Rather than being an Achilles heel for the Conservatives, the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement appears to be a positive for prime minister Stephen Harper as the country heads into the home stretch of a long election campaign.
TPP negotiations are into triple overtime as this is being written, and an agreement seems imminent. However, the particulars of the agreement are not known, and even if an agreement is announced, analyzing the details will take time.
Canada is expected to make concessions on dairy imports from countries such as the United States and New Zealand in exchange for enhanced trade access in other sectors. Our auto parts sector is also expected to be negatively affected.
Federal politicians have long feared the wrath of the well-organized dairy lobby concentrated in Quebec and Ontario. Politicians of all stripes have tripped over themselves in previous elections and in between elections to pledge allegiance to Canada’s supply management system for dairy and poultry.
So you’d think having TPP negotiations during the federal election campaign would have been a big worry for Harper.
Instead, most of the population seems to understand that the nation can’t walk away from important deals with its major trading partners, and that any negotiation involves give and take.
The true test is how the government compensates the industries that take a hit for the national good.
NDP leader Tom Mulcair, who has often looked prime ministerial during the campaign, comes across as opportunistic on this issue. Mulcair has pledged that an NDP government would not ratify a TPP deal involving dairy concessions.
No matter the benefit to canola, wheat, pulse and beef producers, not to mention other huge segments of the economy, the NDP says it would treat supply management as some sacrosanct right. That makes for some great-sounding quotes on the election trail, but it’s just bad policy.
For his part, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has taken a commendable stand by saying he will have to see the details before deciding whether a Liberal government would ratify the deal. Unlike Mulcair, he isn’t rejecting it sight unseen.
How this issue will play out in the final weeks of the campaign is anyone’s guess. What’s in the deal will become a major focus.
For the dairy sector, having the deal come to fruition during a federal election campaign is probably an advantage. The Conservatives and Liberals are likely to come out with promises on how they will mitigate the impact on negatively affected sectors. During a tight campaign, the pledges of support are likely to be more generous that what they would get from a mid-term government.
As for the election outcome, Mulcair and the NDP would appear to have painted themselves into a corner. By currying favour with dairy producers and taking an intractable position, they risk alienating most other export sectors.
TPP could end up an election win element for either Harper or Trudeau. For Mulcair, TPP could end up as one of the elements driving the party to a third place finish.
Kevin Hursh is an agricultural journalist, consultant and farmer. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.