OTTAWA - Tom Mulcair is urging traditional NDP allies to wait until they see the fine print of a Canada-European Union free trade deal before assuming it's unacceptable or that he's sold out.
The federal NDP leader has parted company with some labour unions, environmental groups, anti-globalization activists and at least one provincial NDP leader just by expressing openness toward free trade in general and a trade pact with the EU in particular.
But while he's more open to free trade than any previous NDP leader, Mulcair says that doesn't mean he'll agree at any cost.
Instead, he says he'll weigh the advantages of expanded trade opportunities against the need to protect the public interest on everything from the environment to banking standards to prescription drug prices.
He's trying to strike a tricky political balance as well, assuring corporate Canada the NDP is no longer a bunch of knee-jerk anti-trade extremists — as Prime Minister Stephen Harper likes to depict New Democrats — without alienating traditional NDP allies.
"We're not buying a pig in a poke. We haven't seen the final text of this (Canada-EU deal)," Mulcair said in an interview.
"But we're not giving a blanket refusal either in advance."
The anti-free trade Council of Canadians has expressed disappointment with Mulcair's openness to an accord with the EU. The Canadian Auto Workers union has grave concerns about the impact of a deal on Canada's car manufacturing and auto parts sector. And British Columbia NDP Leader Adrian Dix has openly worried the deal could extend patent protection for brand name pharmaceuticals, hiking the cost of medications for Canadians.
But Mulcair said such pre-emptive opposition to a deal — before the details are known — is not in the best interests of a country as heavily reliant on trade as Canada.
"You know, if you start off ... by saying, 'It's this, this and this' and you go around Canada saying, 'The sky is falling,' well, if the text proves you right, then that's fine. But the sky hasn't fallen yet."
The NDP has itself traditionally taken the Chicken Little approach to trade deals but that's changed under Mulcair.
"The difference now is that, instead of just saying what we don't like about the old agreements, we're also saying why we're in favour of more trade," he said.
"We want to knock down non-tariff barriers. We think that more trade is a good thing for Canada. A lot of our economy has been built on trade but we want to make sure we are looking at things like labour standards, like environmental protection, like human rights.
"These are things that determine who you want to be on a level playing field with and whether you should be signing these deals."
Since he assumed the helm a year ago, the party has supported its first free trade pact, with Jordan, has urged expedited negotiations on a deal with Japan and wants priority given to negotiating similar accords with India, Brazil and South Africa — all countries the NDP considers to have sufficiently high labour, environmental and human rights standards to make worthy prospective trade partners.
Mulcair has been particularly enthusiastic about a free trade deal with the European Union, negotiations on which have now reached the crunch stage.
"It's a good starting point to be dealing with Europe. It's a 500-million person market. They generally speaking have institutions quite similar to ours, they have the rule of law, they have independent tribunals, they've got long-standing institutional stability that is a good thing for us to be dealing with."
While New Democrats "are embracing trade, there's no question about that," Mulcair stressed it must be "fair trade." And he laid down a series of markers for what it will take to secure NDP support of a pact with the EU.
The NDP, he said, would give a "categorical no" to any deal that dismantles supply management of Canada's dairy industry, although some small concessions on specific types of cheese, for instance, might be acceptable.
It would not countenance a pact that diminishes Canada's sovereignty over environmental or natural resources regulation, inhibits provincial auto insurance regimes, erodes provincial or municipal buy-local procurement programs or dilutes Canada's banking standards — all sticky issues that remain to be settled in the negotiations.
Mulcair signalled that he could live with extended patent protection for brand name drugs, as long as compensation was provided to provinces and consumers to offset the higher cost of medications.
All that said, he added: "The important thing to remember is that, in a negotiation, you have to give a certain number of things and you expect to get a certain number of things. It's that balance that we're going to be looking at in the final analysis."
Inevitably, trade deals require countries to give up "a bit of sovereignty," which can sometimes be a good thing, he said, giving the example of harmonized professional qualifications under the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The key measure, Mulcair said, must be "Is the restriction one that actually protects the public interest and, if so, don't give up your right to regulate in the public interest."
For all his professed openness to a deal with the EU, the issues Mulcair identifies as deal-breakers are all still on the table in negotiations. Moreover, he has little confidence in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's ability to stand firm.
"What we're concerned with overall with the Conservatives is that their only approach seems to be openness for the sake of large companies, without taking into account the public interest," he said.
"The gutting of environmental legislation concomitant with the signing of these deals is no accident. The Conservatives want to make sure that not too much (regulation) is in place so that anything that would be added (after a deal is signed) could be contested by the investors.
"What we're going to be driving is the public interest. They're going for powerful, insider interests."
Whether or not the NDP ultimately supports any accord that emerges with the EU, Mulcair is hopeful Canadians will see his more considered approach to trade deals as a sign New Democrats are ready to form government in 2015.
"People have to know that we're capable of good, competent, thoughtful public administration ... The thoughtfulness of our approach and its moderation and how we put those ideas forward, yeah, I've got to think that's going to be something that has to connect with Canadians."