National Column: NAFTA deal may be last thing Couillard needs in re-election bid

by Chantal Hebert

Every premier has a stake in the latest episode of the NAFTA political drama. But as a make-or-break round of Canada/U.S. negotiations unfolds in Washington this week, one stands more directly in the line of fire.

Quebec’s Philippe Couillard already faces long odds as he campaigns for re-election on Oct. 1.

At last count, the Liberals were still lagging well behind the leading Coalition Avenir Quebec among the francophone voters who will determine the outcome of the vote. A Leger poll published in Le Devoir and the Montreal Gazette on Wednesday showed a 19-point gap between the two.

With barely four weeks left to reverse his partyís fortunes, the last thing Couillard needs is for the federal government to make major concessions on the front of the supply management system in exchange for a resolution of the NAFTA quandary.

No Quebec premier has ever been keen to take on the province’s dairy lobby in a re-election campaign. But if that were the only issue, it could be manageable.

Like every other lobby, this one is more efficient within the narrower confines of party politics than on the larger electoral stage. It takes a lot more foot soldiers to change the outcome of a general election than to influence the choice of a federal opposition leader.

Quebec voters are more ambivalent about the quota system that protects Canada’s dairy and poultry industries from foreign competition than the unadulterated support of the province’s political class would suggest.

An Angus Reid poll published on Wednesday pegged the proportion of Quebecers that would rather sacrifice NAFTA than eliminate Canada’s supply management system at about one third. Another third would give up the policy and the rest were undecided. That puts the province in the same ballpark as Ontario and British Columbia.

Support for the policy is mitigated by support for NAFTA.

Going all the way back to former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s initial agreement with the U.S. in the late 1980s, Quebec has been a staunch free trade supporter.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau again repeated that he was not interested in negotiating away Canada’s protected dairy market. But in the big picture, Trudeau could pay a higher political price in his home province for failing to keep Canada under the NAFTA umbrella than for opening a big breach in the supply management system.

The reverse may be true of Couillard. There are few more lethal charges that can be levelled at a Quebec premier seeking reelection than the contention that he has failed to defend the provinceís interests.

That is the perception he will have to fend off should a diluted supply management system be the price Canada agrees to pay to get to a NAFTA deal.

Earlier this week, the premier said he would not support a deal struck on the backs of the province’s dairy and poultry farmers. The initial inference was that Quebec could veto the outcome of the NAFTA talks. It cannot.

Given that, Couillard was asked on Wednesday what contingency response he had in mind should Canada cross his red line. “Just watch me,” he answered.

But in contrast with the late Pierre Trudeau, who famously delivered that line to a journalist before sending the armed forces into Quebec during the October crisis of 1970, Couillard lacks the actual means to prevent Ottawa from opening the countryís dairy market to more American competition.

Even if droves of Quebecers were inclined to go to the barricades over the issue, it is not a given that they would want a premier on whose watch the system would have been used as a bargaining chip to curry favour with the U.S. A plurality of voters already perceives CAQ Leader FranÁois Legault as a better champion of Quebec’s interests.

There was a time when saving Quebec’s main federalist party from electoral defeat was a top priority on Parliament Hill. In 2007, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government gave an embattled Jean Charest a timely helping hand by presenting a federal budget – in the very last stretch of the provincial campaign – that included measures the then-premier could claim as significant wins for Quebec.

Harper was driven more by aversion for a return to power of a referendum-bent sovereigntist
government than by affection for his Quebec ally. Such a return is unlikely to be in the cards this year. A week in the campaign, the polls still show that the PQís official party status in the National Assembly could hang in the balance of the October vote.

From a unity perspective,

and notwithstanding the premierís fighting words, the Quebec Liberals have rarely been more expendable than this fall.

Twitter: @ChantalHbert
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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