A final debate and the Trans-Pacific Partnership shake up the campaign

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The TVA leaders' debate seems like a decade ago, but it only happened last Friday evening, October 2.

To this observer, both NDP leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau looked good. Trudeau was certainly better than in the previous French debate, where many said he kept repeating the same memorized lines. But Mulcair was also better than he had been previously.

The Toronto Star's Chantal Hébert said Mulcair did well, but not well enough. He did not dominate, she wrote.

It is not clear how one can dominate a debate where each leader is supposed to get an equal amount of airtime.

Mulcair and Trudeau were both trying to prove they are the real alternative to the Harper government, and both had their strong moments.

Commentators have noted that Trudeau was particularly strong in some of his one-on-ones with Conservative leader Stephen Harper. Most notable among those was Trudeau's vigorous accusation that Harper was appealing to fear alone.

The one-on-one format was helpful, by the way. The moderator, TVA network's news anchor Pierre Bruneau, designated duos of leaders to face each other in response to each question, and then opened things up for all four to participate. There was much less cross talk and interrupting than in earlier debates.

It is in their one-on-ones that Mulcair seemed, for the most part, to have gotten the better of Trudeau.

From the outset, the NDP leader established that the Liberals had voted with the Conservative government many times -- on budget measures, for instance, and not just on Bill C-51.

Mulcair also had a strong hand to play on climate change, as the only party leader with an actual plan. Trudeau was reduced to arguing that the New Democrats' pledge to balance the budget would make it difficult for them to achieve their greenhouse gas reduction goals.

That is a strange argument, since the main NDP proposal is to put a cost on carbon, through a cap-and-trade system.

The Conservatives are probably closer to the truth in calling cap-and-trade a kind of carbon tax. To counter that point Mulcair has been at pains to explain that his climate change policy would be revenue neutral. Income generated by, in effect, taxing polluters would be reinvested in clean energy.

Labour tax credits and muzzling science 

Mulcair was also effective in his confrontations with Harper. He was the only leader to mention the Conservatives' decision to kill the tax credit for labour investment funds, such as the Quebec labour federation's Fonds de solidarité. Cutting that tax credit was highly unpopular in Quebec, but it has faded from public discourse.

It was Bloc Québecois leader Gilles Duceppe, however, who first came to the defence of government support for scientific research. He even pointed out that Harper's minister for science is a creationist.

Mulcair got to talk about the Harper government's war on science on Sunday evening, during his appearance on the popular CBC French network (Radio-Canada) television talk show Tout le monde en parle.

The format of Tout le monde en parle is similar to talk shows in France, where the audience surrounds the guests, and politicians, newsmakers and intellectuals share the stage with movie stars, pop singers and comedians.

This past Sunday the host of Tout le monde en parle, Guy A. Lepage interviewed Italian movie star Monica Bellucci (in Quebec to do a film), one of Marcel Aubut's sexual harassment victims, two Quebec teachers struggling with cutbacks to education and philosopher Normand Baillargeon.

Mulcair shared the stage with the teachers and Baillargeon, and it was the philosopher who put the question about science to the NDP leader.

That gave Mulcair a chance to excoriate Harper for his government's hostility to science, and tout his own party's policy.

The NDP -- like the Liberal party -- promises to end the muzzling of scientists. Mulcair has said that an NDP government would create a parliamentary science office, similar to the current Parliamentary Budget Officer, whose role, in part, would be assure that all government actions were science and evidence based.

Harper exultant at TPP deal

Evidence and facts are what Harper claims are on his side when it comes to the just signed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

We cannot afford to be outside this massive trade and investment deal, argues the Conservative leader -- and, with him, the majority of mainstream media commentators. Trudeau has come within a millimetre of signing on to the TPP, too, but says he is holding out until he gets a look at the details.

That leaves Mulcair and the NDP as the only ones who are, if not outright opposed, highly sceptical of the TPP.

Mulcair does not like it that the TPP sacrifices a good part of the Canadian auto industry. Many Canadian firms will not be able to compete with the $0.65/hour wages of some TPP Asian countries. Canadian auto makers are already losing out to Mexico, where workers have few protections and earn far less then they do in Canada.

The NDP says Harper is, in effect, sacrificing 20,000 jobs in the auto sector, and the Conservatives don't make much effort to deny that fact.

What the Conservatives and their allies argue is that, over time, the TPP will result in many more than those 20,000 jobs, in other sectors -- sectors where Canada might have a competitive advantage that does not depend on relatively cheap labour.

That is what these so-called trade deals are supposed to achieve.

They serve to increase specialization, focusing countries' economic efforts on areas where they can offer the world market higher quality at lower cost than their competitors.

Some economists say the TPP should be a boon, for instance, for Canadian engineering firms and financial service businesses.

It will take some time before we find out if they are right, and Canada will start bleeding auto-sector jobs much sooner.

Right now, Canadian industries that welcome the TPP include forest products (which welcome lower tariffs in Japan and other Asian countries), aerospace, brand name pharmaceuticals and seafood.

The dairy industry was bracing for much worse, and, it seems, can accept granting New Zealand and U.S. producers a 3.5 per cent share of the Canadian market.

The Harper government obviously thought it would have more to lose politically by offending a powerful farmers' group than by consigning a large group of well-paid unionized workers to unemployment.

Just compare the $4.3 billion compensation for the farmers to the one billion over 10 years to "encourage innovation" in the auto sector.

The one billion for auto is not really new; it is only extends an existing program. There is no federal money, similar to that offered to dairy farmers, to cushion the blow on soon-to-be-unemployed autoworkers and their families.

That does not mean supply management in Canada is safe, now, and in the future.

Even if the dairy, poultry and egg industries can reluctantly swallow the Conservatives' sugar-coated medicine, a number of knowledgeable observers have noted that the 3.5 per cent is the thin edge of the wedge. It will start the inevitable process, they say, of dismantling our distinctly Canadian system for supporting domestic food producers.

Meanwhile the Americans' generous agriculture subsidies will remain virtually untouched.

Winners, losers, and dangers in the TPP that are little discussed

The fact that the TPP creates both winners and losers underscores the dilemma for political parties in pronouncing on such a massive and complex deal.

The NDP has many seats in areas where forestry is a major employer.

Aerospace and Big Pharma are both big employers in West Island Montreal, where the Liberals and NDP are in fierce competition for seats.

All parties have their eyes on seats where the seafood industry is a big player. Canada is already one of the world's largest exporters of fish and seafood.

Some journalists have commented that if Mulcair's party were higher in the polls he would be more measured -- and supportive -- in his reaction to the TPP.

The vehemence of the NDP leader's position, they say, belies a measure of desperation. The New Democrats, they argue, could be in a save-the-furniture mode. They are using hot rhetoric on a deal that, in the words of U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, primarily serves giant corporations, to rally labour and traditional left-of-centre voters.

Whatever the truth of that assertion, there is plenty in the TPP for so-called progressives not to like.

The whole chapter on investor-state dispute settlement systems (ISDS) is potentially dangerous, for instance.

We have not seen the fine print yet, but the TPP will very likely allow corporations to sue Canadian governments, at all levels, over financial losses due to Canadian labour, safety and environmental regulations. Such investor-state provisions are a crucial aspect of this sort of trade agreement, and they receive far too little attention.

To get an idea of what we're in for, read what Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has to say on the investor-state relationship:

"For decades, U.S.-based tobacco companies have used foreign investor adjudication mechanisms created by agreements like the TPP to fight regulations intended to curb the public-health scourge of smoking...To be sure, investors -- wherever they call home -- deserve protection from expropriation or discriminatory regulations. But ISDS goes much further: The obligation to compensate investors for losses of expected profits can and has been applied even where ... profits are made from causing public harm. The corporation formerly known as Philip Morris is currently prosecuting such cases against Australia and Uruguay (not a TPP partner) for requiring cigarettes to carry warning labels. Canada, under threat of a similar suit, backed down from introducing a similarly effective warning label a few years back... [ISDS] provisions make it hard for governments to conduct their basic functions -- protecting their citizens' health and safety, ensuring economic stability, and safeguarding the environment."

And if the new power transnational corporations will have over Canadian laws and regulations is not worrying enough, there is also the issue of those same corporations sharing digital data about all of us, across borders, with other businesses, and -- potentially -- with spy agencies.

Plus, a number of U.S. commentators worry that the rules protecting the rights of labour will exist more on paper than in fact, in a number of Asian TPP countries. 

Indeed, there is a lot to talk about when we talk about the Trans Pacific Partnership -- a lot more than 20,000 auto-sector jobs and the price of milk and eggs.

But will we get to talk about any of it during the last two weeks of this election campaign?

So far, aided by the enthusiastic cheerleading of the mainstream media and the somewhat more muted cheers from the Liberals, the TPP seems to be a winner for Harper and his Conservatives.

Together with the niqab and some hateful nonsense on "barbaric cultural practices," this massive yet still little understood deal appears, for now, to be giving Stephen Harper a perfect closing argument for this wearying and never-ending election campaign.

Photo: flickr/ davehuehn

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