Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks about the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal at a press conference in Ottawa on Monday

Trade deal upstages Mulcair, Trudeau

Trans-Pacific Partnership rocks election trail, buoys Harper's campaign mood

  • Oct. 5, 2015 6:00 p.m.

By The Canadian Press

OTTAWA – Stephen Harper’s blockbuster trade deal upstaged Justin Trudeau’s students and the stage and screen stars backstopping Tom Mulcair on Monday as the three main parties began their two-week sprint to the ballot box.

Mulcair, the NDP leader, had a stage full of television, music and film personalities — it even included a performance by the folk duo Whitehorse — all lined up for his announcement about helping artists.

Trudeau was all set to unveil a high-gloss campaign platform, a popular Liberal strategy, in front of a crowd of earnest university students eager to cheer his plan of expanded grants and easier loan repayment terms.

But the Pacific Rim depth charge known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership blew them both out of the water.

“Today is a historic day,” a prime ministerial Harper beamed during a news conference in Ottawa as he described the deal as nothing short of “the largest economic partnership in the history of the world.”

Not everyone is enamoured of the deal: held up by Harper as a model for future 21st-century trade agreements, Mulcair is committed to tearing it to pieces.

“I will not be bound by Stephen Harper’s secret deals,” he said.

A New Democrat government would provide $60 million over four years to Telefilm Canada and the National Film Board, and loosen rules to secure grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, Mulcair promised instead.

The NDP would also allow self-employed artists to average their incomes, a move the party says would make tax filing fairer and more predictable. There would also be a new $10-million digital content fund to support celebrations of Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017.

Trudeau, unveiling the Liberal platform at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., parked his vote on the TPP until all the details are clear.

“We will ratify this properly in the House of Commons after a fulsome and responsible discussion,” he said.

The main points of the Liberal platform — three years of deficit spending on infrastructure, higher taxes on the wealthiest Canadians and lower rates for most others — were released long ago.

But a few new details came out Monday, including new restrictions on marketing unhealthy food and drinks to children — restrictions similar to ones already in place in Quebec — and regulations to limiting the amount of trans fats and salt in processed foods.

Popular among the university crowd was a plan to increase Canada Student Grants by 50 per cent to $3,000 a year. Trudeau said a Liberal government would allow students to wait until they’re earning at least $25,000 a year before requiring them to start repayment.

“Finding money to pay for school is only half the battle,” he said. “Repaying those loans after you leave is often just as challenging.”

Later Monday, Harper was back in his campaign uniform — blue blazer, open collar, ever-present smile —as he arrived in Richmond Hill, Ont., for a campaign rally. But it was clear he was feeling fresh energy as talk turned to the TPP.

“Today friends, we took another significant step in securing our economic future,” he said.

Harper said the federal cabinet has already approved a plan to spend $4.3 billion over the next 15 years to protect Canadian dairy farmers from the impact of the trade deal.

He said the concessions Canada has made in the dairy sector are modest — an additional 3.25 per cent of foreign imports would be allowed — and cites the compensation fund as more than enough to protect dairy producers.

The auto sector is a different matter. Mulcair latched onto a claim by Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union, that 20,000 autoworker jobs are in jeopardy if it proceeds.

“Canada will not be part of an agreement that removes 20,000 Canadian jobs. Period,” Mulcair said.

“And every time we say that, it’s important to remember that every job you and I just referenced is actually a family that will lose their livelihood.”

Mulcair urged Harper to release the full text of the deal, which is undergoing a legal review, before the election.

The federal government has offered no guarantees but expressed optimism the 12 countries involved might make it available before voting day in two weeks.

According to the federal government, the TPP keeps Canada’s dairy industry mostly intact, with a modest increase in permitted imports for supply-managed sectors and farmers would be compensated for losses through a multibillion-dollar series of programs.

Foreign-made cars would be allowed into Canada without tariffs, as long as they have 45-per-cent content from the TPP region — lower than the 62.5 per cent regional-content provision under NAFTA.

Canada’s auto industry has been alarmed about the prospect of loosening domestic requirements for car components.

“I know there is also concern in some parts of our auto industry about the implications of this agreement for that vital sector,” Harper said, promising to soon announce measures to attract new auto investment and ensure the stability of car assembly operations in Canada.

“I want to reassure the Canadians who depend on it for their livelihood that we have reached an agreement that will clearly benefit our auto industry here at home. This agreement will mean the well-paying jobs in the auto sector that they continue to support thousands of Canadian families for years to come.”

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