National Column: Scheer seeks an opening in NAFTA talks

by Chantal Hebert

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer did not receive a lot of media attention at home or abroad on the occasion of his maiden visit to Washington this week but he got the kind of coverage he and his party need more of over the next year.

The message Scheer took to Washington was that at the NAFTA negotiating table Canada speaks with one voice, and he stuck to it even when that meant declining to answer questions that could have led him on a path more critical of Justin Trudeau’s government.

A debriefing news conference initially scheduled for Friday in Ottawa was cancelled due to illness. Inasmuch as it allowed Scheer to avoid an occasion to be taken off a constructive message track, the cancellation may have been a blessing in disguise.

With the NAFTA talks between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico about to resume in Montreal, discretion on the part of the official Opposition is the better part of valour.

Here are some reasons why:

A year into Donald Trump’s presidency, the White House’s NAFTA end game remains uncertain. As has been his fashion since his swearing-in, the president had managed, over the course of the first weeks of what could be a make-or-break year for the tripartite trade arrangement, to send contrary signals as to its future.

For obvious reasons Canadians are, so far, inclined to pin the blame for a potential failure at the NAFTA negotiating table on Trump rather than on Trudeau. The last thing Scheer needs in this context is to be seen as part of the problem and not of the solution.

Trudeau’s NAFTA tent is peopled with Conservative insiders. Those include Scheer’s interim predecessor, Rona Ambrose, as well as former Industry minister James Moore. By virtue of their past experience in senior cabinet portfolios, both bring more gravitas to the debate than the rookie Conservative leader. Scheer has no interest in isolating himself from some of the more credible figures associated with his party’s recent past in government.

The talks – if they do not abort – will likely come down to how much water Canada is willing to put in its wine to salvage NAFTA. Should that point ever be reached, walking back the Liberal talk on the need for a more “progressive” trade arrangement could be the least of the prime minister’s problems.

Trudeau could be forced to make hard choices between competing Canadian interests. The arbitration could pit region against region. On this, as on the option of walking away from a mediocre deal, Scheer would have reasons to not rush to play back-seat driver.

Take the dismantling of Canada’s supply management system. It is high on the U.S. wish list and there is no lack of Canadian critics of the protection the country affords its dairy and poultry industries. But Scheer is not one of them. The pro-supply management lobby, in particular in Quebec, was instrumental in ensuring his upset leadership victory last year. The Conservative leader is in no position to prod Trudeau down the path of giving in to American demands on that front.

In the larger picture, the best-case scenario for the Conservatives would be to ensure Trudeau wears any concession Canada eventually makes at the NAFTA table.

That is not to say the Canada/U.S. file does not provide Scheer and his party with some openings to score some lasting political points for themselves.

It offers them a chance to put some much-needed distance between the hyperpartisan tone consistently cultivated by the Conservatives under Stephen Harper’s and Scheer’s watch. That cause was not advanced over his first full sitting as leader in the House of Commons.

The fall session of Parliament saw Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre step into the shoes of chief prosecutor of the government, shoes Thomas Mulcair used to fill. And in that role, Poilievre was no less effective than the former NDP leader.

But it is possible to pay tribute to Poilievre’s undeniable talents as an attack dog but also note that those are not necessarily the credentials most Canadians crave in a federal finance minister.

If Scheer is going to have a shot at replacing Trudeau as prime minister it will be because he will have convinced enough voters that he leads a competent, politically mature government-in-waiting.

On that score, the rookie Conservative leader has so far been better served by the nuanced approach of foreign affairs critic Erin O’Toole to the Canada/U.S. brief than by any amount of question period antics.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer.
Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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