What if they negotiated the largest free-trade agreement in modern history, and nobody wanted to hold an election over it?
True, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will take some heat from his two opponents, and from activists, over his decision to negotiate Canada's membership in the Trans-Pacific Parnership only two weeks before the election.
But there is little sign that either NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair or Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau want to make the TPP the big issue in their campaign – and less indication that the majority of voters are interested in getting excited either for or against it.
This is no longer the Canada of 1988, when the first of many international trade deals, the Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement (FTA), was the subject of a single-issue election that bitterly divided Canadians over what seemed then to be a fundamental question of national survival and prosperity. It was a passionate, year-long national debate, with huge protests, divided families and a ballot decision that sealed the fates of all three parties for years.
But then, 1988 marked a pivotal moment in economic history, when much of the world was convulsed in riots, protests and political upheavals in battles of protectionism versus trade. It was a decade during which the old protected national economies of the postwar decades had fallen into crises, with many governments unable to afford the cost of keeping them afloat. Whether you lived in India, Mexico, Poland, Britain, Brazil or Canada, you probably experienced some sort of a national crisis, and a possibly violent national debate, over the merits and costs of less restrictive trade and more open economies.
What happened after that time of upheaval was somewhat anticlimactic: Both champions and opponents of free trade proved to be wrong in their predictions: It was neither as economically transformative as some had hoped, nor as damaging and sovereignty-threatening as some had feared. In fact, most things kept working the same way. A lot more trade agreements have been negotiated between then and now (in large part because the attempt to create a global tariff-ending pact, the World Trade Organization's never-ending Doha round, seems unable to materialize).
Some industries were hurt: The Canadian garment sector, never terribly robust, ceased to exist. Others, especially in resource sectors, prospered. Some political fortunes were transformed: The NDP, by making itself virtually a single-issue party over the FTA and its successor, the North American free-trade agreement (NAFTA), faded out of front-line politics for a number of years, with voters no longer very concerned about the issue at all.
A poll conducted by Angus Reid last year, the 20th anniversary of NAFTA's implementation, found that the proportion of Canadians who feel negatively about the three-nation deal has fallen nearly in half, from 58 per cent in 1993 to 31 per cent today.
The proposed Canada-European Union trade agreement, despite being a far more intensive and comprehensive deal (it involves 29 countries and would force government to allow European countries to bid on services), is popular among 68 per cent of Canadians – and, to judge by voter-issue polls, most of the 32 per cent who oppose it do not feel very strongly about it.
Trade agreements do remain part of the rhetoric of politics. Donald Trump, at the moment the front-running U.S. Republican presidential hopeful, has pledged to cancel and renegotiate NAFTA. Nationalist groups such as the Council of Canadians continue to make headlines opposing it, and Conservatives and business lobbies make grandiose claims for it – even though it is expected, at best, to expand Canada's economy by one-10th of 1 per cent.
Of course, the free-trade world has proved to be a lot less about unrestrained market forces than free-trade opponents had feared or supporters had hoped. Governments still hand piles of money to local companies simply because they're local. Agencies are still allowed to choose suppliers because they're local rather than because they're the best (such as the Buy America Act or the Ontario Green Energy Act). Countries keep restricting trade where they want (the TPP won't let Canada get rid of the agricultural industry's supply management protections).
Twenty-seven years after free trade defined an election, most people, beyond a few enthusiasts on either side, see a world that hasn't changed much – and isn't worth voting over.