National Column: Post-NAFTA fight is Trudeau’s to lose

by Chantal Hebert

If Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are defeated in next fall’s federal election, it will almost certainly not be on account of their management of the NAFTA file.

Notwithstanding a poor initial reception in his home province, the prime minister is not likely to lose Quebec over the concessions he made on the way to keeping Canada in the North American trade loop.

Yes, Quebec is central to Trudeau’s re-election prospects and yes, the federal decision to give the U.S. greater access to Canada’s dairy market will be the first bone of contention between Ottawa and the government Quebecers are electing this week.

Coming as voters were headed to the polls, news of a resolution of the NAFTA issue dominated the last few hours of the Quebec campaign.

The main party leaders had all urged Trudeau to make no concession on supply management. On
Monday, they all took time out from their election night preparations to express disappointment over the outcome of the talks and reiterate their support for the province’s dairy farmers.

Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard spoke of a bad deal for Quebec. Coalition Avenir Quebec Leader Francois Legault promised to explore every option to help preserve the current dairy industry model. Parti Quebecois Leader Jean-FranÁois Lisee accused Trudeau of having thrown the province’s interests under the bus.

One could already hear the sound of a unanimous resolution in the making in the next national assembly.

But for all those fighting words, it’s unlikely that any of them really expected the prime minister to choose the integrity of the supply management system over the continuance of a trilateral trade arrangement between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. Chances are that, in Trudeau’s place, they would have made a similar choice.

It is hardly the first time that Canada’s protectionist agricultural policies have turned into a bargaining chip at a trade negotiation table. And on recent previous occasions, Quebec (and Ontario) supported trade-offs along the same lines.

Under successive Liberal and PQ governments, the province was a driving force behind the negotiation of a major trade agreement with the European Union and a keen supporter of the Trans Pacific Partnership.

Both those deals featured breaches in Canada’s agricultural quota system.

As at Queen’s Park, expect the post-election talk in Quebec’s national assembly to shift from disapproval of Trudeau’s concessions to a push for more compensation for the agricultural sector.

The measure of the success of Canada’s NAFTA negotiation was always going to boil down to the amount of potential economic damage it stood to minimize.

On that basis, the definitive political verdict on this weekend’s deal will, at least in part, be dependent on whether it leads to a larger truce on the Canada/U.S. trade front rather than on any specific concession made on the way to the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

Trudeau tried and failed to convince the Trump administration to drop its tariffs on steel and aluminum in exchange for Canada’s signature on a NAFTA-minus deal. Over time, that may turn out to be a more politically burdensome failure than any other concession.

If a peace of sorts does not break out over the next year, and the American-driven tariff hostilities continue unabated, the prime minister may face hard questions as to whether he made a fool’s bargain.

Until then though, the post-NAFTA debate is Trudeauís to lose.

The opposition parties in the House of Commons did not have any kind words for the new trade deal. But it is hard for leaders of the opposition to come hard at a government when so many of their own allies insist on providing the prime minister with political cover on his handling of the biggest file on his desk.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh may feel the deal negotiated over the weekend was not worth having, but that is not the sense of some of the country’s most influential trade unions.

Even before Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer had issued a single comment, a host of Conservative luminaries had come out to commend the agreement – starting with former interim leader Rona Ambrose and former prime minister Brian Mulroney. Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister and Alberta Conservative Leader Jason Kenney also had good words for the deal.

That being said, the federal Conservatives most feared a breakdown in the talks that could have led to a snap election, and a Trudeau call on all voters to stand up to U.S. President Donald Trump by rallying to the Liberal flag. Even from Scheer’s partisan perspective, a Trudeau deal in hand is better than no deal at all.

Twitter: @ChantalHbert
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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