"Ninety-nine per cent of the trade access created by governments in Canada have been created by Conservative governments" — Stephen Harper

The last time a Canadian election was fought over a trade agreement was 1988.

Back then, the controversy was over the Canada-U.S. deal negotiated by then Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney and opposed by the Liberals (John Turner) and NDP (Ed Broadbent).

In his book, Fights of Our Lives: Elections, Leadership, and the Making of Canada, longtime Liberal party strategist John Duffy singled out the "free trade election" of 1988 as one of the five most important in Canadian history, largely because it "marked a new prominence in the role given to policy issues in election campaigns," he wrote.

Canadians have actually fought three elections over free trade (1891, 1911 and 1988), and now, in the late stages of the 2015 campaign, trade has reared its head again with the largely backroom negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, potentially the biggest trade deal ever as it encompasses 12 countries representing nearly 40 per cent of the world's GDP.

How big a role the TPP will play in the last two weeks of this campaign remains to be seen, but all parties are now circling the deal looking for political advantage.

The spin

On the campaign trail, Stephen Harper has been saying that only the Conservatives could be trusted to see this project through.

"Unlike the other parties, we're not going to walk away from a trade negotiation at the first sign of worry," Harper said last week. "The jobs of the future in a global economy are going to depend on our privileged access to international markets."

Stephen Harper says auto sector has a brilliant future3:46

Harper is fond of boasting that when he took power in 2006, Canada had trade deals with only five countries, including our NAFTA partners, the U.S. and Mexico.

The other three, negotiated by the Jean Chretien Liberals were with Israel, Chile and Costa Rica.

Under his watch, he says, that number has grown to 44 countries, making up more than half of the global economy.

In this view, the TPP — which would add Japan's famously closed domestic market and some other emerging Asian nations to that total — is simply too big a bauble to be ignored.

The counter-spin

The Green Party has been the only federal party to oppose the TPP from the outset.

Even before the deal was signed, leader Elizabeth May has been arguing that it could lead to increased drug prices, threaten Crown corporations and destroy the supply management system that props up the Canadian dairy and poultry industry.

She is also opposed to a provision in the TPP and most other recent trade deals that would allow international corporations to sue governments — under the so-called investor-state-dispute-settlement mechanisms — if they believe national laws violate the terms of the agreement.

Tom Mulcair says Harper selling out Canada2:28

Until last week, both the Liberals and the NDP were saying they support trade deals in principle, including the TPP, reversing the stands they took in 1988.

Both parties, in fact, had voted in favour of a deal the Harper government struck with South Korea last year.

The Liberals also supported the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) negotiated with the European Union last year, while the NDP hasn't taken a final position on that deal as it is waiting to see what happens with its ISDS.

As for the TPP, both the Liberals Justin Trudeau and the NDP's Tom Mulcair have expressed reservations about key aspects of the deal, decrying in particular the secrecy that surrounded the negotiations.

But on Friday, Mulcair went further, sending out a public letter saying an NDP government would not be bound by the TPP negotiation, and he followed that up today, accusing the government of "selling out" the country's automakers and dairy farms.

Mulcair said that Canada's supply management system for dairy needed to be protected "in its entirety" for him to accept the TPP, and the NDP has also come out strongly against the inclusion of an ISDS provision in the agreement.

For his part, Trudeau said the Liberals want to have a look at the details before committing themselves, but he went on to say the Liberals have "always" been a pro-trade party and that, because of the trading partners involved, this deal has to be looked at seriously.

The rinse

There's no disputing the Harper government's affection for trade agreements, but its record for signing them does not quite match the hype.

Of the 39 countries it claims to have added as trade partners, 28 countries are part of the CETA with the European Union that is far from finalized.

Justin Trudeau says he needs to examine the TPP before giving it his support.4:08

What's more, the EU deal was initially conceived and begun under the Liberals in 2002 and 2004

And over the past year, the finish line for the CETA pact has actually moved farther, not closer, largely because the Germans have discovered they are not big fans of ISDS.

If CETA never materializes, the Harper record on trade deals will consist of one large deal (Korea) and a series of pacts with such trading lightweights as Jordan, Colombia, Panama, Honduras and Peru.

It's also somewhat misleading to compare the number of deals signed by the Harper government with the much smaller number under the previous Liberal government.

Beginning in 2001, Canada and other members of the World Trade Organization were involved in a complex series of multilateral negotiations, known as the Doha Round.

It was largely only after those negotiations collapsed in 2008 that Canada and other countries started looking to forge bilateral and regional agreements.

Trans-Pacific Partnership: What's in it for Canada?1:36

At the Munk Debate on foreign policy last week, the Conservative leader boasted that in all of the trade deals he has negotiated so far, he has managed to "protect our vital interests, advance the interests of our automobile sector, protect the interests of supply management, and advance the interests of Canadian agriculture."

But with the TPP, the rubber will hit the road as it provides for a much lower threshold of local content for its Japan's auto exports to be considered duty free, and it opens the door to imports to Canada's protected supply management regimes.

The Conservatives argue no jobs will be lost because of the TPP and that it will open up new trade opportunities for Western farmers and producers in particular.

It will also open up a new suite of federal income and quota guarantees for Quebec and Ontario dairy farmers that could total nearly $5 billion over the next 15 years, so it won't come without a cost to the treasury. 

The other aspect here is whether the Conservative government had the authority to even negotiate the TPP, given that an election was called and governments are supposed to act only in "caretaker" mode at that point.

Harper amended the caretaker rules at the outset of this campaign, and it is a moot point now that a deal has been announced and will go to Parliament for ratification.

But if it's a minority government after Oct. 19, then we may see for certain who the real free-traders are in the jockeying that follows, and we may even be hearing a lot more about the TPP in the next federal election.