Provinces should butt out

Pro­vin­cial in­volve­ment in Canada-U.S. re­la­tions more likely to cause dam­age with Washington

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - BY PETER MCKENNA Peter McKenna is pro­fes­sor and chair of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at the Univer­sity of Prince Ed­ward Is­land.

It is true that Canada needs to be fir­ing on all diplo­matic cylin­ders when it comes to ne­go­ti­at­ing with the em­bat­tled Don­ald Trump White House. There is no dis­put­ing the fact that Ot­tawa will need a con­certed and so­phis­ti­cated ef­fort from Cana­dian diplo­mats in Washington, of­fi­cials in Global Af­fairs Canada, se­nior strate­gists in the PMO and busi­ness­peo­ple with cor­po­rate con­tacts in the United States.

But the Trudeau gov­ern­ment should be very care­ful about en­list­ing the in­volve­ment of pro­vin­cial pre­miers in this en­deav­our. It could eas­ily end up back­fir­ing in a big way - and to Canada’s detri­ment.

Take the re­cent threat of for­mer Bri­tish Columbia Premier Christy Clark to im­pose a ban on the ship­ment of U.S. ther­mal coal through B.C. ports (or even slap an in­or­di­nately high tar­iff on ship­ments of U.S. coal). That loose talk man­aged to raise the hack­les of U.S. Com­merce Sec­re­tary Wil­bur Ross.

But as then-Premier Clark saw it: “With our ban on mov­ing ther­mal coal, we have got the Amer­i­cans’ at­ten­tion. We aren’t go­ing to be weak­lings.” Maybe so. But we’re play­ing a very risky diplo­matic game here.

The truth is that shin­ing a spot­light on the work­ings of the bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship un­der­mines one of Canada’s ad­van­tages vis-á-vis the United States. We re­ally don’t want to get the at­ten­tion of U.S. of­fi­cials. Be­ing on the Amer­i­can radar is one of those things that has proven in the past to work against Cana­dian in­ter­ests.

Some­times the less the Amer­i­cans know and fo­cus on Canada, the bet­ter off Cana­di­ans will be. The old adage of ig­no­rance is bliss cer­tainly rings true in the case of Cana­dian-Amer­i­can re­la­tions.

In ad­di­tion, rais­ing the ire of of­fi­cial­dom in Washington does not serve Cana­dian in­ter­ests well. The last thing that the Trudeau gov­ern­ment needs is to get into a shout­ing match with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

While pro­vin­cial pre­miers look to bol­ster their po­lit­i­cal or elec­toral stand­ing in their re­spec­tive provinces, they lose sight of Canada’s over­all na­tional or coun­try-wide in­ter­ests. That is where Ot­tawa has to step in and in­struct pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments to stand down and keep their pow­der dry.

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment knows only too well that in any set of ne­go­ti­a­tions with the U.S., Canada would lose badly in a war of trade re­tal­i­a­tion and hy­per­bolic rhetoric. It is coun­ter­pro­duc­tive for Canada to get bogged down in bar­gain­ing ses­sions based on raw power ca­pa­bil­i­ties or the abil­ity to in­flict pun­ish­ment. Ot­tawa des­per­ately wants to keep the fo­cus on merit and ev­i­dence­based ar­gu­ments in­volv­ing the spe­cific case at hand (whether that be NAFTA or soft­wood lum­ber).

Fur­ther­more, by hav­ing Cana­dian pre­miers in­sert them­selves into U.S. do­mes­tic pol­i­tics by threat­en­ing puni­tive mea­sures - and here I in­clude On­tario premier Kath­leen Wynne’s mus­ings about re­tal­ia­tory ac­tions should var­i­ous U.S. states adopt Buy Amer­ica leg­is­la­tion - it can quickly poi­son the bi­lat­eral diplo­matic well.

More im­por­tant, it leaves open the pos­si­bil­ity that the U.S. gov­ern­ment could sim­i­larly in­ter­cede in Cana­dian do­mes­tic pol­i­tics - in­clud­ing closely-con­tested pro­vin­cial elec­tion cam­paigns.

The fed­eral Lib­er­als should also be con­cerned about var­i­ous pro­vin­cial soft­wood lum­ber en­voys pub­licly dis­cussing the is­sue and U.S. in­ten­tions. Ot­tawa wants to make sure that there are no con­flict­ing mes­sages on this im­por­tant bi­lat­eral file. Prime Min­is­ter Trudeau, then, should make it clear to the provinces in no un­cer­tain terms that Ot­tawa speaks with only one voice on soft­wood lum­ber.

The other po­ten­tial prob­lem ma­te­ri­al­izes when the provinces are not all singing from the same hymn sheet. Those dif­fer­ences can ac­tu­ally serve to strengthen the ne­go­ti­at­ing hand of Washington at Canada’s ex­pense.

It also opens up the pos­si­bil­ity for U.S. of­fi­cials to play one prov­ince off against the other and thus sub­stan­tially com­pli­cate the ne­go­ti­a­tions for Canada - to say noth­ing of mak­ing life in­cred­i­bly more dif­fi­cult po­lit­i­cally for the Trudeau gov­ern­ment if it has to even­tu­ally choose sides.

I know that Prime Min­is­ter Trudeau thinks that the provinces can be a help­ful com­po­nent of Canada’s Trump strat­egy. But their in­volve­ment is more likely to ac­tu­ally dam­age re­la­tions with Washington, to un­der­mine our ne­go­ti­a­tion po­si­tion and to jeop­ar­dize our na­tional in­ter­ests.

(FILE PHOTO)

For­mer Bri­tish Columbia Premier Christy Clark.

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