The Trans-Pacific Partnership is developing into a key election issue, with Canada still at the table, a deal still likely, and the Conservatives and NDP set to clash over trade.
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper made it clear Monday that Canada would continue negotiating with the other 11 members of the proposed trade region, despite the election call.
"Canada will remain at the table during this election campaign," he told reporters in Laval, Que. The treaty, if negotiated, "will in our view form the fundamental trading network of the entire Asia-Pacific region," Mr. Harper predicted.
But the NDP has declared it will oppose any agreement that undermines supply management, which protects the dairy and poultry industry from foreign competition.
Don Davies, the NDP trade critic, said Monday his party would also want to undertake broad consultations with Canadians before making a decision on whether to support the agreement.
"We're fully supportive of Canada remaining at the bargaining table," he said in an interview. "We can't have an empty chair there."
"Once we understand what's been negotiated, how it will affect our economy … and what Canadians think of it, that's when we will take our position, and not before," he said.
Such a position is bound to have the Conservatives claiming that only they are committed to implementing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and that the NDP cannot be trusted with the economy.
The Liberal Party, however, also supports the TPP, in principle. Leader Justin Trudeau has promised that his government would pursue expanded trading opportunities.
Trade ministers and their officials representing the United States, Japan, Canada and nine other Pacific countries had hoped to conclude the ambitious regional agreement last week in Hawaii, but couldn't resolve several key issues, one of which was Ottawa's determination to retain supply management.
Nonetheless, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said Monday his "gut instinct" was that a deal was within sight.
"What we're getting close to is the final bits," Mr. Key said. "You've got Canada with a highly protected dairy industry and you've got the United States trying to sort out issues with Canada. It's a complicated 12-way deal," he told TVNZ.
Even as they failed to reach agreement, the countries involved in the talks announced that upon returning to their respective capitals, they would continue negotiating in small groups and one on one, both by telephone and in person.
After the Maui round that ended Friday, Akira Amari, the Japanese government minister responsible for the transpacific talks, urged his counterparts to convene again shortly – before the end of August.
However, sources familiar with the talks said countries were still too far apart on dairy and autos – lowering tariffs on Japanese imports – and developing countries such as Peru and Chile were reluctant to grant significantly more copyright protection to biological products used to treat diseases.
Canada came under heavy pressure before and during the talks to significantly open its protected dairy market to more foreign imports and was chided by other countries for acting as a laggard – a stand that ultimately helped discourage a chain reaction of trade concessions from other parties.
The United States wants Canada to open the door to significant dairy imports as part of a TPP deal because, in turn, it's being asked to broaden access to the U.S. market for shipments from dairy producers such as New Zealand. U.S. milk producers are seeking assurances in these talks that they will have a place to sell dairy products displaced by new imports from New Zealand.
International Trade Minister Ed Fast said after the Maui talks that the expectation among he and his counterparts is that trade ministers will reconvene again "very soon" to try to clinch a deal.
"When our partners reconvene and we trust that will be very soon, Canada will continue to be at the table as a constructive partner with the sincere desire to complete these negotiations."
And the Conservatives, Canadian international trade lawyer Lawrence Herman said, have clearly put the supply-management system on the table in the closed-door negotiations.
"It's not a question of whether dairy quotas would be opened up," Mr. Herman believes. "It's a question of how much, when, and what the phase-in period is."
Mr. Herman remains optimistic there will be an agreement by or before the end of August, at which point the federal election campaign still won't have reached the halfway mark.
Then "it will become an election issue," he predicted. "It will boil down to an assessment of how much Canada gained in comparison to how much Canada was forced to give up."
The U.S. electoral cycle is also a key factor. Once an agreement is reached in principle, any remaining loose ends need to be negotiated, the document given a legal vetting and the final treaty translated into the languages of the member states. Then, all eyes will turn to the U.S. Congress.
With the 2016 U.S. congressional election approaching, every month of delay lessens the chances that a Republican and Democratic coalition will succeed in ratifying the agreement, which is another reason time is of the essence.
And as the Canadian election campaign gets under way, there is some question as to whether Mr. Fast has a mandate to be negotiating anything. After an election writ is signed, the government of the day transitions into caretaker mode, with ministers limited to routine business unless there is an emergency.
But according to guidelines released Monday by the Privy Council Office, which oversees the public service, ministers and officials may continue treaty negotiations.
"When negotiations are at a critical juncture with timelines beyond Canada's control, the failure to participate in ongoing negotiations during the caretaker period could negatively impact Canada's interests," the guidelines state. "Under such conditions, a compelling case may be made for ongoing efforts to protect Canada's interests."
However, the next government will be free either to ratify or to reject any agreement reached.
With a report from The Canadian Press
Editor's note: The original print version and an earlier digital version of this story said Ed Fast was Canada's trade minister until the government was dissolved Sunday. It has been corrected to indicate he remains trade minister. In addition, Parliament was dissolved Sunday, not the government.