The arrival of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement has finally given the NDP and Thomas Mulcair an opening to differentiate themselves in an economics-dominated election campaign that is fast slipping away from them. Unfortunately for them, this is Canada in the 21st century – they're taking the wrong position in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Mr. Mulcair, who has had trouble finding a meaningful place for his economic platform in the spaces between the clear alternatives carved out by Stephen Harper's Conservatives and Justin Trudeau's Liberals, finally found some firm footing this week, when Mr. Harper unveiled the sweeping 12-country Pacific Rim deal, which represents Canada's most important international trade pact in more than two decades. It afforded Mr. Mulcair a chance to stake out unoccupied ground on a headline-grabbing economic issue – to return to familiar NDP territory of fighting for the little guy, the farmer and the factory worker who will suffer from the Conservatives' zeal to make deals with countries that couldn't care less about Canada's interests and values.
With Mr. Trudeau already on record as supporting further international trade-liberalization deals, the Liberal Leader finds himself a non-entity in the TPP debate. He'll almost certainly endorse it eventually, as it's broadly consistent with his position. But he doesn't want to come out patting Mr. Harper on the back less than two weeks before election day. He may have little choice but to sit this one out.
On the other hand, conventional wisdom is that this could put Mr. Mulcair back in the game. It gives him much-needed separation from his opponents on a highly visible economic issue for the first time in this election, making him a choice again for left-leaning voters, rural Canadians, auto workers and anyone else who has a problem with the proposed terms of the TPP.
But where it really positions him is in the wilderness. The political battle over free trade was already fought and won, long ago – and it wasn't by the forces opposing these deals.
It's telling that practically up until the eve of the 12 TPP countries reaching their pact this week, this was barely a blip on the campaign radar. As election issues go, it really wasn't much of one – massively overshadowed by higher-profile economic concerns such as balanced budgets, infrastructure spending, tax proposals and recessions.
Consider how wildly different that is from past major trade agreements – the Canada-U.S. free-trade pact in 1988 and the North American free-trade agreement in 1993. The trade deals were absolutely central to the political debate, the economic-philosophical battlegrounds on which two elections were fought, won and lost.
But in the intervening two decades, the reality of free trade has turned it from economic bogeyman to standard policy practice. Voters are used to it, they're comfortable with it and they're generally just fine with it. They understand the necessity of access to foreign markets to drive our decidedly export-dependent country. They see two decades of relative strength and prosperity for the Canadian economy. They see the consumer benefits from ready accessibility to low-cost imports. Liberalized trade has become a national habit.
In a poll conducted last year by Angus Reid to market the 20th anniversary of NAFTA going into effect, nearly 70 per cent of Canadians were either positive or neutral about NAFTA's benefits for Canada's economy, in sharp contrast to the nearly 60 per cent who opposed the deal when it was first passed. And nearly 70 per cent said they were in favour of CETA, the trade deal between Canada and the European Union that was reached in principle last year.
More to the point, an Environics survey last June showed three-quarters of Canadians didn't even know what TPP was. The fact that the TPP could fly so far under the public radar reflects the reality that trade negotiations are just what our governments do now; for better or worse, most voters aren't burning a lot of brain cells worrying about them any more.
Heck, even the leaders of some of the industries facing a hit from TPP have acknowledged the broader value of a trade deal with our Pacific Rim counterparts.
"We recognize that this historic TPP agreement is seen as an important benefit to the Canadian economy for years to come," the Chicken Farmers of Canada said.
Of course, it is possible to persuade voters to care deeply about something that hadn't even registered on their radar until you made a big deal about it. Witness the niqab controversy. But even if Mr. Mulcair is successful in getting us to take notice, it may do him more harm than good. At best, he's shouting about an issue that most voters have long since stopped worrying about. At worst, he's aligning himself with a trade-resistant position that most Canadians, after more than a quarter-century living with the benefits of free trade, no longer support.