Can Canada sign onto TPP deal mid-campaign?

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives at a news conference in Ottawa, Canada October 5, 2015. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

It is the largest and most ambitious trade deal in Canadian history.

Signed by 12 nations, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will leave its mark on everything from the cost of a quart of milk to the price of prescriptions. On an international scale, it will affect an estimated 40 per cent of the global economy.

And it was signed in the midst of a federal election campaign, when Parliament was dissolved, sparking what will likely be an ongoing debate over whether inking the pact is even constitutional.

“My objection is not to the deal; it’s to the process,” says Bruce Hicks, a fellow at the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs at York University.

“We’re not in a situation where there is a government right now. We’re in an election and people should have the right to say this is what we want or this is what we don’t want.”

If the final deal could not have been postponed until the election concluded, the incumbent government should have consulted opposition parties to present a collective position. Instead, this comprehensive trade pact has become a politicized campaign ploy, he suggests.

“That’s just wrong,” Hicks tells Yahoo Canada News.

“They’re hoping this will win them re-election and I think that’s been their plan all along and now it’s unfolding as they hoped it would.”

Not everyone agrees.

In negotiation since 2008, the TPP involves a dozen countries, of which Canada is not the largest player, points out Nelson Wiseman, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto and director of the Canadian Studies program.

”Canada was one of the major players but not one of the big two,” Wiseman tells Yahoo Canada News.

Those were the United States and Japan. And it’s likely that the other nations wanted to conclude negotiations and weren’t willing to wait for Canada’s election.

If Canada wanted its say in the final deal, the government had to decide to stay at the table. That was a good decision, Wiseman says.

“There isn’t any precedent for this,” he says.

Just before the writ was dropped on Aug. 2, the Privy Council Office released — for the first time — the so-called “Caretaker Convention” with guidelines for the conduct of ministers, ministers of state, exempt staff and public servants during an election.

It says government should, when it comes to matters of policy, expenditure and appointments, restrict itself to activity that is: routine; non-controversial; urgent and in the public interest; reversible by a new government; or agreed to by opposition parties.

The convention also included — for the first time — the following paragraph:

“For greater clarity, there may be compelling reasons for continued participation by Ministers and/or officials in specific activities such as treaty negotiations. For example, when negotiations are at a critical juncture with timelines beyond Canada’s control, the failure to participate in ongoing negotiations during the caretaker period could negatively impact Canada’s interests. Under such conditions, a compelling case may be made for ongoing efforts to protect Canada’s interests. Irreversible steps such as ratification should be avoided during this caretaker period.”

Wiseman says he believes finalizing the TPP was, indeed, an urgent matter.

“At the end of the day, if the Conservatives are re-elected, that communicates that they’ve been vindicated in what they did,” he says.

The deal is far from done, he says. It has yet to be ratified by all 12 nations.

“The ultimate arbiter of whether this was proper or not will be the electorate.”

Hicks says the Caretaker Convention — with its recent addition — is flawed.

And he believes that was by design, allowing the Conservatives to drop the deal in the midst of the campaign.

“They’re willing to do anything to hold onto power and they might actually do it,” he says.