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The Liberals and New Democrats hope the next Canadian federal election centres on allegations of Conservative corruption and deceit. The Conservatives hope the real issue is their economic record.

But what if the next election is about neither of these things? What if we are about to fight the first election in a generation on the issue of free trade? What if the next election is about the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP)?

The 12 nations negotiating the TPP are closing in on a deal. "It's ready to be sealed," Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb told reporters earlier this week. "A few big things have to end up back on the table yet, but it is close." Last week the Obama administration asked Congress for trade promotion ("fast track") authority on the TPP, in which Congress would agree to a straight up-or-down vote on the deal. The stakes are high for both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. But the White House will be working hard to land the votes.

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For Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the stakes are equally high. The TPP involves not only Canada and the United States, but also Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam – almost 40 per cent of the global economy in total. And South Korea may also join. The recently announced agreement between Canada and the European Union is big for us; a Trans Pacific Partnership agreement would be much, much bigger.

For many, being inside the TPP is vastly preferable to being on the outside – if, that is, they are committed free-traders who embrace globalization. For many others, this deal will be poison. The TPP will toughen intellectual property provisions, limit the right of governments to buy locally and allow corporations to sue governments that fail to comply with TPP provisions.

Most controversial of all, from a Canadian perspective, the TPP will knock down a broad swathe of agricultural subsidies. Such an action would likely mean an end to supply management, which protects the dairy and poultry industries from competition.

Dairy farmers, especially, are a powerful lobby in Quebec and Ontario and no federal party has been willing to cross them. But, the Conservatives might just be willing to, if they and they alone supported signing the accord.

Thomas Mulcair and the NDP are already struggling over whether to support the free-trade agreement with Europe. The TPP would be much harder to support. Not only would the deal abandon protections for dairy and poultry farmers, but labour and environment standards of some member countries in the TPP are far below Canadian levels. The New Democrats would almost certainly oppose the deal.

The Liberals would be in a bit of a cleft-stick. Justin Trudeau's hopes of re-establishing his party in Quebec would come up against enraged dairy farmers in rural ridings. On the other hand, Quebec has traditionally been pro-free trade. And, how will the all-important immigrant voters in Ontario and B.C. react if the Liberals reject a Pacific trade pact?

The Liberals have come down four-square in support of the European trade deal; the TPP will present Mr. Trudeau with a much tougher choice.

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The Conservatives dominate rural ridings in Ontario where dairy farms are plentiful. An election fought on the TPP could cost them those seats. On the other hand, the issue could offer the perfect wedge.

The Conservatives care about economic growth and diversification, Mr. Harper would argue. The other parties, by shutting Canada out of the biggest regional trade agreement in history, would be putting many jobs at risk. As a strategy for protecting and growing suburban seats in Ontario and British Columbia, it could prove a winner.

Free trade elections are hard-fought. The 1911 election on reciprocity with the United States brought down Sir Wilfrid Laurier's Liberals. And in 1988, Brian Mulroney's Conservatives – who negotiated the free-trade agreement with the United States, and who were also dogged by corruption scandals – defeated John Turner's Liberals and Ed Broadbent's New Democrats in the toughest election campaign of modern times.

An election fought on the TPP would be equally intense. But for Stephen Harper and the Conservatives, it might be their best shot.

One final thought: Opposition to the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement was so intense, Mr. Mulroney had no choice but to call an election to decide the issue. But Stephen Harper would never call a snap vote to decide the fate of the TPP. Right?

John Ibbitson is a CIGI senior fellow, an award-winning writer and leading political journalist in Canada. Currently on a one-year leave from The Globe and Mail, John is researching, writing and speaking on Canadian foreign policy at CIGI while he works on a new book.

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Along with other CIGI experts, Mr. Ibbitson will be contributing at www.cigionline.org/blogs, where this post was originally published.

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