Modernized trade deal beneficial
On trade, ‘Look around corner of history’
Brian Mulroney was back in his element Friday — in front of an attentive audience, talking about his own achievements.
The former prime minister was a keynote speaker at the Canada 2020 conference in Ottawa, waxing lyrical on the theme of leadership — specifically, the distinction by American political scientist James MacGregor Burns between transactional and transformative leaders.
It was clear in which category Mulroney puts himself, and with some justification.
But his thoughts on the challenges facing the incumbent of the office Mulroney used to hold, as he renegotiates the deal Mulroney struck, were insightful.
Justin Trudeau has presented himself as an agent of change, and was elected on a vision of a greener, fairer country.
But the arrival of Donald Trump has exploded all the assumptions on which the Liberals came to power — his election is a disruptive force that could erode or empower Canada’s future competitive advantage. Change, when it comes, is likely to be of a different nature than anyone envisaged.
“The NAFTA renegotiation is absolutely crucial. It will be the challenge of this government, this parliament and this country. It’s one for the history books,” said Mulroney.
He said the free trade agreement with the U.S., and later NAFTA, were “the jolt out of complacency that our businesses needed … a maturing tonic of sorts for Canada. It cleared the air about our capacity to grow and prosper as a mature, distinctive country.”
The same opportunity exists today but it requires leadership that will, in Bill Clinton’s words, “look around the corner of history,” Mulroney said.
The ex-PM believes Trudeau has put together a capable team that “can do a top flight job for Canada.” He is encouraged that the interim leader of the Conservative Party, Rona Ambrose, de-politicized the NAFTA renegotiation and he urged her successor Andrew Scheer to do likewise.
Mulroney has been at the heart of Canada’s efforts to get to know people in the Trump Administration, using his extensive business and political contacts. He said Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, mentioned how impressed he was that the Conservative opposition had given the government its support in the renegotiation.
He said the strategy being adopted by the Liberal government is the right one.
He recalled meeting Trump in Palm Beach, Fla., the week after Trudeau visited Washington, and the President commented that the two men had gotten along and could do “marvellous things together.”
“As you know, whatever Donald Trump thinks in the White House, so does everyone else,” said Mulroney.
“We should keep our
WE SHOULD KEEP OUR HEADS DOWN, OUR MOUTHS SHUT ... DON’T TAKE THE BAIT.
heads down, our mouths shut and deal with this at the negotiating table. Don’t take the bait.
“It’s at the bargaining table where we can make our comments, caustic or otherwise.”
Resisting the urge to make short-term political hay at the expense of longerterm gains, he argued, does not imply subservience to the U.S.
“We can say no. We’re not some pushover little country that someone is going to ambush.
“We’re a $2-trillion economy. We have the strength to say no.”
But if Trudeau is going to lay the foundations for a $3-to-4-trillion economy, Mulroney said, he will need to show visionary leadership — the sort that, in the words of JFK’s speechwriter Ted Sorensen, “looks to the next generation, not the next election.”
“Political capital is acquired in order to be spent, not hoarded, in great causes for one’s country,” said Mulroney. “Leaders must govern not for easy headlines in 10 days but for a better Canada in 10 years.”
The type of challenges that will face Ottawa as it sits down with the Trump Administration are becoming evident during the public consultation phase in the U.S.
Comments already logged with the government there suggest business interests will lobby hard in favour of NAFTA, but want a more favourable deal on access to everything from digital media to potatoes, from e-commerce to almonds.
There remains the issue that Trump needs to raise $1 trillion to fund his personal and corporate tax cut plan, not to mention his pledge to voters to rip up what he’s called the “worst trade deal ever.”
All of these forces will put pressure on Ottawa to make choices that may not be universally popular.
Nobody knows better than Mulroney the challenges of taking the country somewhere many of its citizens do not want to go. He said his efforts to negotiate the original free trade agreement faced a “toxic cocktail” of anti-Americanism and narrow protectionist sentiment.
“But trade values tripled under NAFTA,” he said. “A modernized NAFTA will produce tremendous benefits for Canada.”