Conservatives bob, weave over Trans-Pacific deal and ‘caretaker convention’

OTTAWA — Panda bears and Joe Oliver — two things rarely seen thus far on the 2015 campaign trail — made unexpected appearances Wednesday that left political observers scratching their heads.

The finance minister surfaced in his hotly contested Toronto riding of Eglinton-Lawrence to crow about the latest GDP numbers: a paltry 0.3 per cent growth in July, leaving some to wonder why he’d even bothered.

“Our low-tax plan for jobs and growth is working,” Oliver boasted.

Sneered Unifor economist Jim Stanford: “Claiming ‘victory’ because GDP is growing again after a recession is a bit like commenting on how good it feels to stop beating your head against the wall.” 

And the pandas? News out of Toronto that one of the two rare beasts on loan from China is pregnant with twins prompted a punchy Conservative war room to promise to double Canada’s panda population by next year.

“The prime minister also noted that his low-tax, balanced-budget plan to protect Canada’s economy would ensure a consistent supply of bamboo and other treats,” the party’s straight-faced news release wryly noted.  

One symptom, perhaps, of Canada’s unduly long 11-week campaign.

Here’s another: the business of government has to carry on, even when that business includes nailing down sprawling, 12-country Pacific Rim trade deals, which is why Trade Minister Ed Fast was in Atlanta instead of his B.C. riding.

“Canada is prepared to negotiate, to stay here until we have a deal,” Fast said. “We believe we are on track to do so.”

The fact the deal could be born in the throes of an election campaign had both Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair crying foul, saying the rules require opposition parties to be consulted.

Fast and Oliver both shrugged off that suggestion.

“When there’s a matter of importance or urgency for the government to deal with in the national interest, then it’s appropriate for us to do that,” Oliver said. “And this is certainly one of those cases.”

Trudeau has “not been approached by anyone in government on the Trans-Pacific Partnership” — indicative, he said, of the Harper government’s control-freak approach to the flow of information.

“One of the things that we’ve seen over the past years with this government is an approach that has been secretive, non-transparent, that hasn’t let Canadians know what it is negotiating and how it is negotiating, what is on the table,” he said in Surrey, B.C.

“It would be unrealistic for us to expect that the whole world will stop and wait with bated breath for the outcome of Canada’s election. But what we need to know is that our government is negotiating in a way that is going to enhance Canadian opportunities and growth while protecting our interests.”

Questions persist about what concessions Canadian negotiators may be willing to make in agriculture and the auto sector in order to get a deal.

Mulcair said he is “very worried” about what Prime Minister Stephen Harper is willing to put on the table.

“I don’t trust Stephen Harper as a negotiator,” he said in Iqaluit.

“He’s not good at it. He has an ideological bent that means he doesn’t care about what happens here at home.”

Harper promised Tuesday to preserve Canada’s long-standing protection of the dairy and auto industries. He said his government is “absolutely committed” to preserving Canada’s supply management system — a structure of production limits and import tariffs — through trade negotiations.

The focus on the TPP has knocked last week’s hot-button election issue — niqabs at citizenship ceremonies — to the back burner.

The Liberals and the NDP have accused the Conservatives, who say people should be required to show their faces while taking the citizenship oath, of using an issue that affects few people to divide voters and instill fear.

The Federal Court found that it affects about 100 women per year. But Citizenship and Immigration Canada said that since 2011, only two people have chosen not to proceed with the ceremony because of the ban.

Trudeau was also asked Wednesday about another divisive issue — his pledge to legalize and regulate marijuana, which he said a Liberal government would get started on “right away.”

“We didn’t book for tax revenues from marijuana because we don’t yet know exactly what rate we’re going to be taxing it, how we’re going to control it or whether it will happen in the first months, within the first year or whether it’s going to take a year or two to kick in,” he said.

“We are being responsible and prudent in our approach to costing but make no mistake about it: Mr. Harper’s failed approach, which endangers our kids and endangers our communities, needs to stop.”

The Conservatives pounced, issuing a statement from Julian Fantino, a former provincial police commissioner, charging that it’s Trudeau’s plan that will put kids at risk.

“Justin’s singular justice policy will make smoking marijuana a normal, everyday activity for Canadians and he wants to make marijuana available in storefront dispensaries and corner stores just like alcohol and cigarettes,” Fantino wrote.

Trudeau unveiled Liberal health-care policies Wednesday, including a promise to spend $3 billion over the next four years on improved home care and an unspecified additional amount to reduce the cost of prescription drugs and expand mental health services.

Mulcair used his time in the North to slam Harper’s record on climate change and muzzling federal scientists. He announced that an NDP government would create a new parliamentary office to provide solid scientific advice and analysis to Parliament.

The Canadian Press