With the federal election only a fortnight away, all three political parties are positioning themselves for the crucial last laps. But there's a wild card. The Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement reached Monday could upend the best-laid plans.
The announcement that Canada and 11 other Pacific nations had signed the biggest regional trade agreement in history is golden news for Stephen Harper's Conservatives, and "it comes at a time when they are probably feeling like they've got control of their campaign," said Janet Brown, a Calgary-based pollster and political analyst. "They've made some bold moves and they've paid off."
Ms. Brown detects the hand of Australian political strategist Lynton Crosby in Mr. Harper's pivot from an exclusive focus on the economy to one of social values – such as the Conservative policy of banning the niqab at citizenship swearing-in ceremonies and the policy of stripping dual citizens who commit terrorist acts of their Canadian citizenship.
Now Tory strategists are hoping that the signing of the TPP, as it's known, will give the Conservatives an economic issue as powerful as the Islamic State mission and the niqab debate were on national security and social values.
The Conservatives need to find five percentage points, give or take, of voters – the Persuadables, who voted Conservative in the past, and might do so again. Expect to see a heavy rotation of ads asserting that only Mr. Harper can be trusted to keep Canada safe and its economy strong.
In the late stages of Britain's election earlier this year, British Conservative Leader David Cameron warned of the dangers of a weak minority Labour government, which contributed to a voter shift that delivered a Conservative majority. Mr. Cameron was guided by Mr. Crosby, and Ms. Brown expects to see the same from Mr. Harper.
If the TPP agreement is golden for the Conservatives, it is no less a boon to the struggling NDP, giving them the economic equivalent of Bill C-51, the anti-terrorism legislation that the Conservatives and Liberals supported and only the NDP opposed.
The NDP's low-key, front-runner campaign has failed them thus far. Mr. Mulcair "has run a very cautious, classic, front-runner campaign," said Shachi Kurl, senior vice-president at pollster Angus Reid. That campaign has not only failed to win over cautious Conservative and Liberal switch voters, Ms. Kurl said, "it has clearly turned off the left flank of his base."
But now the gloves are off in the biggest free-trade debate since the Canada-U.S. deal of 1988. A senior party official said that Mr. Mulcair will campaign intensively in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia over the coming days, warning of the perils posed by the Pacific trade agreement. Quebec dairy farmers could be at risk, Mr. Mulcair will warn, and Ontario automotive workers. Prescription drugs could get more expensive.
In fact, Mr. Mulcair decided not to bother waiting to see the agreement before condemning it. A much more aggressive and unbuttoned NDP Leader vowed Sunday morning that a New Democratic government would never support the TPP on the backs of farmers, factory workers and seniors in need of medicine. Expect more of this, in an extremely crowded schedule, in the coming days.
The NDP situation, in any case, is not as dire as some believe, according to John Parisella, who was chief of staff to Liberal premiers Robert Bourassa and Daniel Johnson. The party, he observes "is still in the lead in Quebec," although he believes voters are also impressed "with how [Justin Trudeau] has grown."
That latter observation explains why Grit partisans are in fine and fighting spirits. The party began the campaign lagging the other two parties. But the Liberal Leader's confident, assertive performance in the debates surprised and impressed many observers. And the party's strategy of moving to the left of the NDP by embracing deficits and tax hikes for high-income earners, all aimed at infrastructure spending and tax-breaks for middle-income earners, appears to be paying off. The party is ahead of the NDP and in a see-saw battle for dominance with the Conservatives.
A party official speaking on background said the Liberals will continue to focus on the Liberal plan to increase taxes on the rich and cut them for the middle class, while financing a national infrastructure program through budget deficits.
But Angus Reid's Ms. Kurl said it's not policy that's the Liberals' strong suit.
"When we poll on who's best on policy, if you had to make up your mind on a leader or a party based on policy, Justin Trudeau's Liberals don't win," she observed. "If you are voting on heart and gut, absolutely Justin Trudeau wins on heart and gut."
The Liberals will be focusing their attention almost exclusively on Mr. Harper in the coming days. The party released five radio and TV ads, Sunday, going straight at the Conservative Leader and hardly mentioning Mr. Mulcair.
But just as the Liberals found themselves boxed in on Bill C-51 – which they supported, angering many progressive voters – so too are they awkwardly placed on TPP, essentially supporting the Conservative position, which could leave them as bystanders in a fight over the deal between the Conservatives and the NDP.
For all three parties, the job over the next two weeks is to secure and deliver to the polls their own core voters, while also making final pitches to undecided voters.
While voters in ridings that are safe for one party or another may barely notice there's an election campaign under way, voters in swing ridings can expect an endless succession of phone calls, leaflets, people at their door, and a slew of local advertising.
Mr. Harper will warn of the dangers of left-wing coalitions, Mr. Mulcair will warn of the damage to farmers and auto workers from the TPP deal, and Mr. Trudeau will promise speedy and massive investments under the Liberals – the campaign slogan has morphed from "real change" to "real change now."
"Whoever has a very good week this week is going to do well on the 19th," Mr. Parisella predicts. The longest campaign in more than century is finally in high gear.