The emergence of the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a leading election issue comes as no surprise. The TPP's arrival in the public conversation confirms this campaign has the most focus on foreign affairs than any previous election.
Indeed, if the TPP negotiations in Atlanta achieve an agreement in principle, my longtime Power and Politics co-panelist Tim Powers thinks we may be headed into a mini free-trade election. He's right and no one knows how it would play in the public sphere.
As details leak out of the negotiations, Canadian politicians are feeling the heat on the hustings. Dairy farmers dominated the political news earlier this week as their tractors crawled through downtown Ottawa. They are demanding no concessions to market access for the supply-managed groups in Canada.
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz tried to calm the brewing storm in the agricultural debate in Ottawa yesterday. "If there is loss on your farm, (or) the processing side, you will be compensated," Ritz said in the debate organized by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.
To understand how complex the communications environment becomes in the event of an agreement in principle, consider these facts:
- The text of an agreement in principle won't be released until Friday or Saturday and it will contain only the broad brush strokes, and this communiqué will be all everyday people see for a few weeks. For as long as the sherpas have been working on this paperwork, there are still a lot of details and translations to be finalized.
- The devil is in the details. In the absence of the full text of the agreement, you may see controlled leaks from DFATD and the Conservative Party of Canada's campaign. Now, this is where the Constitution gets involved. Yes, really.
- We have an important constitutional precedent to be observed called the Caretaker Convention. It's the guide government uses to ensure they can continue operations. The negotiation of the TPP, even the first signing of the agreement is all A-OK according to the rules. But what's not OK?
- The rule clearly states the Minister must "work with deputy ministers to ensure that departmental activities are carried out in a non-partisan, low-profile manner" and "avoid the signing of treaties and agreements."
This opens several lines of attack for the opposition unrelated to the TPP deal itself -- which, let's face it, all the parties will be forced to support. At this point it's about getting the best possible deal for Canadians with cultural, environmental and economic protection clauses for elements of the economy more susceptible to damage.
Now, all of this is predicated on a TPP deal being reached. New Zealand and Japan are pushing hard, each in the face of domestic opposition. Why?
The e11 other countries want to avoid the U.S. election rhetoric. Republican Senator Orrin Hatch gave early indications this is also going to be an important issue for his country. In a statement a few days ago he said, "No one -- at least no one from our side of the negotiations -- should be in a hurry to close talks if it means getting a less-than-optimal result for our country. If the agreement falls short, I will not support it."
Is the TPP about to become the galvanizing issue of the election? We'll have to wait for Monday.
Ian Capstick is a former NDP strategist.
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