The legislative fate in Ottawa of the free-trade pact between Canada and the United States hangs on the results of a national election. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney is expected to call that election this month, with voters going to the polls in November.
Both opposition parties, the Liberals and the left-of-center New Democratic Party (NDP), have promised to tear up the trade deal should they defeat Mr. Mulroney's Progressive Conservative government.
If the Conservatives win - and the polls indicate this is possible - Mulroney will quickly bring Parliament into session and ask it to pass the free-trade bill in time for the pact to take effect, as scheduled, at the start of the new year.
The Tory government took office four years ago after it won a sweeping majority in the House of Commons.
Liberal leader John Turner surprised both supporters and opponents of free trade in July by asking the Liberal majority in the Senate to stall the free-trade deal until an election is called. He says free trade is so vital an issue it should, in effect, be approved by the voters through an election.
The House of Commons passed the trade legislation Aug. 31 and sent it on to the Senate. Last Thursday, the Senate gave the second of three readings of the bill, with Liberal senators abstaining to make this possible. But the Liberal majority then sent the bill to the Senate foreign affairs committee for detailed study, including hearings across the country.
Lowell Murray, the government leader in the Senate, said: ``... this is a stall, a delaying action.''
The Conservatives are expected to attack the Liberals during the election for using the non-elected Senate to block the current free trade legislation.
Mr. Turner charges that the free trade deal will make Canada a US ``colony.''
Turner says the Liberals would instead seek trade liberalization through bargaining now taking place under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and through agreements with the US on specific business sectors.
The Conservatives deny any loss of Canadian sovereignty under the deal. Besides, they point out, the pact can be abrogated with six months' notice.
As to trade bargaining over business sectors, they say that a previous Liberal government under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau unsuccessfully tried this approach with the US. Any sectoral deal would require approval of other GATT members. Such approval is unlikely.
A poll released by the government this month shows that 51 percent of Canadians favor the pact, while 43 percent of them oppose it.
The latest political poll, taken late in August and earlier this month, found 37 percent of decided voters support the Conservatives, 33 percent the Liberals, and 25 percent the NDP. Another 5 percent favor other parties, according to the poll by the Toronto Globe and Mail and Environics Research Group Ltd.
With the three-way split of the parties, the Tories can win a majority of the Commons seats with only a few more percentage points of support from the voters.
With voter approval of the Conservative government increasing, the opposition parties are keen to have an election soon.
``I wish it were tomorrow,'' says Senator Alasdair Graham, co-chairman of the opposition Liberal election campaign committee. ``We are set.''
``We were all geared up last week,'' notes an official at the NDP's headquarters.``But it hasn't happened yet.''
One politician guesses an election will be announced Thursday after the House passes child-care legislation that, the Conservatives hope, will win it women's votes.
Another politician picks Sept. 30, the day after Mr. Mulroney returns from addressing the United Nations General Assembly.