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Politics Harper’s tight-lipped strategy could hurt him on trade and TPP

Bruce Anderson in Ottawa.

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Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of CBC The National's At Issue panel and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians in the past, but no longer does any partisan work. Other members of his family have worked for Conservative and Liberal politicians, and a daughter currently works for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. He writes a weekly digital column for The Globe and Mail.

Last week I wrote that the Conservative Party's allergy to the news media has gone past silly and become self-destructive. This week offered more evidence of the same. The Prime Minister met with the leader of Ukraine, but would take no questions from reporters.

Not everyone agrees with Stephen Harper when it comes to Russia and Ukraine, but a fair number of Canadians think he is on the right side of the question and acting on principle. These are voters who might be leaning Conservative, but considering other parties too.

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In a campaign where one of the brand strengths of the PM is meant to be leadership on the foreign stage, it's odd that he wouldn't want to take every opportunity to talk about global issues and what he is working to accomplish.

True, any contact with the media could involve an awkward or challenging question – but Stephen Harper is the best of the three main party leaders at handling questions.

Trade deals are a centrepiece of the economic policy of this government. And the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is arguably one of the most important choices our country will make in the coming years.

As with all trade agreements, participation will mean giving things up, to obtain things in return. Canadians get this.

Not everyone likes trade deals but most mainstream voters know that the world economy is becoming more integrated and that as a general rule, it's better to be looking for ways to expand exports and avoid being excluded from trading zones. Certainly that is true of the pool of voters that would consider the Conservative Party.

For the Prime Minister, the timing of the election relative to the TPP process is not ideal. He has said that he sees participation in TPP as vital to Canada's interests. Naturally, he can't say what Canada might be willing to give up in order to secure the benefits. No reasonable person would want a prime minister to disclose his negotiating position publicly.

But is the only other choice to play down the TPP process until the election is over, in the hope of avoiding those awkward questions about what Canada might have to put at risk? And practically speaking, how well will this work?

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Opposition politicians on their game will challenge the Prime Minister on this issue. They don't need to lay out their own negotiating position to be effective critics – they only need to argue that you can't trust this Prime Minister, in part because he talks so little about what he's doing. That he only rarely will he answer questions. That he prefers to communicate through paid advertising and talking points uttered by surrogates.

This is an example of where a closed-mouthed communications strategy and hostile relations with the media are self-harming for conservatives.

The Conservatives would be better served by being more proactive on trade and TPP – making it a "sword" rather than a "shield" question. Many reasonable Canadians will be open to the PM's argument that being outside this trade agreement has risks for Canadian workers.

To win again, Conservatives may have no choice but to take the fight to the NDP, who currently lead the polls. They have to make a persuasive case that the NDP would take the country's economic policy backward. Shut down pipeline and resource projects. Back away from trade deals. Create more uncertainty and less investment in Canada.

Instead of waiting to be grilled about abandoning the dairy sector and repeating that this won't happen, a more proactive approach would see Tories talk more about the upside of TPP for Canada and draw a bead on the NDP's trade deal queasiness and prevarication on TPP. Some Conservative spokespeople are doing a bit of this– but communications on this issue from the government seems random and reactive.

In a recent poll, 75 per cent said they knew nothing about TPP. Instead of spending millions communicating by wire, such as advertising the joys of turning 150 or the perils of pot (an argument heard for decades, and not exactly gaining ground), the Harper Conservatives would be better off pitching their trade agenda to Canadians, describing the upside opportunity, taking questions, and challenging opponents. Of course, to do that, they might have to loosen the message grip, put away the crowd-control stanchions, drop the attitude towards media, and look like they want to earn some votes.

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