Tom Mulcair's EU trade deal choice could signal election strategy

Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair has said he would wait to see the fine print of the Canada-EU trade deal before passing judgment. Now that he has it, what will his decision reveal about the NDP's campaign strategy for 2015?

With the full text of Canada's European trade agreement in hand, it's decision time

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and his caucus have a tough calculation to make on the Canada-EU trade deal: Can they look like a business-friendly government-in-waiting without losing supporters who are worried about the deal? (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Tom Mulcair said he'd wait to see the fine print of the Canada-EU trade deal before passing judgment.

Now that the full text of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement is out, the NDP leader is walking a fine line between his party's competing interests.

The NDP will discuss the deal in caucus Wednesday morning.

The first vote in the House of Commons on CETA is weeks — perhaps months — away, depending on how quickly International Trade Minister Ed Fast brings forward legislation to implement it.

But the Conservatives already know how they want to frame the NDP.

Take Monday's question period. When the NDP criticized the expensive plane ride the Harper government provided EU leaders last Friday, Fast suggested New Democrats couldn't be expected to see the importance of the business event that justified the expense.

"They wanted us to cancel this event because we know they are anti-trade, anti-investment and have no credibility on trade whatsoever," Fast said.

Ready to govern or oppose?

Mulcair has been rolling out policy planks this fall designed to appeal to traditional NDP voters in 2015.

A recent speech to the Teamsters talked about protecting workers and going after corporate "freeloaders." He has floated the idea of a $15 an hour minimum wage for federal workers.

Will his stand on CETA also tack towards the party's traditional, trade-deal-wary flank to make sure it stays put?

Or will that impulse give way to a more pragmatic need to support a deal most of Canada's business community really wants?

Opposing CETA would be a step back from Mulcair's recent more open approach to the merits of trade deals.

After the death of Jack Layton in 2011, Mulcair's pitch for the party leadership was based on continuing Layton's legacy of targeting voters in the centre of the political spectrum and working hard to look like a government-in-waiting.

The NDP supported Canada's agreement with Jordan and, more recently, its new agreement with South Korea. It also makes warm noises about negotiating with Japan, India and Brazil.

"We want to knock down non-tariff barriers. We think that more trade is a good thing for Canada," Mulcair told The Canadian Press last year.

"It's a good starting point to be dealing with Europe," he said in that interview and repeated in the months since. "They generally speaking have institutions quite similar to ours, they have the rule of law, they have independent tribunals, they've got long-standing institutional stability. That is a good thing for us to be dealing with."

In principle, a deal with Europe was the kind of "fair trade" the NDP could safely embrace.

Conditional support

But the NDP also put down markers for its potential support of CETA, including help for cheese producers facing competition from new imports and provincial governments and consumers who will have to pay more for prescription drugs when patent changes take effect.

The NDP also says municipal procurement changes should protect "buy local" programs, to address the concerns of more than 50 local city, town and regional councils that have passed anti-CETA resolutions.

With growing concern in Germany in particular about investor-state dispute settlement mechanisms in the deal, the NDP jumped on that bandwagon, too.

Mulcair said Friday he was "reticent" about the deal.

But he and his trade critics have been clear they aren't necessarily opposing it, even as they criticize the Harper government's handling of the file.

Saying the NDP will "consult widely and understand thoroughly" buys them time.

Electoral choice

Brent Patterson, political director for the Council of Canadians, told CBC News last week the NDP has been "hammered enough" by the Conservatives for not supporting trade deals. He thinks the party no longer wants to be "totally boxed in."

But for groups like his opposed to the deal, the party's positioning is "not encouraging."

Also, Green parties on both sides of the Atlantic have been clear in their opposition to this deal. Voters motivated to cast an anti-trade vote have that option.

Punting the decision only gives Green Party Leader Elizabeth May more time to stake out ground, while supporting the deal won't distinguish the NDP from a resurgent Liberal Party that broadly embraces CETA.

Mulcair has had since Friday to read the agreement. But his decision also requires reading the electoral tea leaves for signs of support.


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