National Column: Show some composure, Canada

by Paul Wells

A reliable Canadian reflex ensures that whenever something big and surprising happens in the United States, somebody here will decide it’s the fault of Canada’s political leaders.

The most extraordinary demonstration of this reflex happened in the days after 9/11. Nine days after the attacks, Tony Blair sat next to Laura Bush as then-president George W. Bush spoke to a joint session of Congress. The National Post, where I then worked, moved immediately to DEFCON 1. Why was their guy sitting next to the president’s wife? Where was our guy? What had he – good God, what had we – done wrong?

Articles of indictment were drawn up. Jean ChrÈtien had taken too long to speak to reporters after the attacks. He had waited until Monday, six full days, to convene Parliament; Blair had convened his in three. Chretien took too long to visit Ground Zero, preferring to leave the site to rescue workers until a public backlash forced him to visit the rubble pile.

When Canadian soldiers arrived in Afghanistan wearing forest camouflage designed for European theatres of operation where Canadians had been stationed for two generations, there was more outrage. And when, a year and a half later, ChrÈtien declined to participate in the Iraq invasion, even some Liberals were terrified he’d made the wrong call.

Even Stephen Harper got some of the same guff whenever surprises gusted up from the south. The Wall Street banking collapse endangered his re-election in 2008, and nearly finished him off five weeks after that election, when the opposition parties decided he was not reacting nimbly enough to events none of them had foreseen either.

And when Americans elected Barack Obama, Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson wrote Open And Shut, a book lamenting the contrast between their leader and ours. “Ottawa is in the midst of a crisis of competence,” he wrote. “The political class is a wraith of its former self.”

Somehow in all this garment-rending, the answer that would be obvious to an observer in, say, Dublin or Buenos Aires – that these events have nothing to do with Canada and cast no judgment on its leaders’ worth – never gets aired in Toronto or Ottawa.

And now it’s happening again. Donald Trump won, so Justin Trudeau is too weak, inexperienced, naive or wrong-headed to be trusted with government. This is hardly the majority view, but then it’s still early days yet.

Here at the vanguard is Kevin O’Leary: “My imagery of that, Donald Trump versus Trudeau, is Godzilla versus Bambi,” the reality-show businessman told BNN.

Derek Burney, who used to be Brian Mulroney’s chief of staff, said “naive would be a polite word” for Trudeau’s decision to say, immediately after Trump’s election, that he would be willing to discuss changes to NAFTA with a President Trump.

Well, in that case, here’s to naive leaders. Trump’s fallback plan is to abrogate NAFTA, which would be a short road to chaos in Canada-U.S. relations. Discussing changes might be the best way to keep the pin in that particular grenade, which may explain why Susan Schwab, who was Bush’s trade representative, told a Washington audience this week that Trudeau’s remark on NAFTA “was a very, very clever response.”

Before deciding Trump will fleece Trudeau in bilateral talks, prognosticators would do well to wait until everyone knows what Trump plans to ask, or demand, or threaten. For greater certainty, they should then wait a little longer to ascertain whether Trump will contradict himself a day later.

The president-elect has proven himself more than capable of debating every side of most major questions. Waiting for his foreign policy is like waiting for a flipped coin to land. And talking to him – which is to say, putting ideas into his head – may be the best way to influence his decisions. It is, notoriously, the tactic employed by those members of his campaign team who survived until election day and are spending the week holed up with him at Trump Tower.

It is true that Trump is more predictable on some issues than others. He is likely to cut corporate taxes, reducing or eliminating a Canadian tax advantage in that field. But corporate taxation isn’t the only basis for investment decisions. Ability to attract talent matters, too, and on that score Trump is perfectly capable of balancing one move that helps his economy with 20 that hurt it.

While we wait for the Trump coin to land, a little sang-froid would be in order, if out of character. The Americans have made their decision. They will be years finding out what it means. It doesn’t always have to be about us.

Paul Wells is a national affairs writer. His column appears Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
Copyright 2016-Torstar Syndication Services

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