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Harper leaves behind political storm in Ottawa, heads south for trade talks

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OTTAWA - Canadians will have to wait until Wednesday to hear Prime Minister Stephen Harper answer questions about the Senate expenses scandal.

Harper has embarked on a three-day trip to South America without taking any questions, hoping instead to deflect public attention to his policy agenda.

Before he left, Harper gave a public speech to his caucus, stressing his long-term plans for Senate accountability and ignoring questions shouted by members of the media.

In South America, he's expected to trumpet Canada's economic strength and competitive advantages in mining and energy.

Harper will take questions Wednesday when he makes a joint statement with the Peruvian president, Ollanta Humala Tasso. On Thursday, he attends the Pacific Alliance trade summit in Colombia.

Kevin Lamoureux, the Liberal deputy House leader, plans to ask Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer to allow an emergency debate on the Senate scandal.

Harper's trade agenda is also under intense scrutiny as talks with the European Union drag on without results. Analysts say he has an opportunity in South America to make some headway on that file.

Canada already has free trade agreements with all four of the Pacific Alliance founders — Chile, Colombia, Peru and Mexico. Some observers — including from within the Conservative caucus — have wondered why Harper would want to get involved in yet another set of negotiations at a time when he has so many other trade-related irons in the fire.

But the Pacific Alliance wants to move beyond just free trade in goods, and has a practical agenda for doing so fairly quickly, said Laura Dawson, an Ottawa-based trade consultant.

While the Pacific Alliance is not the powerhouse that the Trans-Pacific Partnership hopes to one day become, it is not bogged down by the baggage that superpowers like the United States or China bring with them.

"That's where the Pacific Alliance is the strongest player, because it's nimble and light," Dawson said.

Canada has let its relationship with Latin America languish, but being invited to at least observe the Pacific Alliance talks gives Harper a chance to solidify ties with like-minded governments and dynamic economies, she added.

The four-country trade bloc has had average economic growth above five per cent a year — far stronger than Canada, the United States and especially Europe.

By strengthening ties with the bloc, Canada can get an edge over its key competitors in Latin America: Spain in banking, Australia in mining and the United States in most areas, said trade analyst Carlo Dade, former executive director of the Canadian Foundation for the Americas.

Harper has still not said whether he wants to sit at the Pacific Alliance table as a full partner, nor has the bloc said Canada is welcome. But the prime minister's presence at the summit this week suggests Canada is heading in that direction, Dawson said.

"We, Canada, are the ones getting the once-over," added Dade. "They have to decide whether we're up to the challenge, up to snuff. And I'm not sure that we are."

A seat at the table doesn't come for free. Canada will likely have to make concessions on agriculture and supply management. And Harper would have to eventually let go of its visa requirements for Mexicans and find another way to deal with illegitimate refugee claimants.

The bloc is also tying together its stock exchanges and capital flows — something that would be tricky for Canada, said Dawson.

But even if such a broad agreement never sees the light of day, engaging with the four countries to advance free trade and investment will be beneficial for Canada just to see up close how much more can be accomplished, she added.

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