Harper and U.S. protectionism: a trip down memory lane

There is a real difference between the prime minister Harper was criticizing in 2002 and the one he has become in 2012

On May 28, 2002, the House of Commons debated a supply motion from the opposition Canadian Alliance: “That this House has lost confidence in the government for its failure to persuade the US government to end protectionist policies…”

Stephen Harper rose to speak. “Mr. Speaker, this will be my first speech as the leader of Her Majesty’s official opposition,” he said. He offered the customary thanks to his electors and the people of Alberta, before shifting gears. “I do not have a lot of time so I want to focus instead on the issue we chose for today’s supply debate, which perhaps is the most important issue that ever faces Canada: our relationship with the United States and in particular the increasingly troubled relationship we have on the trade front.”

The motion of the day referred to softwood and agriculture disputes. “To this I could easily add a third, energy,” Harper said, “the issue of pipeline movement of Alaskan gas reserves to the lower 48.” Or a forth, border restrictions.

“The question we must ask is why this has occurred. Why do we find ourselves victims of protectionist, isolationist and unilateralist sentiments from the United States? Why are Canadian interests being systematically ignored in Washington?”

“In fairness,” Harper was willing to acknowledge “the reality of the United States’ domestic political interests, this being an important election year in the United States.” But there was another reason: “the consistent and complete inability of the present Canadian government to make our case to American authorities, to congress and especially to the Bush administration.”

Why was there a secretariat for the Asia-Pacific in Foreign Affairs but none for the United States? Why all the trade missions to China? The reason, Harper said, was the Jean Chrétien had never been a free trader. “The Prime Minister went back to the future. He tried to revive the failed trade diversification of the 1970s, the Trudeau government’s so-called third option strategy, which did not work then and is not working now.”

What was missing, Harper said, was a proper working relationship between the Prime Minister and the President. He quoted former Canadian ambassador to Washington Allan Gotlieb: “Without the Prime Minister in play, the president will not be in play.”

Here, at last, it is possible to see real light showing between the Prime Minister Harper was criticizing in 2002 and the one he has become in 2012. The reason Chrétien wasn’t taken seriously in Bush’s Washington, he said, was because Chrétien was soft on a bunch of security questions.

“It should not be surprising that when Canadian ministers suddenly show up in Washington and demand something be done about softwood duties or agriculture many high level American decision makers do not pay much attention.”

So now what? “On this I will make a very controversial observation. When it comes to United States-Canada relations, the government has much to learn from former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

“Whatever Mr. Mulroney’s shortcomings… he understood a fundamental truth. He understood that mature and intelligent Canadian leaders must share the following perspective: the United States is our closest neighbour, our best ally, our biggest customer and our most consistent friend. Whatever else, we forget these things at our own peril.”

The new opposition leader wrapped up his argument, the first he wanted to make on the subject he had selected in his parliamentary debut as a national party leader: “We will be unable to get the U.S. administration on board unless whoever is in the White House and leading members of congress value and respect what our Prime Minister brings to the table.”

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