This week in Electionland: The TPP and the niqab fight for centre stage

As we enter the final two weeks of the longest election campaign in living memory, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on a stunning contrast.

For the past four days, negotiators from the twelve nations participating in the super-secretive Trans Pacific Partnership have been feverishly bargaining in Atlanta, Georgia, straining to get a deal done. As The Alfalfafield goes to the presses for the day, the rumours are that a deal is close, but we’ve heard these rumours before many times. (For those readers who aren’t up to speed on the TPP, here’s my summary from back in July, as well as more coverage from The Alfalfafield on the subject.)

The plain truth of the matter is that until every detail is worked out, everything could fall apart – and that’s my abiding hope. However, the steady drumbeat of upbeat rumours and selective leaks from insiders suggests that the principal negotiators want to at least create the impression of progress. The Japanese trade minister has apparently made it clear that he’s leaving Atlanta tonight for a long-scheduled meeting in Turkey tomorrow, so there’s a sense of now-or-never-ness to the whole affair. It’s preposterous that trade ministers who have in many cases gone several nights without sleep are being pressured to make concessions that will affect the lives of hundreds of millions of people and swell the profits of major international corporations on the basis of a man’s need to catch his flight on time, but such is the reality of the TPP. When you take a step back and look at it, the whole process is damned illogical.

After months of being a softly-simmering back burner story, over the past few weeks the TPP has stepped into the spotlight of Canadian news. But as I wrote earlier this week, the media’s focus has been narrowly focussed on the two under-negotiation issues of changes to Canada’s system of supply management in dairy farming and restrictions on the sourcing of auto parts, with precious little mention of the deeply problematic aspects of the agreement which have been public knowledge for quite some time:

Now, to read the mainstream media coverage of the negotiations, you’d think the only thing potentially wrong with the TPP is this whole supply-management angle – there hasn’t been a peep about, for instance, the devastating impact new copyright policies will have on Canada, or the extreme dangers of the treaty’s Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanism.

Coverage has at times resembled reporting on a major sports contract, with reporters desperately seeking insider information on what’s being said at the negotiating table…

There’s been a strange reluctance in Canadian media to even acknowledge that several draft TPP chapters have been released by Wikileaks, and that their contents are pretty frightening.

This is a glaring omission and a total shit-the-bed moment for media outlets, particularly the CBC, which, it turns out, has a lot to lose from this particular deal.

As Wikileaks revealed [in July], state-owned enterprises (SOEs) such as the CBC and Canada Post may be targeted for privatization by the TPP.

In that post, I also went out on a limb and made a bold prediction:

[If a deal is reached,] I would expect to see the NDP in particular pushing back hard against this deal. After all, they stand to gain in the rural ridings in Ontario and Quebec where dairy farming is most concentrated. Mulcair may even repeat John Turner’s famous vow to tear up the agreement. The issue could be a rallying cry for the NDP, a chance for them to finally and meaningfully differentiate themselves from the Liberals.

Up until that point, the NDP’s criticisms of the deal had been largely restricted to concern for the fate of supply management. But on Friday, with negotiations scheduled to conclude, Thomas Mulcair came out with his boldest statement on the issue to date.

In a provocative open letter (PDF) to Trade Minister Ed Fast, designed in equal parts to propel the NDP back into the public spotlight on the economy file and to differentiate the party from their Liberal rivals, Mulcair declared that “an NDP government will not consider itself bound to any agreement signed by your Conservative government during this federal election.” He went on to write:

It has become clear that your government’s continued negotiation in the TPP during this campaign is not in the best interests of Canadians. You have no mandate to make concessions that could put thousands of well-paid Canadian jobs and the communities that depend on them in peril.

While other governments have been up-front with their citizens and legislators about what is on the table during TPP talks, your Conservative government has kept Canadians in the dark.

Hundreds of thousands of Canadians rely on work in our auto sector. Concessions given by your Conservatives government could devastate families and the communities that rely on this sector. An NDP government will not accept that.

Likewise, Canada’s successful system of supply management allows small family farms to prosper and provide quality food for Canadians. Supply management is a lifeline that helps many rural communities thrive. An NDP government will not accept any deal that puts our dairy and poultry farms at risk.

Equally, New Democrats will not accept changes to patent, copyright law and digital policies that risk raising the price of prescription drugs for seniors, or restricting our Internet freedoms.

These changes will impact millions of Canadians every day. Your Conservative government has not consulted Canadians on any of them, and you have no mandate to trade them away.

Any commitments made now, 17 days before an election, without any consultation with the parties that may form the next government, would be clear violations of the caretaker convention to which your government is bound. Despite this, last week New Zealand’s Trade Minister said “the Canadians are negotiating as if there’s no election” – negotiations for which you have no mandate.

A strong line to take, and a breath of fresh air into what had been a stagnant and stilted debate – but note the great care surrounding his wording! When this story first broke, I saw it badly mis-reported in a few places, with claims being made that Mulcair had vowed not to sign the TPP if elected. And a cursory reading could certainly give that impression. Or just look at this quote from a Mulcair rally in southern Ontario earlier today:

“Just know this. If Mr. Harper’s secret deal does not protect supply management in its entirety, if it does not protect our manufacturing sector, if it does not protect your ability to buy your pharmaceuticals and your prescription drugs at a decent price the NDP will not feel bound by Mr. Harper’s secret deal,” NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said in Sarnia, Ont. today.

What Mulcair didn’t say, but what he evidently wants you to have the impression that he said, was that if the TPP doesn’t live up the NDP’s standards then they won’t sign it. What he actually said is that if the deal doesn’t live up to the criteria he outlined then they won’t feel bound to sign it.

Which is not as trivial a distinction as it sounds. In 1988, amidst a raging debate over a recently-negotiated Free Trade Agreement between Canada and the United States, Liberal Leader John Turner vowed that if he was elected, he would rip the deal up, and NDP Leader Ed Broadbent used similarly strong and unequivocal language. Voters knew exactly where these men stood on the issue of the FTA.

What Mulcair is saying is that there are many serious problems with the TPP that we know about, and the potential for more of them to be negotiated into an eleventh-hour deal in Atlanta exists as well, and so therefore the NDP is going to reserve the right to make a judgement about the agreement later, after they get into power.

And lest we forget, opposition to NAFTA was part of the Liberals’ first Red Book in 1993, but after Jean Chretien had his majority, he felt entirely comfortable with completely reversing his position and signing on to the three-country trade deal. Taking this history and Mulcair’s extremely careful equivocatory wording into account, I’m not exactly bursting with confidence that an NDP government would be willing to repudiate any deal that gets negotiated.

And speaking of the Liberals, they’ve been even more mealy-mouthed on the subject than the NDP. Trudeau has been reluctant to speak out on the issue in recent days, content to say only that it’s entirely reasonable for the government to continue negotiating the deal amidst an election campaign, although he wishes they were being more transparent about the content of the deal. Like Mulcair, Trudeau has long criticized the possibility of any changes to the supply management system, but beyond that, the Liberals of 2015 seem to have entirely rejected the free-trade-skeptical stance the party took a generation ago. In the absence of any firm statement by Trudeau on the issue, though, the NDP have been able to define the Liberals’ stance in the media for them. Seizing on vague comments made by a Liberal candidate in Ottawa yesterday, Mulcair was able to freely distort: “Where was Justin Trudeau and his Liberals in all of this? Well, yesterday in Ottawa, they were saying that they had no choice but to back Stephen Harper’s secretly negotiated deal for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.”

As for the Conservative Party, they’re obviously all-in for the deal. Calling it “the largest trade deal in history,” Stephen Harper said that it’s essential for Canada to be part of the final treaty. As for all those pesky details, well, they’ll be made public, of course – although he didn’t say when exactly that would be. The CBC suggests that due to the necessity for a full legal review of the text, any public disclosure of the full terms of agreement would likely be delayed until after October 19th, meaning Harper will be free to exaggerate and distort the benefits of the deal even more than he would typically be able to.

In other words, on one of the most important issues in the campaign – a trade deal which has the potential to destroy whole industries, massively increase the cost of drugs, open up Canada to more huge corporate lawsuits and weakened regulations, and further entrench the power and wealth of major multinational corporations – the statements of the major parties are vague, open-ended, and misleading.

Which is where the stunning contrast comes in. (Remember the stunning contrast I mentioned way back in the lede?)

Because, while on one of the most important issues in the campaign the party leaders’ statements have been guarded and unrevealing, on one of the single least important issues in this campaign, the question of whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear niqabs during citizenship ceremonies, the response of the parties has been nothing short of revelatory.

Now, to be clear: when I call the niqab flap unimportant, I don’t mean that it doesn’t matter how it’s ultimately resolved. Its proper and just resolution is obvious: women should be able to wear whatever the hell they want, whenever the hell they want, period. Any other solution is unjust and motivated by racism and sexism and Islamophobia.

When I say that the niqab question is unimportant, I mean that in the sense of the broadness of its impact. The NDP estimates that perhaps fifty women in Quebec wear a niqab; Citizenship Canada states that since a niqab ban was implemented on citizenship ceremonies, it’s affected a mere two people. Contrast this with the impact issues like unemployment or food insecurity or the crumbling state of major infrastructure or, I don’t know, catastrophic climate change – clearly these issues are far more important to far more people than a petty argument over women’s clothing choices. And then compare the amount of air time those much more widely important issues have received in the past week or two of the campaign.

That fact in itself is profoundly revealing. Although both the Conservative Party and the Bloc Quebecois have been eager to fan the flames of niqabophobia, they’ve also found a willing audience for their thinly-veiled racism (pun unfortunately intended – sometimes I just can’t help myself). As I said a few days back:

Running a campaign based on fear and loathing is a low and slimy and despicable thing to do. But it’s also not uncommon, for one simple reason: one of the easiest ways to appeal to people is through their prejudices. And the fact that we’re still talking about the niqab, in a campaign that could be focussed on anything from the environment to poverty to surveillance to democratic renewal, signifies the broad appeal that anti-Muslim prejudice holds, at least in many electorally important regions of Canada.

The fact that so many Canadians are willing to tolerate this fairly straightforward appeal to intolerance as a central focus of the ruling party’s campaign for reelection – and even to reward the Conservatives’ relentless fear-mongering with increased support in the not-so-close-anymore polls – is a stunning indictment of this country. At a time when we are facing so many issues of such critical importance – the erosion of our democracy, the changing climate, the urgent recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee – the fact that we’re collectively willing to ignore the things we should be talking about to kick around regressively oppressive policy options for two weeks is disgusting.

Regular readers of The Alfalfafield will know that I’m no big fan of either Thomas Mulcair or Justin Trudeau, but I have to say that on this issue, they have actually provided a much needed counterpoint to the out-of-control racism – and, in some cases, that’s come at quite a cost. (Elizabeth May has also been fantastic on the niqab question, and I don’t mean to give her short shrift, but coming from somebody as transparently principled as her, such a stance is no big surprise, commendable as it is.)

A big part of the reason that Mulcair is so eager to talk about the TPP, and to differentiate himself from the Liberals on the issue, is that the NDP have taken a real beating on their position on the niqab. Their numbers in Quebec, where they were once in a commanding lead, have positively cratered since the two French-language debates focussed attention on the divisive issue.

Knowing full well that a “pro-choice” stance on niqabs would be extremely unpopular with Quebeckers, and with the NDP’s best-ever shot at forming government on the line, one might almost have expected Mulcair to compromise principle in the pursuit of power, as he’s done with so many other positions during this election campaign (see: budgets, balanced). But in the second of the two French debates, Mulcair doubled down on his opposition, and furthermore, he called out Stephen Harper for the blatant divisive racism his campaign has been mobilizing in a desperate attempt to get reelected. Echoing Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s word choices, Mulcair thundered, “Mr. Harper, you are playing a dangerous game of the kind I’ve never seen in my life.”

And it truly is a dangerous game, one with consequences we can’t know now. Islamophobia has characterized every major pronouncement from the Harper campaign since the widely-touted arrival of international Conservative arch-strategist and piece-of-shit racist Lynton Crosby in early September. From hysterical rhetoric about the Islamic State’s intention to attack Canada, to the recently-announced revocation of the citizenship of at least five men who have been convicted of terrorist offences, to the ridiculous abundance of caution the Conservative government has shown towards expediting the process of bringing in refugees from a “terrorist war zone”, Stephen Harper has staked the fate of his government on Fear and Loathing. He is willing – eager, even – to stir up animosity against Muslims to gain a few points in the polls. He’s willing to let refugees by the thousands suffer and perhaps even die to gain a shot at extending his term in office.

This past week, Bernie Farber, former CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress, wrote an op-ed in Now Magazine comparing the current refugee crisis and Canada’s response to it to the attempted escape from an increasingly Europe by Jews in the years leading up the Second World War. Canada’s response at that time was disgraceful – “None is too many,” said one immigration official at the time when asked how many Jews Canada should take in – and is eerily echoed by the current government’s politically opportunistic xenophobia.

But while the Harper Conservatives have revealed themselves to be the completely unprincipled racist Rich White People’s Party that many of us always knew they were, Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair have shown that, on some issues at least, they’re willing to do what their parties’ respective brain trusts believe is the right thing to do.

That there’s some political expedience to each of their positions is obvious – the Liberals have long been the party of choice for immigrant communities, and the NDP’s base has been disappointed enough with the centrist thrust of their campaign to stomach a betrayal on this issue as well. But in both cases each man stood to lose more than he stood to gain, and still each took a strong stand in favour of tolerance.

I don’t trust that Thomas Mulcair would tear up the TPP if he got into office, but I’ll be honest: the fact that he unapologetically and loudly stuck to his guns on the niqab issue suggests to me that it’s at least possible he’d do the right thing, if given the chance.

But ironically, precisely because he’s been principled on this niqab issue (which, again, is so limited and trivial in its impact that in a sane world it would never have merited even a passing mention on the campaign trail), he may never get the chance to let us know what he really thinks about the TPP.


 

If a deal does get reached tonight, these last few weeks of the campaign are going to be strongly focussed on the TPP, and maybe Mulcair will finally have the wedge issue that’ll propel him past the Liberals and into the lead. If the deal flops, though, he’ll have to flail about for something new to bash the Liberals with – and with time running out, I’m worried that my reluctant prognostication that the Liberals would become the party of choice for strategic voters is unfortunately even closer to being a reality. Either way, we’re in the home stretch now – put on your goggles and your hip-waders, because things are about to get mucky!

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