Freeland may have just bitten off more than she can chew

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And her success or failure could determine the fate of this minority government.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on November 25, 2019.

OTTAWA—Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland may have just bitten off more than she can chew.

And her success or failure could determine the fate of this minority government.

The diminutive outgoing foreign minister has broad shoulders and proved that she could do the heavy lifting on tricky files like negotiating a free trade agreement with recalcitrant American President Donald Trump.

That foreign affairs success has paved the way for her accession to the role of federal fixer for interprovincial relationships. The theory is that if her persuasive skills were able to bring the Americans on board, the leap to interprovincial relations is not too great.

Kudos being sent Freeland’s way last week avoided the thorny question of Canada’s deteriorating relationship with China under her watch.

And the dynamics of managing foreign and domestic policy challenges are quite different. In Foreign Affairs, Freeland was supported by a cadre of trade experts, who paved the way to a successful agreement. And on the international stage, every provincial government joins the federal government in lobbying together for Canadian success.

On the provincial scene, that level of cooperation is non-existent. Regional and internecine warfare are brutal, and, unlike international negotiations, disagreements usually occur in public.

Disparate economic demands in varying parts of the country often set the stage for a win-lose outcome. When Canada signs an international trade agreement, everyone celebrates. But when the federal government invests in economic development in one part of our country, it is often perceived to be at the expense of another.

Likewise, the role of deputy prime minister can come with its own set of problems. When I was named Canada’s first female deputy prime minister back in 1993, I also chaired one of the two operational committees of cabinet and sat on the other one.

I had 31 hours of scheduled meetings in Ottawa every week before attending a single meeting with stakeholders in the environmental portfolio that I carried concurrently.

And working in the environment made me a target of oil patch abuse. Like Catherine McKenna, I was subject to threats and insults simply for doing my job. Thankfully, I did not have to face the cyber bullies who targeted McKenna.

Multiple media commentators claimed Prime Minister Trudeau had no choice but to remove McKenna, who had become a lightning rod for provincial premiers fighting climate change.

The bilateral cabinet move of McKenna, and the decision not to replace her with Quebec environmental superstar Steven Guilbeault are attempts to keep Alberta and Saskatchewan onside in an effort of national reconciliation.

But Alberta and Saskatchewan have made it clear that their political objective is to overturn Canada’s commitment to put a price on pollution. The possibility that Alberta and Saskatchewan will come on board with a national move to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions is slim to none. Meanwhile, Liberals run the risk of alienating other opposition parties and provincial governments by adhering to Prairie oil-producer demands. Meanwhile, Freeland is supposed to deliver this peace, in concert with colleague and Prairie interlocutor Jim Carr, and Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan. But the expectations facing Freeland and her available levers of pressures may not be as robust as those available in foreign negotiations.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who threatened the separation movement in his province would escalate if Trudeau was re-elected, is not about to exercise the same level of diplomacy as an American negotiator.

Kenney’s long-term goal will likely be to replace Andrew Scheer as the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, so he has little reason to want to cooperate with the Liberals. His objective is to defeat them. He also has such deep and strong support in the province that bullying or decrying Ottawa will likely burnish his political reputation at home.

Just last week, he fired the agency investigating his own party for political malfeasance and yet most Albertans appear unmoved by opposition calls to reverse that decision. Former premier Rachel Notley has been kicked out of the legislature and won’t be let back in until she apologizes. Kenney thinks he can weather the political fallout, because of his personal popularity and the predominance of his party in the province. ­He will be playing hardball politics.

By making Freeland the new bogey-woman, Kenney would be helping to solidify his narrative of Alberta as victim.

The deputy prime minister faces a bigger challenge in this domestic assignment than anything Donald Trump could deliver. Mission accomplished on the foreign scene would be a lot simpler.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.