hope he is right.

For proof of how uncomfortable the TPP makes the Liberals, consider Mr. Trudeau's response when questioned about the new agreement on Monday.

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"We're a pro-trade party, but we're going to look carefully at the elements of this deal to ensure that it is in the best interests of Canadians," he replied, promising "a full and responsible and open discussion, both in Parliament and with Canadians so that we make the right decision going forward for Canada." Mr. Trudeau's support, if that's what it was, for the agreement couldn't possibly have come with more qualifications.

Also, it was more than a bit of a stretch for him to assert, "we're a pro-trade party." The Liberal Party fiercely opposed the Canada-U.S. trade agreement and only reluctantly ratified the North American free-trade agreement with the U.S. and Mexico that Brian Mulroney's government had signed.

In power, the Liberals were weak-kneed on trade, entering into negotiations with both South Korea and Singapore, only to back out under pressure from domestic interests. It was Stephen Harper's Conservatives who finally sealed a deal with the South Koreans last year and with Singapore as part of the TPP.

But the Liberals did support the Harper government's free-trade agreement with the European Union. So if you strongly support or oppose the TPP, you can't trust the Liberal Party to ratify or reject the agreement.

The truth is, any debate over the TPP interrupts the Liberal narrative of Mr. Trudeau as the true agent of progressive change after 10 years of Mr. Harper. It could cause voters to forget about Liberal plans to tax the rich and give the money to the middle class, to fund infrastructure programs through deficit financing, to improve child-care subsidies for the less well-off, while eliminating them for the better-off.

Most of all, it threatens the Liberal assertion that NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has hewed so closely to the Conservatives in promising to keep the budget balanced that only Mr. Trudeau can be trusted as a progressive alternative to Mr. Harper.

Now it is Mr. Mulcair who is pounding the podium and condemning the TPP as a threat to workers, while Mr. Trudeau mumbles about consultation.

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It suits both the Conservatives and the NDP to treat each other as mighty opposites on the question of ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. Both parties can use the issue to rally their base and attract free-floating voters. Both want to see the Liberals marginalized, and the TPP does that splendidly.

The good news for the Liberals is that Mr. Nanos believes the furor over the TPP will quickly pass.

"The campaign fundamentally will still be about who is the least risky choice and whether people want change or not," he said Monday. The TPP, he believes, will play only a marginal role for voters making that choice.

If Mr. Nanos is right, then the trade issue will recede and the Liberal momentum will resume. If trade does trump other issues, then the Liberals could be in trouble. It won't take long to figure out which is true.

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