Is the Trans-Pacific Partnership a political play for the Tories?

The TPP has delivered a new talking point, deep into the election. Will a trade deal be what sways votes in two weeks?

    OTTAWA — The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal is a bit of a rare bird in Canadian politics, a long-running government negotiation that suddenly lays the golden egg in the middle of an election campaign.

    For about 15 minutes, Stephen Harper suggested he wasn’t about to milk the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal for all it was worth in political capital.

    He donned a suit and tie, showed up at a federal building in front of the Canadian flag and answered questions formally as prime minister of Canada.

    “Look, I’m not going to get into the politics of all of this today,” he said, when asked to critique the trade positions of the opposition.

    A few hours later, on the floor of an Ontario manufacturing plant, the tie was off, the Conservative party logos were back up and Harper the Conservative leader was all about the politics.

    “Opening markets for Canadian trade is just one part of our economic action plan for jobs and growth, it is the plan that Canada needs to keep moving forward,” Harper told a crowd of supporters.

    He added: “The choice in this election could not be more clear or more important. It is going to make a big material difference to your lives, what the choice is on Oct. 19. ”

    Related: Why the TPP is an important deal for Canada

    The Conservatives had hoped to announce an agreement in the days leading up to the election in late July. When those talks in Hawaii broke down, the party pinned their hopes on the renewed attempts.

    Not exactly showing a poker face in the negotiations, Trade Minister Ed Fast announced early he was ready to fly to Atlanta to get things done — and later, that he would stay as long as it took.

    And no wonder the eager beaver stance: the deal dovetails nicely with the party’s campaign messages.

    “In most people’s minds, it will underline Conservative strengths on the economy, on being able to negotiate preferential deals for Canada,” said Stockwell Day, a former trade minister in the Harper government.

    If the Conservatives are hoping to capitalize on the details, the NDP have also gambled that opposing the deal will work out in their favour politically. Polls suggest the party has been losing steam.

    Over the past week, Mulcair has sharpened his position on the TPP, saying Harper had no mandate to negotiate it during an election and that if the NDP forms government, there is no guarantee it will be ratified.

    “The NDP is doing to stand up against this trade deal because it’s going to be hurting Canadian families,” Mulcair told reporters.

    The strategy is all about differentiation, says NDP activist Kathleen Monk, a real choice between the NDP and the Conservatives. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has not criticized the deal and came out as pro-trade.

    Mulcair also suggests Harper is overpromoting a deal that actually sells out Canadian workers.

    “It’s a very smart move. What he needed to do is bring the fight back to him and Mr. Harper and he’s been able to do that on this issue,” said Monk, a former director of communications for Jack Layton.

    “It is an issue that New Democrats and the vast majority of Canadians no longer trust Stephen Harper, we don’t trust him because of his dismal record, and we don’t trust him to deliver jobs.”

    Mulcair’s calculations centre around rural ridings in Quebec where the dairy industry is primordial and in the manufacturing belt in southern Ontario where there are concerns about the impact on the auto sector. Unifor, the autoworkers’ union, called the deal outrageous and predicted tens of thousands of job losses.

    Quebec’s Union des producteurs agricoles (UPA), a farmer’s union, said it was disappointed that Ottawa had increased access to the dairy market.

    Related: How did the dairy lobby get to be so powerful?

    But some of the outside support that Mulcair might have hoped for, began evaporating Monday. The Dairy Farmers of Canada and the Quebec provincial government offered cautious sanction for the deal, which provides $4.3 billion in compensation over 15 years to producers for any loss associated with opening up the industry a crack.

    But will a trade deal be what sways votes in two weeks?

    Greg Morihovitis, a machinist who was watching Harper’s speech Monday, said the TPP is just one of the things he’ll consider as he looks at the platforms of the three main parties.

    “It’s important to the economy, but there are many things that are important,” he said.