POLITICS

Joe Oliver Defends TPP Talks During 'Caretaker' Period, Says He's Focused On Riding

09/30/2015 11:45 EDT | Updated 09/30/2016 05:12 EDT

TORONTO — Joe Oliver emerged Wednesday into the national campaign spotlight after an election spent largely away from the glare, even with a key campaign theme stemming from his own portfolio.

While the Conservatives have routinely put out candidates and other cabinet ministers to pinch-hit when leader Stephen Harper is otherwise engaged, the finance minister hasn't been one of them, leading many to wonder why.

Oliver was clear Wednesday there was a reason — he's fighting for his political life.

"My focus has been Eglinton-Lawrence and winning back, getting the confidence of the electorate here and winning again and returning to Parliament," he said.

Oliver's riding was a Liberal bastion for decades before he won it in 2011 by about 4,000 votes.

The race for the Liberal nomination included former Conservative MP, turned Liberal, Eve Adams who lost out to Toronto lawyer Marco Mendicino. The NDP are running former Saskatchewan finance minister Andrew Thomson.

While Thomson has been given a big push by the NDP — leader Tom Mulcair showed up for his campaign office opening — local polls suggest he's in third place and Mendicino is in the lead, perhaps one reason for Oliver's emergence.

The other was timing.

Harper spent Wednesday morning filming new TV ads for the final days of the campaign but with a bus of reporters in search of a story and new economic numbers coming out that were expected to show some positive growth, the campaign drew Oliver out.

But, he insisted, he's been doing media interviews all along the campaign with anyone who has walked into his office, a storefront between a dry cleaners and an Italian restaurant.

"The signs are out there, I'm not hard to find," he said.

Later Wednesday, Oliver is to take part in a debate in Toronto organized by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, while Harper heads to Quebec City for a rally before travelling to Montreal to prepare for the French-language debates on Friday night.

While he may be focusing on his own campaign, Oliver said the government is well within its rights to be conducting official business during the election period.

He rejected suggestions that the government's continued pursuit of the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership is a violation of the so-called "caretaker convention," which is supposed to limit the government activity during an election period.

"There is a protocol in place and we of course consult with the Privy Council on these issues. When there's a matter of importance or urgency for the government to deal with in the national interest then it's appropriate for us to do that. And this is certainly one of those cases," Oliver said.

Trade Minister Ed Fast is in Atlanta for a renewed round of negotiations, and speculation is rampant that an agreement in principle could emerge by the end of the week.

Questions are lingering about what possible concessions Canada may have to make in agriculture and the auto sector to get a deal, which could cast the Conservative party in a positive light ahead of the Oct. 19 election.

The Liberals and NDP have criticized the government for not being transparent about the talks.

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