Does Thomas Mulcair support free trade or doesn't he? This could be one of the biggest questions of the general election.
Mr. Mulcair is a new kind of NDP leader – one who talks about the middle class rather than the working class, one who promises to become salesman-in-chief, jetting around the globe to land manufacturing contracts for Central Canada's beleaguered economy.
And on his watch, the NDP's position on trade has evolved. The question is, how far?
Traditionally, the NDP has been implacably opposed to free trade. But under Mr. Mulcair, the party announced its support last year for the Canada-South Korea trade agreement, even though Unifor, which represents auto workers, strongly opposed the deal.
So far, so good, if you're a free trader. But what really matters is CETA and TPP. These acronyms stand for the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between Canada and the European Union, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, involving Canada and 11 other Pacific nations.
CETA, which has been signed by both Canada and the EU but ratified by neither, is one of Stephen Harper's proudest accomplishments, giving Canadian businesses unfettered access to a market of 500 million people. Justin Trudeau was so impressed that he stood in the House of Commons in October, 2013, and congratulated the Prime Minister, pledging full Liberal support.
Where is the NDP on the deal? In principle, the party supports free trade with Europe, a continent with stringent labour and environmental safeguards and a robust social-democratic tradition.
But New Democrats are unhappy with, among other things, a provision that allows corporations to sue governments that violate the agreement, known as investor-state dispute resolution.
Mr. Mulcair said the NDP would study CETA and consult with Canadians before making a decision. Those consultations are complete, but trade critic Don Davies says the party is still not ready to take a position, because discussions between Canada and Europe on the investor-state chapter are ongoing.
"We'll make our decision on a comprehensive basis, once we have a final, official text to deal with," said Mr. Davies, in an interview. He was optimistic, however, that the NDP will be able to announce its position before election day, once the definitive text of the investor-state chapter has been released.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership is an even more important agreement, one that Finance Minister Joe Oliver believes "will unlock the Pacific powerhouse," as he predicted in a speech in Vancouver Tuesday.
But the TPP is even more problematic for the NDP. The agreement, which should be unveiled in August, is the largest regional trade accord in history, involving 40 per cent of global GDP.
Not only does it include the same contentious clauses that are in CETA, it will also almost certainly lead to the erosion of supply management, which protects dairy and poultry farmers from foreign competition.
Many of those farmers are in rural Quebec ridings represented by NDP MPs. Mr. Mulcair has made it abundantly clear that he will oppose the TPP if it imperils supply management.
Does that mean it is reasonable to presume an NDP government would not ratify the TPP?
"I can't think of a more foolish position [to take] on an important matter like a trade agreement than to pronounce on an agreement before it is completed," Mr. Davies maintained. In any event, he considered it highly unlikely the NDP would be ready to take a position on the TPP until after the election, because the party would first want to engage in broad consultation.
This won't do. Election campaigns demand straight answers to straight questions. Voters who oppose CETA and/or the TPP have every bit as much right to those answers as voters who support them.
It's hard to imagine how anyone can cast a ballot for the NDP without knowing where Tom Mulcair's mind is really at on trade.