National Column: PM wisely calm about milk

by Chantal Hebert

In the big picture, the world is probably having a decent week when Donald Trump turns his rhetorical guns on Canada rather than on North Korea or Russia. On the scale of a nuclear showdown, the stakes involved in a Canada/U.S. milk war are – to put it mildly – in a different league.

But even in the name of offering the international community a much needed, albeit brief, respite from more lethal presidential musings, it is no laughing matter for Canada to find that, despite its best efforts, it has become Trump’s latest punching bag.

In that spirit, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wisely resisted the temptation to throw in a few jokes about his up-and-down relationship with Trump as he hosted the annual Public Policy Forum dinner in Toronto on Thursday evening.

Those in the standing-room-only crowd of policy wonks, political junkies and lobbyists of every persuasion who had hoped to glean some insights into the prime minister’s mindset went home empty-handed. But that did not prevent Trump in absentia from being the elephant in the room.

Just a few hours earlier, the president had fired the second of two verbal missiles at Canada’s trade arrangements with the U.S.

The first had come earlier in the week when Trump agreed with Wisconsin dairy farmers that Canadian policies were responsible for their financial woes – and promised to fix them.

At the time, the optimists among Canadian Trump-watchers opined that the president had reverted to his campaign persona for a day. They predicted it would be a temporary state of affairs.

But after the president doubled down from the Oval Office on Thursday and called Canada a “disgrace” for its trading practices on fronts ranging from dairy to lumber to energy, the seers retreated behind a wait-and-see wall of prudent platitudes.

It is possible to concur with the notion that what happened this week might ultimately amount to less than a significant watershed moment and still believe that something of note has happened.

For one, the facade of self-reassurance that Canada was not really on Trump’s radar except in a collateral way via its association with Mexico under the NAFTA umbrella is now shattered. It was always little more than wishful thinking. In the face of Trump’s fighting words and the contrast they offer with his previous positive comments about the two countries’ trade relationship the already modest capital of trust accumulated since the inauguration stands depleted.

If there is an upside for Canada, it may be that those fighting words may come across as a call to arms to the many American constituencies that do benefit from the current trading arrangements between the two countries.

If NAFTA was not mutually beneficial, it would not have endured through a succession of American administrations including some that had a stronger protectionism gene in their political DNA than the Republican party the current president hails from.

The Canada/U.S. file was already monopolizing more political energy in the federal capitals and in the provinces than at any time since the negotiation of the 1988 free-trade agreement. It is about to suck even more attention away from other issues.

In contrast with past negotiations with not only the U.S., but also with Europe and the Asia-Pacific countries, Canada is, for the most part, playing defence. Perhaps even more troubling is the fact that it is doing so absent a commonly agreed upon set of rules.

No one, for instance, could immediately fathom what specifically is causing the president to have a bee in his bonnet over Canada’s energy policies. And as for the plight of Wisconsin dairy farmers, its root cause is a flooded global market.

It is easy to understand that Trump needs a diversion from an unimpressive first 100 days in power. Turning his guns on Canada likely helped appease some of the warring factions within his White House. But a Canadian prime minister no more lives in a public opinion vacuum than an American president. With every anti-Canada Trumpism, pressure mounts on Trudeau to harden his own tone.

Picking his words very carefully Friday, the prime minister again firmly rejected the presidential accusatory contentions. The overriding impression was that Trudeau was trying hard to keep as much of his powder dry as possible. He does not have any to waste on a president who may yet be shooting blanks.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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