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‘Full court press’ by ministers, Trudeau ahead of NAFTA negotiations

An active cabinet is key to Canada’s new approach to U.S. relations, say former diplomats, current Parliamentarians.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe during a Q&A session with governors after his keynote address to the National Governors Association last week in Providence, R.I.Photograph courtesy of the PMO

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, July 19, 2017 12:00 AM

Canada’s “full court press” on U.S. relations is one coordinated from the top and taken up by MPs of all political stripes ahead of North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations expected to begin next month.

“Our strategy is quite simply to work at all levels. We are doing everything reasonably possible to expand our relationship with the United States at every level,” said Liberal MP Wayne Easter (Malpeque, P.E.I.), who is co-chair of the Canada-United States Inter-Parliamentary Group.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with Donald Trump during the G7 in Taormina, Italy, with Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, chief of staff to the prime minister Katie Telford, and the PM’s principal secretary Gerald Butts. PMO photograph by Adam Scotti May 2017

He, like other Canadian officials, pushed back against reports that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) is going around Donald Trump’s White House, pointing to the bilateral meeting with vice-president Mike Pence that coincided with Mr. Trudeau’s speech to governors on July 14 in Rhode Island.

“We continue to work constructively with the Trump administration and with the United States Congress to advance mutual interests as well as our strong and prosperous partnership,” said Adam Austen, spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland (University-Rosedale, Ont.), in an emailed statement.

  

Since Mr. Trump’s inauguration, there have been more than 175 visits and “300 individual contacts” with senior U.S. officials and Canadian cabinet members, parliamentary secretaries, premiers and provincial and territorial ministers and Parliamentarians, according to data sent Monday by Ms. Freeland’s office.

Some 28 cabinet ministers and five parliamentary secretaries represent 95 of those interactions. Meetings have been with Mr. Trump, Mr. Pence, 17 U.S. cabinet members, 200 members of Congress, and more than 45 governors and lieutenant governors, with numbers expected to grow in the coming weeks, the office added. Washington represented the vast majority of meetings with 78, followed by New York with 18, and several spots in California made up eight visits.

 

U.S. NAFTA objectives released

Monday’s late-day announcement of negotiating objectives for the NAFTA by the United States Trade Representative started the next phase of the NAFTA talks, said Paul Frazer, a former high-level diplomat at Canada’s embassy in Washington.

  

“At this stage we can guess about the public role many in the Congress will choose to have. All-in-all I am confident that the Canadian advocacy work in the U.S. will need to be maintained and adjusted where necessary,” said Mr. Frazer, president of PD Frazer Associates who advises clients on cross-border issues.

“Including deficit reduction as a U.S. goal signals that the president and his rhetoric will unavoidably be prominent; Ottawa and Mexico City will have to manage two tracks: the negotiation itself and the impact of the president’s actions/statements over the course of the negotiations.”

Export Action Global principal Adam Taylor highlighted several areas that “provide a key line of sight into the Trump administration’s thinking,” including: its fixation on trade deficits; sensitivities in agricultural trade; enshrining ‘Buy American’ policies; and raising Canada’s de minimis threshold, a rule that slaps customs and duties on imported goods worth more than $20.

“While there are very few surprises, it is now clear that one person’s tweak is another’s transformation,” he said by email.

  

Canada will be ready for negotiations to “modernize NAFTA, while defending Canada’s national interest and standing up for our values,” said Ms. Freeland in a statement Monday.

“Canada is the top customer of the United States. Canada buys more goods from the U.S. than China, Japan, and the United Kingdom combined.”

That messaging reflected Mr. Trudeau’s address at the National Governors Association meeting Friday—a first for a Canadian leader.

 

Personal relationships key to U.S. strategy

Mr. Trudeau’s reception in Providence is one sign that Canada’s message—as America’s “biggest and best” customer—is being noticed, and that the nation is less of an afterthought, said an official in Ms. Freeland’s office who said they could only speak on background.

On June 26, Consul General of Canada in Denver Stéphane Lessard tweeted about a ‘strong Canadian presence’ at the Western Governors’ Association meeting, including Canada’s Ambassador to the United States David MacNaughton, middle, and Liberal MP Andrew Leslie, far left, parliamentary secretary to the foreign minister on Canada-U.S. relations. Photograph courtesy of Twitter

Standing ovations at the summit, and the number of people who recognized Canada’s prime minister, speak to the work done to build ties recently, the source said.

The month before, Canada sent Andrew Leslie (Orléans, Ont.), parliamentary secretary to the foreign minister, to the Western Governors’ Association meeting.

The official didn’t confirm whether specific ministers were handed regional assignments, as reported by Vice News in May, but said some are a natural fit given their industries, like Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains’ (Mississauga-Malton, Ont.) connections to Michigan and its established auto and aerospace industries.  

Former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson said face-to-face interactions were the most effective form of free trade advocacy.

“It’s a contact sport,” said Mr. Robertson. “Personal relationships are everything.”

“There have been a whole series of efforts that [go] beyond traditionally how we approached the administration,” he said, adding there have been more minister-level meetings, such as those between Finance Minister Bill Morneau (Toronto Centre, Ont.) and his counterpart U.S. Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin in February and again in June, accompanied by Ms. Freeland.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, second from left, tweeted June 9 about joining a meeting with Finance Minister Bill Morneau, second from right, and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin while Mr. Mnuchin was in Ottawa to discuss trade ties. Also at the table are Canadian Ambassador to the U.S. David MacNaughton, far right, Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains, beside Mr. Morneau, and Transport Minister Marc Garneau, beside Mr. Bains. Photograph courtesy of Chrystia Freeland’s Twitter account

It was a smart strategy by Ms. Freeland and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan (Vancouver South, B.C.) to meet with U.S. officials before their respective policy speeches in February, he added. 

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale’s (Regina-Wascana, Sask.) effort to build a relationship with U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, the first of Trump’s cabinet to come north, was also crucial, he said.

“The homeland security side is really important, because that’s Trump’s base and so that relationship is very important,” he said, noting Mr. Kelly met with other key ministers.

An unusually large number of American officials are deciding they should make the trip north, Mr. Robertson noted. Recently Republican Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said he’d visit Canada this summer, leading a delegation of government and business representatives.

“I can’t think of a time when we’ve had that many in that short a period,” said Mr. Robertson.

Mr. Bains is one Canadian minister who has “undertaken significant outreach,” said spokesman Karl Sasseville—most notably in Michigan, Colorado, and California. And, while Mr. Trudeau was in Rhode Island, Mr. Bains met with U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, who has also met with Ms. Freeland to discuss issues like softwood and steel.

Mr. Bains has met with business leaders, governors, and other elected officials where he “[insisted] on the mutually-beneficial nature of the Canada-U.S. trade relationship,” said Mr. Sasseville.

The 10 other cabinet offices contacted deferred questions about their minister’s role to Global Affairs Canada’s Mr. Austen.

 

PMO briefing Parliamentarians

Ms. Freeland accompanied the prime minister to Providence, as did Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, whose government has fought against Buy American rhetoric, stressing the impact Canada has on various state economies, and warning that protectionist trade measures will harm more than help.

Global Affairs has helped to brief members of the Canada-U.S. Inter-Parliamentary Group attending bilateral meetings with the latest issues and messages from the communications branch of the Prime Minister’s Office, said Mr. Easter,

The PMO has also launched an unprecedented U.S.-relations ‘war room,’ led by Brian Clow, Ms. Freeland’s former chief of staff when she was international trade minister.

Conservative Senator Bob Runciman was among the group in Rhode Island last week, and said he’s also seen more attention paid to Canada-U.S. relations.

“It’s simply more a sense of urgency and a higher priority, given some of the things president Trump has said and veiled threats, if you will, in respect to tearing [NAFTA] up. I think there’s a real full court press,” he said. 

He said there’s a real “team feeling” to the meetings, and agreed it was a good idea for Mr. Trudeau to reach out to governors, noting several key cabinet secretaries came from those ranks.

swallen@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times