Canada election shifts attention to trade deal as race narrows

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Trailing in second place two weeks before Canada’s election, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a trade pact on Monday that largely protects the agricultural voting bloc, putting pressure on opponents who hope the deal would be a weak spot.

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during a news conference on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement in Ottawa, Canada October 5, 2015. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Harper touted the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a good accord that offers only limited access to Canada’s politically important farm industry, largely neutralizing an attack from the left-leaning New Democratic Party, which has been sinking in polls.

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair derided Harper for backing the 12-nation agreement in the midst of a campaign when the government is supposed to be in a neutral caretaker status.

“It’s inconceivable that Stephen Harper signed a secret deal in the midst of an election campaign. He’s sacrificing our family farms, he is selling out auto workers,” Mulcair said.

Mulcair vowed to stand up against the deal but stopped short of saying he would back out of it if he won the election.

Previously Mulcair had said he would not be bound by the terms of the deal. The NDP’s last hope for political victory may be voter anger over free trade.

The centrist Liberal Party, which has edged ahead of Harper in recent days, signaled it would probably support the deal.

“You are either in or out,” Harper told a news conference. “We choose to be in because there is simply too much to gain for Canada.”

A Nanos poll released Sunday suggested the race to the Oct. 19 election, which had been a virtual three-way tie for the first two months of the 11-week campaign, was increasingly between Harper and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau. The Liberals were winning 35 percent support, with the Conservatives at 31 percent and the NDP trailing at 24 percent.

While farmers had said they could be crippled if Canada gave up too much of its supply management system that keeps domestic dairy and poultry prices high, Harper said the deal offered access to just 3.25 percent of the dairy market and around 2 percent of the poultry market over five years.

In a move to shore up support among voters in the Conservative heartland, Harper announced compensation to farmers for losses they might suffer.

For voters in industrial Ontario, the province with the most seats up for grabs, he said the Conservatives would soon announce measures to attract new auto investment.

Reporting by Andrea Hopkins; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Grant McCool