It’s NAFTA crunch-time, so why are we talking about Stephen Harper?

Andrew MacDougall: The only reason we know about Harper’s trip to D.C. is likely because Justin Trudeau’s office wants to change the channel

It doesn’t take much of a clue to suss out that Justin Trudeau’s efforts to renegotiate NAFTA aren’t going very well.

Exhibit A: President Donald Trump throwing his toys out of the pram and ripping up the G-7 communiqué after Trudeau gently repeated his earlier criticisms of the president’s specious tariffs on steel and aluminum. Trump has since whipped “Justin” repeatedly for Canada’s tariffs and trade policy.

Exhibit B: Canada’s lead NAFTA negotiator—the esteemed Steve Verheul—overheard saying there have been no negotiations for three weeks, and that none are planned. While it’s true the pedal was taken off the metal after negotiators missed a crucial May congressional deadline, the silence doesn’t augur well for the future of continental free trade.

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Enter Stephen Harper. A breathless report on CTV News this week alleged the former prime minister was heading to Washington in early July to hold “secret” meetings with White House officials, a move that “completely blindsided” Justin Trudeau’s office at a time of “unprecedented tension in the Canada-U.S. relationship.”

And what, exactly, was Harper going to be doing in Washington? The report—which otherwise speculated that Harper was: a) plotting a political comeback; b) drumming up business; and c) flogging his upcoming book—didn’t offer much. Only that anonymous U.S. officials had emailed to say they were “expecting” Harper to meet with John Bolton, who serves as Donald Trump’s national security advisor.

Would that be the same John Bolton who, along with Harper, is a founding member of the Friends of Israel? Yep, that’s him. The man who, like Harper, is an Iran hawk? Correct. The same John Bolton who has absolutely nothing to do with U.S. trade policy? Indeed. So what does this have to do with NAFTA again? A fair question.

Subsequent reporting now indicates that Harper is also hoping to meet with Larry Kudlow who, as the head of the president’s National Economic Council, does have an economic role in the Trump administration, albeit one that isn’t specific to trade. For his part, Harper hinted that any meetings in Washington, should they occur, would be held under the auspices of the International Democrat Union, a “working association of over 80 Conservative, Christian Democrat and like-minded parties” Harper chairs that promotes free markets, trade and democracy.

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That all sounds safe and good, as far as it goes, but what might Harper say to Kudlow (who’s no fan of Trudeau’s) on NAFTA specifically, should it come up?

This is where most of the worry lies in the fevered coverage of Harper’s trip. Will Harper criticize Trudeau over his approach to NAFTA, as he did in a note to his firm’s clients last fall? Or will he bravely make the case for Canada-U.S. trade, as he did on Fox News in the immediate aftermath of the G-7 set-to between Trump and Trudeau?

Given that Harper’s robust defence of Canada is only three weeks distant, and that the former prime minister is a long-standing advocate for free trade—and, above all, isn’t stupid—the safe bet is that Harper isn’t out to rock boats. So why are so many worried about his possible interventions? Why are we even talking about Stephen Harper?

Enter Justin Trudeau. Or at least, his office. The only reason we know about Stephen Harper’s adventures is because Trudeau’s office was in possession of emails that were quickly “obtained by” (that’s Ottawa-talk for “given to”) CTV News. In case there was any doubt over the story’s provenance, the Trudeau PMO then spent the next day briefing out the particulars of how it came to know about the visit (which involved a White House gaffe).

But why would Justin Trudeau, at this delicate time in the Canada-U.S. relationship, with NAFTA in the balance, want to risk a public row with Harper, a man who no longer has the authority to speak on behalf of Canada? If there is genuine concern with Harper and his schedule, why not just ring Harper up in private to see what’s on his agenda?

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Given the latter option wasn’t pursued, one presumes the whole point of the exercise is to drag Harper into the fray. Indeed, the Liberals use Harper as a punching bag all the time. Here, Harper’s office has unwittingly played along by not being more definitive about his travels. Even if no meetings were firmed up, a clearer and more timely statement of his intent could have eased interest.

Because the interest in Harper from Canada’s fourth estate remains sky-high, even three years on from his defeat. Given the run of over-caffeinated coverage about Harper’s trip, a lot of reporters in Ottawa are clearly (still) willing to believe the worst about him (as he was of them), including that he might be willing to sandbag Trudeau on NAFTA, a move that would, by the way, surely hurt Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives in the eyes of many Canadians.

That, of course, would be quite the result for Trudeau. But it’s hardly guaranteed by Harper simply going to Washington. Or even likely, given Harper’s political astuteness. Better, then, to malign his motives and complain about being “blindsided” ahead of time and then let the media create a fuss.

One thing is certain: Trudeau’s Liberals would like the media’s focus elsewhere. The very day the story of Harper’s travels broke, five separate news outlets, including Maclean’s, published pieces about the Prime Minister’s 2000 groping incident, a serious matter on which Trudeau has yet to comment.

A wave of groping stories is certainly something that would have sent me—were I still a director of communications to a prime minister—scrambling for a channel changer.

Enter Harper, the go-to Liberal—and media—bogeyman, to get us talking about something else.

And then, with the job done, and the grope receding (only one further piece over two days), out comes designated grown-up Chrystia Freeland to do the required clean up, wishing Harper well in his endeavours.

All in all, a tidy piece of work.

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