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opinion

First, the caveats.

Remember the hoopla surrounding the European free-trade agreement a couple of years ago. Biggest trade deal ever, etc. That accord has yet to see the light of day. It still awaits ratification.

The Pacific Rim deal's text isn't even finalized. After concurrence is found on that, the pact will have to be approved by the governments of 12 countries. New governments opposed to the accord could be elected in the interim.

This deal was carved out under the hot pressure of political deadlines for several of the countries involved. Under those kinds of conditions, the tendency is to give away too much for the sake of political happy points.

Caveats aside however, the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a move in the right direction for Canada. It's unusual that an accord of such importance was negotiated without debate during an election campaign. Details need be revealed and examined. Particularly on auto parts and vehicles, the shifting of production to lower-cost countries could put many Canadian jobs at risk. Much debate is needed on how the country can remain a major player in the industry.

But on this agreement, the rewards clearly look to be greater than the risks. For Canada to be left outside a trading block of this magnitude would have been foolhardy. The accord represents forward thinking for a government that has often been criticized – and with good reason – as reactionary. Think of fossil awards at climate change conferences, crime legislation that is a throwback to yesteryear, a foreign policy that embraces conflict more than conflict resolution, tax cuts that mainly favour the well-off, the elimination of a gun registry and of much of the country's knowledge bank at Statistics Canada. Think of hostility toward the word of the courts and the Charter, of moves against free speech, of a clampdown on civil liberties, of a government decried as a democracy of one.

Because the election is only 13 days away, the TPP agreement could hardly have been more splendidly timed for the Conservatives. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has been gaining momentum, breaking far in front of the NDP and passing the Conservatives in some polls. He is basing much of his campaign on the economy but now finds himself essentially agreeing with Stephen Harper on a major economic initiative.

This leaves the opposition spotlight to NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, who will hope to shore up support on his left side with over-the-top denunciations of the deal and come across as the real anti-Harper, a status he inadvertently surrendered to Mr. Trudeau.

The New Democrats may well have the example of the 1988 election in mind. In that election, it was Liberal leader John Turner who was able to revive his campaign by becoming the ardent anti-free trade crusader. NDP leader Ed Broadbent got lost in the hullaballoo and finished third.

Today's trade issue has nowhere near the profile or public interest generated by the searing debate over free trade with the United States. The degree of interest it generates over the next two weeks could be vital in determining the election's outcome.

The Conservatives' hope is that Mr. Mulcair's opposition will bleed support away from the Liberals to the point where the two parties divvy up the progressive tally in equal proportion.

But it will be difficult for Mr. Mulcair to gain credibility opposing this deal. On the key question of maintaining the supply-management system for agricultural segments of the economy, the Tories have yielded some ground but have pledged major compensation to those adversely affected. The issue is not sufficient reason to oppose the TPP.

But protectionism is old-time religion for the NDP. Mr. Mulcair opposed this trade pact before it was even announced. He cornered himself and has little choice but to man the barricades against it from here to election day. But his hopes of resurrection are faint. Canadians will likely see too much common sense in this trade pact to man the ramparts with him.

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