The House

Mid-week podcast: TPP politics and why the niqab won't go away

This week on The House's special mid-week election podcast, Chris Hall is joined by Mark Kennedy, parliamentary bureau chief for the Ottawa Citizen, and Rosemary Barton, host of CBC's Power & Politics, to discuss the politics of the TPP and why the niqab issue keeps coming up.​
Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during a news conference on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement in Ottawa, Canada October 5, 2015. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

The final stretch of the election campaign began with a major international trade deal, but news of the Trans Pacific Partnership couldn't overshadow the campaign's most controversial topic that can't seem to go away — the debate surrounding the niqab.

This week on The House's special mid-week election podcast, Chris Hall is joined by Mark Kennedy, parliamentary bureau chief for the Ottawa Citizen, and Rosemary Barton, host of CBC's Power & Politics, to discuss the politics of the TPP and why the niqab issue keeps coming up.​

How important is the TPP to the Conservatives' prospects on Oct. 19?

MK: This is big for them. What this does is it confirms and validates the Conservative brand. They have always said they are the party of trade. They're going to say this creates jobs and prosperity, and that will win in certain regions.

RB: I agree with Mark. This is about their brand, and it also helps them to refocus what they have wanted the campaign to be about. I know there are people out there who say they don't want to talk about the economy. I disagree with that. I think the Conservatives do want to talk about the economy, but certain aspects of it. But it is very hard to translate what this kind of massive trade deal means to the average Canadian consumer. 

What do you make of the NDP's swing back left in reaction to the deal?

MK: Back in 1988 when the Free Trade Agreement was dominating the campaign, Canadians were highly aware that a trade deal had been negotiated. On this one, if you walked out onto the streets of most Canadian cities, I would bet you dollars to doughnuts most people don't know what TPP stands for, or that this government has been negotiating a deal. It's probably more difficult for Tom Mulcair to criticize it because the passion that was there back in 1988 on either side simply isn't there now.

RB: I agree, but I don't think the NDP has any choice. This is one of the only plays they have left as they try to tack back to where they have traditionally been. It's certainly a more progressive point of view than we've heard from them throughout this campaign. Where I think their arguments fall apart is when they go too far down the road, into fear-mongering. 

MK: This trade deal came at a time when there's no denying that the New Democrats are starting to lose favour in public opinion. So where does that leave the Liberals? They don't want to be seen to be off-side, so they're being cautious in what they're saying. They don't want to tie their hands. For the New Democrats, it creates a wonderful wedge issue. It now distinguishes them from the Liberals. 

Why does the niqab keep coming up in the campaign?

RB: I think [Stephen Harper] wanted to make it an issue at one point. I don't think he wants to make it an issue now. When we're talking about this, we're at the thin edge of the wedge. We are at the point where the wedge becomes a little too pointy and a little too dangerous. 

MK: I was surprised that Mr. Harper answered the question that Rosemary put to him. It begs the question, where does this go? Where does this end? I think there's no doubt in my mind that Mr. Harper thinks he can get votes out of this, but it's dangerous because he has the opposition leaders — I think Mr. Trudeau more than Mr. Mulcair — making the argument that this is a question of values.

Has the niqab debate hurt Mulcair and the NDP?

MK: I think it's pretty simple. His base is in Quebec and there's a stronger sense, I gather, in that province of opposing women who wear niqabs. If he loses Quebec, he loses the election and potentially his status as Leader of the Opposition. Mr. Trudeau doesn't face that dilemma. 

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