This week in Electionland: TPP fails to make an impact, is still important anyway

Last week I typed my weekly summary of the election news amid the ongoing TPP negotiations, and rumours were flying that a deal was imminently going to be announced, or, alternatively, that talks were irrevocably breaking down.

As it turned out, neither rumour was true. It wasn’t until mid-morning the next day that exhausted negotiators and trade ministers trumpeted the successful conclusion of the secretive deal.

The focus of my piece last week was the parties’ and media’s divided focus between issues of substance, like the TPP, and race-baiting sideshows like the niqab debate. It’s unfortunate but true that race-baiting sells more newspapers, drives more traffic, and quite likely mobilizes more voters than does in-depth discussions of trade policy, and so it was no surprise to see the initial fanfare surrounding the TPP’s completion quickly give way to yet more discussion of the niqab, with the Prime Minister telling the CBC’s Rosemary Barton that the Conservative Party is looking into proposing a ban on public servants wearing niqabs. The statement came in an interview which purportedly focussed on the economy and the TPP’s passage, and yet Harper’s off-hand comment dominated a few news cycles and provoked even more hysteria and outrage.

And so while Thomas Mulcair still insistently points out his party’s nominal opposition to the deal (about which more later), and while Harper frequently mentions it as a major accomplishment, the TPP’s impact on the campaign so far seems to have been negligible. It’s been largely absent from the leading headlines of the day, and if its passage impacted anybody’s poll numbers, it did so in such a minor way as to be unnoticeable.

Since then, we’ve learned relatively little about the actual terms of the agreement – but the little we’ve learned has been dispiriting. Wikileaks managed to get its hands on what appears to be the final version of the chapter on intellectual property, which is every bit as horrendous as critics had feared. OpenMedia described it in almost apocalyptic terms:

Internet freedom group OpenMedia warns that the leak confirms Internet advocates greatest fears, including: new provisions that would induce Internet Service Providers to block websites without a court ruling, 20-year copyright term extensions, and new criminal penalties for the circumvention of digital locks. Reacting to the leak, OpenMedia’s Digital Rights Specialist Meghan Sali had this to say:

“Canadians are going to see their democratically-created laws over-written in favour of laws that benefit giant, U.S. media conglomerates and censor the Internet,” Sali said. “And while the government has been busy trying to convince Canadians of the so-called benefits of this pact, they’ve silently traded away our digital future behind closed doors.”

Meanwhile, the costs to Canadian businesses embedded in the deal are still shrouded in mystery, although a couple of preemptive bailouts of major industries don’t bode particularly well for the country’s economic prospects under this new economic order. Prime Minister Harper promised an unconditional bailout of the dairy industry in a shameless attempt to buy the votes of farmers; they’re guaranteed to be compensated for losses of any kind, not just losses resulting from the implementation of this sick excuse for a trade deal. This bailout is certain to be embraced by many dairy farmers, given the massive collapse in Canadians’ consumption of milk over the past two decades. What Harper’s dairy bailout accomplishes, aside from political damage control, is essentially a massive subsidization of an increasingly unpopular industry – one which has a surprising amount of political clout, as animal rights activist and farmer Yan Roberts points out:

Since TPP negotiations began more than five years ago, the federal lobbyist registry shows that dairy lobbyists have had more meetings and communications with federal representatives than any other industry. Astonishingly, for many recent years, the national dairy lobby have had almost three times as much communication with designated public office holders than Enbridge, TransCanada and the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association combined.

One of the Dairy Farmers’ retained lobby firms even poached the director of communications for Canada’s International Trade Minister who was negotiating on TPP. His bio now reads that he “played a leading role in” Canada’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, adding that he also previously worked as an advisor in the Prime Minister’s Office. Well-placed government connections can lobby to keep industry in charge of policy.

The national dairy lobby is behemoth comprised of a network of provincial and federal organizations that all fall under the brand of the “Dairy Farmers.” It is estimated that the collective national dairy lobby spends $100 million a year on lobbying. That is more than the combined budgets of the five federal parties during the last election.

That the vast majority of dairy farms are located in rural ridings in Ontario and Quebec which are very much up for grabs in next week’s election was certainly a factor in the timing and the size of the announced bailout as well. The government’s much more perfunctory “compensation package” for the auto industry – a mere $1 billion over ten years – was characterized by industry insiders as barely sufficient to keep them afloat, with major auto union Unifor charging that the bailout is a tacit acknowledgement that the TPP is going to be bad for Canadian industry.

The cynical way to read this is that auto workers and their unions, being unlikely to support the Conservatives to begin with, are getting only the bare minimum in compensation – enough to provide Harper with cover when defending his negotiation of the deal, but not so much that a future Conservative government would actually be burdened by propping up the struggling industry.

And, as some have pointed out, the almost-myopic focus on dairy and auto issues mean that many critical aspects of this not-actually-really-a-trade-deal are being ignored – including, critically, the massive enshrinement of corporate power and profitability that is the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) agreement, which has been a terrible deal for Canada in past trade treaties such as NAFTA and which is almost certainly going to damage our government’s ability to introduce regulations for public safety, environmental protection, and labour rights. As the always-astute Lambert Strether at Naked Capitalism says in a thoroughly detailed takedown of much of the mythos surrounding this deal (seriously, go read the whole damn thing):

ISDS remains what it was: A surrender of state sovereignty to corporations based on the lost profits doctrine. Nothing to do with trade; everything to do with shifting power away from the state to corporations.

In short, there’s a lot of story here, and it’s just not getting covered. The mass media could (lazily) argue that the story isn’t interesting to their consumers, that they’d rather hear more about the niqab or about the latest polling results, but that just doesn’t wash with me. This is a major story of vast public significance, and it’s the job of the media to tell these stories in a way that is interesting to people, in a way that compels them to pay attention. It’s a gross abdication of the press’s responsibility to allow a “trade” treaty of this significance to get such minimal and narrow coverage, leaving it to bloggers and activists to wade into the thorny details of this sovereignty-destroying abomination. (Click here for more of The Alfalfafield’s coverage of the TPP!)


It seems that the only person who wants to talk about the TPP is Thomas Mulcair, who, as I wrote last week, seems to have staked the fate of the NDP’s campaign largely on drumming up popular outrage about the deal. In an interview with Rosie Barton broadcast today on the CBC, Mulcair turned the discussion to the TPP at every tenuous opportunity. In his breathless closing statement, he was furiously trying to hammer home what he sees as being the major differences between the NDP and the Liberals, in a desperate last-minute appeal to the “change” vote:

If you want real change on Oct. 19th, only the NDP is offering real change. On Bill C-51, on Keystone, on the TPP, on corporate tax give-aways, Mr. Harper and Mr. Trudeau are of one mind. The NDP stands four-square against Bill C-51, we will repeal it. We’re against Mr. Harper’s negotiated TPP, we would never bring that one to Parliament, we’ll try to get a better deal. We don’t want Canadian families to be hurt. We know that Mr. Harper plans to cut $36 billion in health care, we’ll put it back. We’ll make it easier to get a family doctor. The TPP will make drugs more expensive for seniors who are already having to decide between putting food on the table and being able to afford their medications. That’s the type of positive change we’re talking about.

Although I’m typically a big fan of Rosie Barton, I was disappointed that she didn’t pursue the TPP issue at all. But, press criticism aside, there’s a lot of interest in Mulcair’s statement.

First of all, the notion that he would “try to get a better deal” on the TPP is absolute nonsense. This deal took five years to negotiate between twelve nations and was only completed under a tremendous amount of pressure caused by an extremely tight window for achieving an agreement before the Canadian election and for securing its passage in the U.S. Congress (which, mercifully, is far from assured). At this point, the deal is a take-it-or-leave-it kind of thing, and if a new Canadian Prime Minister decides he’s going to leave it, it’s far from assured that the other eleven nations involved will come crawling back to give him more favourable terms. What he isn’t telling us is critical: If he can’t get a “better” deal (“better” how, by what metrics?), then will he walk away or will he sign up? This is vintage Mulcair, wanting to take a strong position on an important issue without actually figuring out how to accomplish what he’s promising. (See also his fantasy plan for Senate reform.)

Mulcair has been dodgy on the issue of exactly where he stands on the TPP, even while he goes out of his way to give people the impression that he’ll kill the deal. I wrote last week about his cautiously worded language in a letter to Trade Minister Ed Fast, saying that the NDP wouldn’t be “bound” by a deal that the Conservatives negotiated. That’s language he’s continued to use this week, even as he relentlessly hammers away at both Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau for their embrace of the agreement.

That’s because, on the issue of “Change”, and which party is best suited to make it happen, the NDP have lost this campaign miserably to the Liberals. Mulcair’s non-stop invocation of wedge issues like C-51, Keystone, and the TPP may bolster the factual case for the NDP being the better agent of change, but he really shot his campaign in the foot with his decision to embrace the Conservatives’ policy of endlessly balanced budgets – a policy that he told Rosie Barton today was his idea. I can easily picture that admission coming back to haunt him in the aftermath of this campaign; look for it in obituaries of the NDP’s ill-fated attempt to form government.

With Trudeau’s Liberals embracing deficit spending, aggressively branded as “investing in Canada’s future”, the NDP appeared cautious, even timid, on the economic file. Mulcair spent much of the first half of his interview with Barton defending NDP provincial governments’ fiscal records – surely not what he wanted to be doing a week before election day, and yet an inevitable subject of focus once he decided to bet the farm on appearing as fiscally prudent as any Conservative Prime Minister ever was. Indeed, the whole NDP campaign has been – up until recently – characterized by a cautious middle-of-the-road-ness which was completely incapable of inspiring people desperate for a Change in Ottawa.

As I wrote a few weeks back, the Liberals have perfectly captured the tone of change, and that more than anything has led to their surge to the front of the polls. Much has been made of the NDP’s recent collapse in the polls, and most pundits have attributed it to the unpopularity of their position on the niqab among Quebecois voters. Yet the Liberals hold an identical position and have seen no such slippage in la belle province. In the final analysis, I think that the NDP’s unimaginative and safe front-runner-style campaign will be blamed for their demise – it’s been the wrong approach to inspiring voters in this extremely emotionally charged election.

Hence the desperate last-minute course correction, with the NDP pulling out the TPP as the wedge issue to finally tip this thing. Their strategists still haven’t realized that this campaign, unfortunately, isn’t being fought on issues or facts. It’s being fought on tone, on impression, on insinuation, and on personality.

In the final days of this campaign, I fully expect that the NDP will still struggle to push this issue and pray that it gains momentum. But their time to take bold stances and push an ambitious platform has long since passed.

It’s hard to believe, but this is my eleventh post summarizing the past week’s election news. We’ll have one more next Sunday, the day before the election, and then this unending nightmare of an election will be over.

It’s already started to come to an end. Advance polls opened on Thursday, and Elections Canada was not prepared for the avalanche of early voters. The significant cuts to their budget instituted by the Harper Conservatives surely had something to do with the numerous delays and problems which were reported, but so too did the truly massive number of people turning up to cast their ballots. Early indications are that voter turnout will be up significantly this election.

Personally, I’ve never quite understood early voting, at least for folks who are able to make it to the polls on Election Day. I prefer to wait until the absolute last minute, on the admittedly flawed theory that more information is inherently better. You never know what’s going to come up in the next week – maybe Thomas Mulcair will be outed as a closet Maggie Thatcher admirer, for instance, and make some progressives regret their advance-poll support of the NDP.

All snarkiness aside, with a week of campaigning left ahead of us, there are a lot of undecided potential voters – many of whom are part of the ABC crowd of so-called “strategic” voters. The biggest strategic voting campaign, LeadNow’s Vote Together, began releasing its official recommendations to its followers yesterday for the sixteen ridings it considers to be most critical to defeating the Harper government. Recommendations for dozens more ridings will be released in the days to come, and the well-organized (and well-funded) group has prepared phone and street canvasses of many of these ridings in a last-minute effort to mobilize the Stop Harper vote behind what their polling judges to be the right candidates.

Tomorrow, I’m going to take a look at this data-driven strategy, and some historical examples which undermine the case for using polling to decide how to vote.

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