Support For the TPP: Room to Grow?

In our last post, which analyzed a series of surveys on attitudes toward the Trans-Pacific Partnership, we found evidence of rising opposition to the 12-member free trade agreement. Early surveys had opposition at 20%, but four surveys since July asking about support or opposition all had opposition above 20%. And the Angus Reid Institute’s three-poll series has tracked a rise in opposition, from 11% in April to 21% in October.

Is opposition soon going to over-take support? Are we in a situation where the more Canadians learn about the TPP, the more they oppose it?

Our findings suggest that opponents of the TPP have so far successfully persuaded skeptics of trade in general that the deal is a dud. Going forward, proponents and opponents of the TPP will compete for support among a segment of the Canadian population generally in favour of free trade agreements.

Canadians support free trade in general

Canadians have a set of background attitudes toward trade and trade agreements. These become relevant to the debate on TPP because they predispose some to oppose the deal, and others to support it. To understand future trends, it is useful to examine these background attitudes, and see how they match-up to attitudes toward the TPP itself.

In general, most Canadians view themselves as supporters of free trade. In APF’s latest survey, conducted in September 2015, two-thirds (66%) of respondents reported that they support free trade agreements (FTAs) between Canada and other countries. Less than one-third (28%) opposes FTAs with other countries.

Moreover, Canadians also think that international trade benefits the national economy. A majority (52%) says that international trade has helped the Canadian economy overall, with a third (33%) saying it hurt the Canadian economy. Not surprisingly, those who think international trade is good for the national economy also tend to support FTAs.

The TPP debate, then, occurs against a backdrop in which most Canadians think of themselves as supporters of international trade and free trade agreements.

Yet, there are two noteworthy trends occurring with regards to attitudes toward the TPP: 1) those who see international trade as beneficial remain unsure of the TPP; 2) many of those who support FTAs in general do not express support for the TPP.

Disconnected benefits

Firstly, Canadians are not making an economic connection between the benefits of international trade and the benefits of the TPP.

Canadians are evenly split on whether the TPP will be good or bad for Canada’s economy.  One-third (33%) of Canadians thinks the agreement will be good, almost one-third (31%) thinks it will be bad, and just over one-third (36%) either doesn’t know or thinks the TPP will be neither good nor bad for Canada’s economy.

As mentioned though, 52% of all Canadians think that international trade has helped our economy, well above the percentage that anticipates benefits from the TPP.

However, only half of this group (54%) believes that TPP will be good for our economy. 15% say the TPP will be bad for the economy, 13% say it will have no effect, and 17% don’t know.

Among those who think that international trade hurts the Canadian economy (33% of Canadians), three-fifths (61%) believes that the TPP will be bad for the economy.  

This indicates that opponents of the TPP have done slightly better in linking perceptions of the agreement to underlying perceptions of international trade. A substantial portion of the population that would normally be disposed to see trade agreements as beneficial has not reached this conclusion about the TPP. 

The consolidation of opposition

This dynamic becomes particularly stark when we examine support for FTAs in general and support for the TPP specifically.

Skeptics of free trade have consolidated in opposition to the TPP. Among the 28% of Canadians who oppose FTAs in general, an impressive 90% oppose TPP, while only 3% support the agreement.

On the contrary, supporters of free trade are much more divided and less locked into an opinion about the TPP.

Among the 66% of Canadians who support free trade, 63% have expressed support for the TPP. Nearly one-fifth (18%) opposes the deal, and an equal number (20%) do not know where they stand.

This result also points to a sizeable group that is supportive of free trade, but has not formed an opinion about the TPP.

The debate continues

So far, opponents of the TPP have done a better job at persuading their pre-existing base. Only a modest proportion of Canadians oppose trade agreements in general, but this group is almost entirely opposed to the TPP.

For opponents, the initial task of consolidation is complete. Now it must persuade Canadians who otherwise think of themselves as generally favorable toward trade and trade agreements. This could prove more of a challenge than the task of rallying trade skeptics.

Of course, it is not impossible. Canadians’ stated support for free trade agreements can be soft when put to the test. It’s possible that opponents can formulate an argument that, even if trade agreements are good in general, there are problems with the deal itself. We see signs of this argument being made, particularly centred around the issue of intellectual property rights

Proponents are likely to find a more receptive audience. What they need to do is convince trade supporters that the TPP is worth supporting. A majority of Canadians support trade agreements with most of the signatory countries of the TPP. When specific countries are named, as they were in the EKOS poll, support jumps considerably compared to other surveys.  A lot of the traditional arguments for trade, and information about TPP countries, will fall on receptive ears.

Opponents of the TPP have consolidated the trade skeptics and will look to persuade soft supporters of trade who are still undecided on the TPP. Proponents will need to reach that same group. Our next post will take a closer look at the background and views of this potential swing group.

Nathan Allen

Nathan is a Faculty Member, Political Science, at St. Francis Xavier University and a former Program Manager, Surveys and Research Methods, at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

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