Liberal voice missing from Freeland’s NAFTA advisory council

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With two high-profile Tories and a New Democrat on the 13-member group, ordinary Liberals will be miffed to have missed their opportunity to influence the council.


First published on Monday, August 7, 2017 in The Hill Times.


OTTAWA—Hopefully NAFTA’s ark won’t spring a leak.

The ship of state that will be guiding the country through the treacherous Trumpian waters of North American free trade is anything if not inclusive.

The 13-member advisory council announced last week by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland crosses party lines, regional divisions and market divides.

From Quebec farmers to the labour movement, from auto parts makers to aboriginal leaders, the NAFTA advisory council is broadly representative of the sectors that stand to be affected by the negotiations.

One missing voice is that of the Liberal Party. That statement may seem counterintuitive, given the leader of the country and the lead minister on the file are both Liberals. At the end of the day, the chief negotiator for the deal also reports to the prime minister so the government will definitely have the final say.

But in the delicate world of trade, the cabinet is there to knit together a broad national consensus while ordinary caucus members have a duty to identify specific constituency pitfalls.

It would be folly to think that former Conservative leader Rona Ambrose, former minister James Moore, or former New Democratic leadership candidate Brian Topp would act as party mouthpieces in these negotiations. All nominees are capable, independent thinkers in their own right and they are definitely not there to toe the party line.

But just as the Union of Agricultural Producers can be counted on to protect Quebec farmers’ interest, which do not always coincide with those of Ontario or Albertan farmers, neither Topp nor Ambrose will throw their respective former parties under the bus. They can also be expected to reflect their lifetime political perspective and to keep party friends in the loop.

The absence of a specific Liberal appointee would not have been missed if the advisory group had been limited to sectoral experts. But with two high-profile Tories and a New Democrat on the 13-member group, ordinary Liberals will be miffed to have missed their opportunity to influence the council.

International negotiations always involve domestic give and take. What is good for one part of the country does not always satisfy the other.

Initial free trade negotiations with the United States split the Liberal Party on geographic and demographic lines back in the election of 1988. Quebec members, basking in the glow of Quebec Inc., and sensing a potential international market for surplus electricity, were huge free traders.

Ontario Liberals, were largely opposed, believing that trade liberalization with the United States would be akin to a mouse sleeping with an elephant. Prime minister Pierre Trudeau first made the rodent comparison. But his reflection is obviously not shared by his son.

At a speech last month to the United States National Governors annual meeting, the prime minister distanced himself from his father’s famous elephant to mouse analogy.“Canada is a confident, creative, resourceful and resource-rich nation. We are a wealthy and influential country by world standards. But we are also a country of 35 million people living next door to one roughly 10 times our size and the world’s only superpower. My father, prime minister Pierre Trudeau, once compared this to sleeping next to an elephant. While you, my American friends, may be an elephant, Canada is no mouse. More like a moose—strong and peaceable but still massively outweighed.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s confidence is palpable. It instils pride and confidence in Canadians. But when the rubber hits the road, there will be huge negotiating splits, not just between Canada and the United States, but also within our own country.

The success of a made-in-Canada automotive sector was one of the results of the Auto Pact. That agreement, signed in 1965, guaranteed an integrated North American automobile production model, which greatly benefited manufacturing in southern Ontario. That integration was incorporated into the Canada-United States free trade agreement.

The oil economy, with the current exception of Newfoundland and Labrador, is largely a western economic engine.

What happens when clashes occur between those often warring factions of oil and auto. What about the competitive divisions between electricity and natural gas exporters? Will beef farmers from Alberta be prepared to sacrifice anything for Quebec dairy cousins?

The Canadian horse-trading, before we can present a united front, will be a big part of the work of the advisory panel. With no Liberal in the working group, the government obviously opted for political correctness. When the group is united, that works.

But if divisions erupt, how will Liberal backs be covered?


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