By Jonathan McQuarrie
John Turner and Brian Mulroney during the 1988 election debate. Photo via cbc.ca
Intensive negotiations in Maui over the last few days of July failed to finalize the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). However, the discussions continue. The negotiations for this comprehensive framework, which would incorporate twelve national economies into an agreement with harmonized standards on tariffs, labour and environmental regulations, are to continue over the Canadian election period. Regardless of whether or not one supports the free-trade ambitions of the TPP, it is imperative that this agreement become a major issue during the current election, as it has far-reaching implications. To give three examples, dairy supply management might be reduced or even eliminated, investor-state dispute resolution mechanisms will challenge national programs, and access to generic drugs could be limited. Proponents of the partnership, such as the recently dissolved Conservative government, point to the potential benefit of access to new markets for an economy that relies heavily on exports.
In 1988, free trade was a relatively new concept, and one endorsed only by the Progressive Conservatives. The Free Trade Agreement between Canada and the United States, signed by Ronald Reagan and Brian Mulroney on 2 January 1988, prompted fierce debate between the three major parties during the November election. Subsequent scholarship has largely cast the 1988 election as a referendum on the agreement, whose implementation had been stalled by the Liberal-dominated Senate. Liberal leader John Turner justified using the (then, as now) unpopular Senate to stall the bill by insisting that such an important issue demanded public input.
The 1988 election debate, particularly an exchange between Turner and Mulroney, is justifiably famous in Canadian politics. Turner and Mulroney hotly debated the implications of the agreement, with Turner accusing Mulroney of selling Canada out, of yielding Canada’s control of its energy and agriculture, and of reducing Canada to an American colony. Mulroney countered with his own nationalist rhetoric, contending that the deal made the Canadian economy stronger, and contributed to the Canadian national project. Ed Broadbent, the NDP leader, is conspicuously absent from the clip, but his party also opposed the FTA. According to political scientist Robert Malcolm Campbell, the dramatic debate refocused the entire election into a referendum on free trade.
Compared to current discussions of free trade, the nationalist tone of the 1988 debate is quite remarkable. While emphasizing the potential risk for national sovereignty was undoubtedly a strategic decision, it is noteworthy that both the Liberals and the NDP felt that the nationalist appeal would work. Post-debate polls indicate that the discussion did spark an increase in anti-FTA sentiment, though the PCs retained enough support for the agreement to secure their majority. Despite the fact that the election was reasonably close, with just under sixty percent of the vote going to anti-FTA parties, the FTA became a fait accompli and a normalized feature of the Canadian economy. Most people in their twenties have lived their entire lives in a free trade Canada.
Political attention to the TPP reflects this normalization. In terms of the rhetoric about free trade and its implications for the nation-state, the 1988 election has more in common with the 1911 rejection of Laurier’s Liberals over the issue of reciprocity with the United States than it does with our current campaign. Aside from some comments on the need to protect farmers and the need for more transparency during the negotiations, the Liberal party supports the TPP. Likewise, the NDP have also come out in favour of the TPP, only criticizing the Conservative negotiators and likewise emphasising the need to defend farmers. Substantive criticism of the TPP has largely been confined to groups such as the Council of Canadians and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Given the magnitude of the deal, this is insufficient.