National Column: All eyes are on Trump in Ottawa

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by Chantal Hebert

The main takeaway from Canada’s uncommonly intense political spring is a wilder-than-ever Donald
Trump card.

That is first and foremost a challenge for a federal government that has had to deploy more resources to do damage control on the Canada/U.S. front than any of its recent predecessors – so far with less than optimal results.

But it is not only Justin Trudeau’s agenda that has been upended by the Trump factor. With every passing day the political conversation on and off Parliament is being reshaped by the whims of the current occupant of the White House.

And while the prime minister has borne the brunt of Trump’s twitter storms, his opposition rivals are also having to scramble to adjust to an ever-shifting landscape.

Take the issue of asylum seekers: Ottawa has been bracing for months for a summer influx of irregular border-crossers coming in from the U.S. The official opposition has been determined to score points on this hot-button issue.

On day one of the G7 summit, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer travelled the Quebec rural road most used by asylum seekers to promote his party’s contention that the entire Canada-U.S. border should be declared an official point of entry. He might not be returning any time soon.

The Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement allows Canadian border authorities to turn back would-be asylum seekers already on American soil at an official point of entry. Extending that status to the whole border would presumably allow Canada to summarily turn back anyone seeking to cross from the U.S. for asylum purposes.

But, having now been exposed to the dire consequences of the application of Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy on migrant children and their families, more Canadians could find the Conservative solution of making the border as hermetic to asylum seekers as possible politically unpalatable.

In more normal circumstances, Trudeau’s extraordinary decision to take on the expansion of the
Alberta-to-B.C. Kinder Morgan pipeline would have been the policy highlight of the season. For reasons ranging from economics to the environment, it is both a high-risk and a defining political move.

Even among Canadians who do support the expansion of the pipeline, feelings about the federal government owning the infrastructure are decidedly mixed. But opinions on that may shift as more voters come around to the notion that exceptional times may call for exceptional measures.

The opposition to the Trans Mountain project will melt away but the case against completing the expansion has likely been weakened by the threat of an all-out trade war with the U.S. and the sense that Canada does need to develop alternative markets.

Cannabis politics: Prior to Trump’s G7 antics, Quebec and Ottawa were poised to do battle over some of the regulations dealing with the legalization of cannabis.

Trudeau’s determination to allow Canadians to grow a small quantity of cannabis at home put Ottawa on a collision course with provinces such as Quebec and Manitoba that wanted the latitude to prohibit the practice.

To varying degrees, Quebec election campaigns have usually featured some jostling among the parties for the position of best provincial champion vis-a-vis the federal government. But Trump’s escalating rhetoric dwarfed the prospect of expending a lot of energy on a federal-provincial war over a few cannabis plants.

If Premier Philippe Couillard can help it, Quebec’s ballot box question will at least in part revolve around the possible damage to the province of Trump’s vagaries and the party best placed to mitigate it.

In the wake of Trudeau’s decision to impose retaliatory tariffs on the U.S., the prime minister’s flagging approval ratings shot up. And that led to speculation about a snap summer election.

The geo-political circumstances under which Trudeau obtained his mandate in 2015 have changed dramatically. But even if Canadaís parties were adult enough to conduct a fact-based election conversation about the best way to address the Trump factor, they would ultimately still be debating hypothetical scenarios.

If the past year has demonstrated anything it is that when it comes to Trump, reality usually turns out to be beyond the range of any reasonable politicianís imagination.

Canada’s political class has so far succeeded in not negotiating with itself as it negotiates with an unpredictable and not always coherent White House tenant.

That consensual front would be the first casualty of a summer election.

That is not to say that there could not at some point be a reason to jump the gun on the scheduled October 2019 election date.

If, for instance, the government’s options came to boil down to living without NAFTA or keeping the tripartite trade accord at the cost of some major structural concessions, a case could be made that voters should be brought in the loop. It may come to that but we are not there yet.

Contact Chantal Hebert on Twitter at @ChantalHbert
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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