National Column: Trump, not Trudeau, is on NAFTA hotseat

by Chantal Hebert

If U.S. president Donald Trump’s threat to exclude Canada from a post-NAFTA U.S.-Mexico trade deal was meant to drive a wedge within Justin Trudeau’s free trade coalition it has so far failed.

In the days since Trump formalized his intention to submit to the U.S. Congress new trade arrangements with Mexico that might not include Canada, it is the president and not the prime minister who has endured significant public pushback. Some of that pushback has come from a number of influential U.S. constituencies at the union and the corporate levels.

By comparison, Canada’s federal-provincial front is holding. The big tent Trudeau built to weather the Trump-driven trade storm is still standing.

Late last Thursday the prime minister briefed the premiers on the state of NAFTA negotiations. It is safe to assume that whatever he told his vis-à-vis has since been communicated to Canada’s main opposition parties and beyond. The first ministers’ table is a politically diverse one with direct connections to most non-Liberal constituencies right across the country.

As a result, first ministers’ venues usually function more like sieves than sealed boxes. For the purpose of disseminating information, they often tend to rank second only to the issuing of a press release. That at least had been the experience of those of us who covered the free-trade negotiations of the late eighties and that eraís constitutional wars.

And yet on this particular occasion, the prime minister’s update was followed by a radio silence that is as exemplary as it is extraordinary in the current federal-provincial climate.

These days, the prime minister and many of the premiers do not see eye to eye on a variety of non-NAFTA issues. The list has been lengthening with every recent provincial election.

Trudeau’s government is on a collision course with Ontario and Saskatchewan over its carbon-pricing plan; it has been feuding with British Columbia over the federal commitment to expand Canada’s pipeline capacity.

The first ministers’ teleconference came only hours after a federal court had thrown a wrench in the Ottawa/Alberta relationship by ordering the suspension of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

The day before Trudeau brought the premiers into the latest NAFTA loop, Quebec’s Philippe Couillard had warned his federal counterpart – from the campaign trail – to steer clear of opening more of Canada’s dairy market to the U.S.

The Trudeau briefing did not alter Couillard’s unequivocal support for the supply-management system but it did put an end to his sabre-rattling. The premier has since qualified his stance somewhat by vouching to oppose any deal that did not “have the support of Quebec’s agricultural community.”

Perhaps what the prime minister had to report about the state of the American demands at the NAFTA table was so dire that none of those he briefed could see his or her interest in claiming the role of backseat driver.

The latest polls suggest Trudeau still very much enjoys the benefit of the doubt in his dealings with Trump. At this juncture, the president and not the prime minister would bear the brunt of the Canadian blame for the end of trilateral North American trade arrangements.

Most political leaders would rather not climb on a sandbox if it rests on quicksand.

The most notable exception has been Maxime Bernier. As the former Conservative MP sets out to build a breakaway party, he is using his social media feed to alternatively chastise his former caucus seatmates and their leader and/or to shoot at Canada’s negotiating position from the sidelines.

By contrast, the bulk of Canada’s political class – on the right as on the left of the Liberals – seems to have opted to wait and keep dry most of the powder it could use against Trudeau’s handling of NAFTA.

That is not to say that the prime minister is not under pressure from a variety of potentially conflicting constituencies to limit the potential damage of the ongoing talks to Canada’s trade position and its economy or that a resolution would not come with a political price tag. But it is Trump and not Trudeau who is, at this juncture, negotiating with knives sticking out of his back.

On that score, the latest sharp object came in the shape of excerpts from an upcoming book by veteran journalist Bob Woodward, of Watergate fame. It is too early to know whether this will make Trump belatedly reach out for the low-hanging fruit of mutually profitable trade arrangements with Canada or hit out at the neighbour that seems to have become his default punching bag.

Twitter: @ChantalHbert
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services