How will the trade file play in October's election?

The 2019 federal election campaign is already underway. The CBC News Canada Votes newsletter is your weekly tip-sheet as we count down to October 21.

The Canada Votes newsletter is your weekly tip-sheet as we count down to Oct. 21.

In this June 8, 2018, file photo, President Donald Trump talks with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a G-7 Summit welcome ceremony in Charlevoix, Que. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

The 2019 election campaign is already underway — the CBC News Canada Votes newsletter is your weekly tip-sheet as we count down to Oct. 21.

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To NAFTA, or not to NAFTA

Vassy Kapelos, host of Power & Politics

Think back to where you were on November 21, 1988. It was a cold day for a federal election structured around such a hot topic: free trade with the United States.

I remember it all so well. (Just kidding. I was seven.) Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Mulroney was all for the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Deal, while Liberal Leader John Turner wanted it ripped up.

That's how the great free trade debate played out for the Canadians who lived through it. Everyone had an opinion. People tended to be either firmly in favour or enthusiastically opposed. Fence-sitters were rare.

Times have changed. Free trade is no longer the divisive political issue it was for Canadians three decades back.

Just look at what happened to the file over the last two years in Canadian politics. Beyond saying they would have negotiated a better deal, those on the government and Official Opposition benches were singing the same song: free trade with the U.S. is good for the economy.

That's not to discount the fact that free trade deals can benefit some sectors of the economy more than others, or that not all free trade deals result in a rise in exports (CETA is a case in point). But our national political conversation about trade has changed a lot since 1988.

And the trade file might emerge as a big campaign topic during the coming federal campaign. Maybe even a 'bigly' one.

Yes, we're talking about President Donald Trump. (I've gone four newsletters without mentioning him; today's the day.) Vice President Mike Pence will be in Ottawa Thursday to amplify the calls to ratify the new NAFTA deal on this side of the border.

A bill to ratify the deal could be introduced in the House of Commons this week.

Given Democratic opposition in Congress, Pence's efforts may be needed more on his side of the border.

Still, it should be an interesting visit. It's been a three-year tightrope walk for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his counterpart to the south; watching them try to keep their balance in personal encounters has been, at times, a cringe-inducing experience.

U.S. President Donald Trump approaches Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as he arrives at the 2018 G7 Summit. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Remember when Trump called Trudeau "weak and dishonest" after Trudeau called U.S. steel tariffs "insulting"? Trump was furious at the time, according to an American official in the room. That official told me there had been a handshake agreement to not disclose anything that came out of the private discussions between Trudeau and Trump. Trudeau talked to the press and Trump lost it.

These aren't exactly state secrets; Trump didn't hide his disdain at the time. But that was almost a year ago, and things have changed since then.

When a reporter asked him on Friday if the relationship with the U.S. could be mended, Trudeau basically rejected the premise of the question.

"I'm not entirely sure what you're talking about in terms of mending relationships with the United States," Trudeau said, "because our relationship with the United States is extremely positive, extremely strong."

"Obviously the president and I are two different people, with different approaches to many things, but on standing up for our citizens, on making sure we're working collaboratively with our allies, we've been able to work very, very well together."

Free trade probably won't be the defining issue of this election. The deal isn't done - and it's still a long way from being done in the U.S. But the delicate balancing act Prime Minister Trudeau has to deploy in his encounters with Trump — trying to be BFFS on trade while keeping a healthy distance from the president on literally everything other issue, from immigration to abortion — will be a factor in the election.

In fact, it could be 'yuge.'

Vassy Kapelos is host of Power & Politics, weekdays at 5 p.m. ET on CBC News Network.

Power Lines

The Power & Politics Power Panelists on where the big parties will be focused this week

Amanda Alvaropresident and co-founder of Pomp & Circumstance

The Liberalswill continue to focus on middle class jobs and economic growth. Just like Doug Ford, Andrew Scheer doesn't have an economic plan, he has a cuts plan — cuts that would hurt working families, risk the progress made in creating 1 million Canadian jobs since 2015, (cuts) to services Canadians rely on.

Rachel Curran  senior associate at Harper & Associates Consulting

The Conservatives will focus on two things as the House returns for the final few weeks of session: (1) laying out their plan to govern and (2) holding Prime Minister Trudeau to account for SNC-Lavalin and the Vice-Admiral Mark Norman affair. The primary objective will be keeping the Liberal government on the defensive as it struggles to complete its legislative priorities.

Kathleen Monk  principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group

New Democrats need to show they have bold ideas, on issues like pharmacare, to help Canadians who are feeling squeezed. While Liberals protected tax breaks for Canada's richest and gave special access to the most powerful, Jagmeet Singh provides a genuine progressive vision for those disappointed in how Justin Trudeau has lost touch with them.

Poll Tracker Takeaway

Éric Grenier's weekly look at key numbers in the political public opinion polls.

In election campaigns, the key to success is identifying accessible voters and turning them into supporters.

So who has the most to gain from better conversion rates?

According to the latest Nanos Research weekly tracking poll, about 47 per cent of Canadians would consider voting for the Conservatives, while 45 per cent would consider voting for the Liberals.

Compared to where the two parties stand among decided and leaning voters, this suggests that the Conservatives are converting 76 per cent of their pool of voters into supporters. For the Liberals, that conversion rate is just 67 per cent.

That's a big gap, but in Nanos's poll on Feb. 15, conducted before the Liberals' numbers started to tank, the two parties were converting roughly equal shares of their accessible voters.

This suggests that the Liberals have more room to rebound, as they have lost more supporters than they have accessible voters. The Conservatives have increased the size of their pool of potential voters, but are converting them at about the same rate — a rate that seems to be about as high as any party can plausibly hope to achieve.

Still, the Liberals are fishing in a much smaller pond. In October 2015, 55 per cent of voters considered the Liberals as an option. It was still 50 per cent in early February 2019. Their pool has shrunk by nearly 10 points over the last four years, while the Conservatives have increased theirs by about eight points.

The Conservatives know how to squeeze the most votes out of their potential supporters. But in order to close the six-point gap in the Poll Tracker, the Liberals will need to do a better job of getting more of their own dwindling pool back on their side.


Tap here to go to the full poll tracker

Ask us

We want to know what YOU want to know.

Robert Cunningham asked: Why are those stupid political attack ads on TV so soon? The election isn't for five months, so are we going to have to put up with this nonsense for another five months? 

The short answer is yes.

It has to do with strong fundraising numbers and a new law about election ads.

The Liberals and Conservatives are both filling their coffers in record fashion — almost $4 million and $8 million, respectively, in the first months of 2019.

Of course the parties are thrilled about Canadians opening up their wallets more freely, but a new law means they have to spend ad money in a shorter time frame.

The changes in the election reform bill — C-76, passed late last year — restrict the amount of spending allowed right before the campaign. Political parties can only spend $2 million on advertising in the 10 weeks before the writ drops, so that means roughly July and August.

Because of this new cap, the Conservatives are trying to maximize their $4-million financial advantage while they still can.

"It's one of the reasons why we started a significant ad buy at the beginning of May," Conservative campaign chair Hamish Marshall told CBC Radio's The House.

You've probably seen the "Justin Trudeau: He's not as advertised," commercial the Conservatives are running — the ads have even been popping up during Raptors playoff basketball games.

We haven't seen anything of that scale yet from the Liberals, NDP or Greens.

It makes sense to spend your money while you're allowed to. However, as you point out, many Canadians don't want to get pounded with election messaging six months from the vote.

The parties are aware it can be annoying, so they're being strategic. Not every ad will be on every platform. They're targeted messages for specific audiences at specific times.

"We could all go out and spend all the money in the world on an advertising budget, but you have to make sure it's at a moment when people are really going to be listening," Liberal campaign director Jeremy Broadhurst said.

"You pick your moments, you pick your spots."

It's a safe bet you'll see more ads, from more parties on more platforms.

Backroom strategists from all four major parties have told us they're going to be expanding their digital presence and using social media more.

So if you thought the ad bombardment would mainly be on TV and radio, sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

— Elise von Scheel, Parliamentary Bureau reporter and producer of CBC Radio's The House

Have a question about the October election? About where the federal parties stand on a particular issue? Or about the facts of a key controversy on the federal scene? Email us your questions and we'll answer one in the next Canada Votes newsletter.

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