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NDP Leader Tom Mulcair speaks in Ottawa on Oct. 9, 2013.

ADRIAN WYLD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

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Question: Why is the Conservative government saying the NDP is opposed to the trade deal with Europe, even though the NDP is not opposed?

Answer: Because the Tories need a useful enemy. And the NDP is playing right into their hand.

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Whenever the official opposition has grilled Stephen Harper about the Senate expenses scandal during Question Period, this week, the Prime Minister has simply changed the subject.

"I will just say that I have noticed, obviously, NDP members' instant opposition to the Canada-Europe trade deal," Mr. Harper said Monday. "I guess the reason we see them asking these kinds of questions is because on the big issues they are wrong."

Except the NDP is not opposed to the Canada-Europe trade deal.

"The NDP has long maintained that Canada should have deeper economic relations with the European Union," Trade Critic Don Davies said in a statement after the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (known as CETA) was announced last week.

However, "significant concerns have been raised," he cautioned. The NDP "will wait until the full text is released" before determining "if the deal is, on balance, a good deal for Canada." The final, legally vetted text could take many months to produce.

You could call the NDP's position nuanced, or you could call it dithering. But you cannot call it, as Mr. Harper did, "instant opposition."

Employment Minister Jason Kenney actually congratulated – congratulated! – Mr. Davies on the statement: "Good on @DonDavies for his relatively balanced statement on Canada-EU Trade Agreement," he tweeted. "#NDP should listen to Euro Social Democrats on trade."

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That may have accounted for Mr. Harper's remarks about the NDP and CETA Tuesday. "Today they support it," he jeered. "Yesterday they said they had never seen it and on Friday they said they were against it. So what are Canadians to believe?" That isn't accurate either, but at least it covers the bases.

The truth is, the NDP isn't sure what it wants to do on CETA. Many of the most senior people inside the party, speaking off the record, acknowledge that free trade with Europe – which is an NDP kind of continent – is something the party should support. And it would burnish Leader Thomas Mulcair's bona fides in the area of economic management.

On the other hand, the dairy industry is adamantly opposed to allowing increased cheese imports, and dairy farmers are concentrated in Quebec ridings held by the NDP.

And the social justice and union wings of the party oppose globalization in its entirety, which they see as the expansion of corporate power over national interests and workers' rights.

Nonetheless, if Mr. Mulcair believes that he can bring at least a portion of his political base around on the deal, then the NDP is likely to support CETA. For the Conservatives, that won't do at all.

Beset by accusations of corruption and cover-up in the Senate expenses scandal, they desperately need to change the channel back to the economy.

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The signing of CETA is supposed to do that, but it only works if the opposition opposes the deal.

Instead, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau stood up in the House Tuesday and actually congratulated – congratulated! – the Prime Minister on CETA.

"We support this agreement in principle, because it aims to reduce barriers to trade, increase trade between Canada and the European Union, and it will benefit the middle class," he told the House.

So much for painting the Grits as job-killing enemies of free trade.

Which is why, unless and until the NDP gets off the fence on CETA, the Conservatives will do everything in their power to entrench the notion that the NDP is opposed to the deal. They need an opponent to deride. Maude Barlow and the Council of Canadians just don't measure up.

If Mr. Mulcair doesn't make up his mind on free trade with Europe soon, he may find the Conservatives have already made it for him.

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John Ibbitson is the chief political writer in the Ottawa bureau.

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