In the midst of breakneck North American trade talks, Canada’s chief NAFTA negotiator has kept up constant consultations with affected industries, making him the federal government’s most lobbied bureaucrat.
Since the year began, lobbyists have logged 120 communication reports with Steve Verheul, according to a list exported from the federal registry on Sept. 29. It also ranks him as the fourth-most lobbied person in government, behind three senior political staffers. His 120 reports only scratch the surface of discussions the poker-faced veteran negotiator conducts because the federal lobbying registry doesn’t log communications arranged by government. So when Mr. Verheul phones Unifor’s Jerry Dias to provide a quick update, or leads a daily technical briefing after a stretch of negotiations such as the third round that wrapped up in Ottawa last week, that wouldn’t be recorded anywhere. Neither would additional conversations with provinces, deputy ministers, key private sector officials, and at trade events.
Mr. Verheul’s spot as one of the most in-demand—and most available—Canadian officials comes as no surprise to trade insiders, especially given the number of industries the 23-year-old agreement touches and the importance of trade to expand business with two of Canada’s largest trading partners, Mexico and the United States. For comparison, by this time last year lobbyists had logged less than half that number—55—communications with the then-chief negotiator of the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, which took provisional effect Sept. 21, 2017.
“The people that we have go and meet with him come away feeling like they talk to the quarterback,” said Sarah Goldfeder, a former U.S. diplomat and principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group, noting she doesn’t know the details of those discussions as those getting updates sign nondisclosure agreements.
It’s a continuation of Mr. Verheul’s style throughout eight years at the helm of CETA talks, and many industry insiders point to experience with him during that fraught, often-stalled process that makes them confident Canada has the best person to represent its interests during the North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations.
“It’s really quite wise because he’s receiving input from all the stakeholders equally,” said Ms. Goldfeder. “In doing this, he’s kind of inoculating himself from the inevitable recriminations.”
From their conversations, Mr. Dias said it’s clear those at the table “understand this is high-stakes poker,” and that “they’re being inclusive and it’s very helpful”—especially Mr. Verheul.
“Steve is accessible. He doesn’t frame or profess to have all the answers… He listens to people to get expertise,” Mr. Dias said.
He’s not lobbied aggressively, said several observers, who noted Mr. Verheul already has a good understanding of what the issues are and what the various groups want.
The department has many different leads on the topics, with 28 negotiating tables in play on the various issues, but Mr. Verheul is involved in every single aspect of the negotiation, and works closely with Martin Moen, director-general for North America at Global Affairs Canada.
NAFTA lead makes people feel in the loop
Mr. Verheul’s openness is also part of a shift in approach the Liberals brought in, observers said, one that promised more access to policymakers.
With NAFTA text on the table, all must be tight-lipped about details of Canada’s strategy, but Mr. Verheul has proven open to questions and is praised for his ability to offer information that makes groups feel in the loop without giving anything away.
On the last day of the third round in Ottawa, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland (University-Rosedale, Ont.) announced the trio had all but closed the chapter on small and medium-sized enterprises. The fourth round begins on Oct. 11 in Washington, D.C.
While Global Affairs didn’t address questions specific to Mr. Verheul, spokesperson Austin Jean said by email the government is doing “broad consultations” to learn how a modernized NAFTA should be improved.
Since February, the government has met with more than 725 groups representing more than 25 economic sectors from across the country, he said, and since October has collected more than 34,000 submissions from Canadians offering ideas, views, and concerns.
In August, Mr. Dias only filed two lobbying communication reports, but said he talks with Canada’s chief negotiator nearly every day. That, the Unifor president said, shows Canada’s commitment to labour issues, which he believes will be a “red line” for the country with NAFTA.
“They know me. I’m not going to sit here quietly and be like a wallflower,” said Mr. Dias, whose union represents 300,000 members from Canada’s 20 largest industrial sectors that he says will in some way be affected by the issues touched on at the 28 tables.
Ongoing consultations an atypical approach to lobbying
During the third round, the Dairy Farmers of Canada met with Mr. Verheul once, said Yves Leduc, director of international policy. It makes sense to see Mr. Verheul on top among the most lobbied alongside senior finance, innovation, and infrastructure policymakers, he said, because NAFTA is the question of the hour.
But these meetings aren’t the traditional approach to lobbying.
“The purpose is not to advocate necessarily. The focus is to gain an understanding of where things are at,” said Mr. Leduc, noting Mr. Verheul already knows the ins and outs of Canada’s dairy system after two decades with the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and that he’s pleased with the level of access to Canada’s negotiating team.
“It’s all bottom-line persuasion,” Ms. Goldfeder said, adding Earnscliffe advises that clients listen during conversations with any official for government soft spots and then tailor their arguments to address government needs.
“Good policy requires accessibility,” said Eric Miller, president of Rideau Potomac Strategy Group and former Canadian Council of Chief Executives vice-president.
And while industry consultations are an expectation in any country’s trade talks, Mr. Miller said his sense is that Mr. Verheul genuinely believes in meaningful discourse because it leads to better outcomes, as opposed to merely being a procedural box to check off.
“What we’re seeing with the negotiating schedule is a sprint and he’s proving himself to be very effective in doing what needs to be done,” said Mr. Miller. “When you look at where we are after three rounds and the strategies we’ve gone in with, I think his approach is proving itself to be working very well.”
The Hill Times
Most lobbied Canadian officials, by communication reports
- Ian Foucher, finance minister’s policy adviser, 178
- David McFarlane, innovation minister’s policy director, 171
- Mathieu Bélanger, infrastructure minister’s policy director, 133
- Steve Verheul, chief NAFTA negotiator, 120
- Simon Beauchemin, Prime Minister’s Office policy adviser on Canada-U.S. relations, 117
Source: federal lobbying commissioner records