Stephen Harper’s no-good advice on NAFTA

Stephen Maher: The former PM’s leaked memo criticizing Liberal strategy is not only off-target, it risks damaging his reputation

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, attends a news conference where he conceded victory on election day in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, on Monday, Oct. 19, 2015. Justin Trudeau's Liberal Party has swept into office with a surprise majority, ousting Prime Minister Stephen Harper and capping the biggest comeback election victory in Canadian history. (Ben Nelms/Bloomerg/Getty Images)

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, attends a news conference where he conceded victory on election day in Calgary on Monday, Oct. 19, 2015. (Ben Nelms/Bloomerg/Getty Images)

Stephen Harper should write a book and take a break from writing memos.

The former prime minister, an astute political analyst who wrote one book in his spare time, could fill in some blank pages in our history books and settle scores with his many foes. And it would give him something useful to do instead of clumsily inserting himself into our political debates as he did this weekend.

When voters decided he should spend more time with his family and less time running the country, Harper set up a consulting firm, Harper & Associates, and followed in the footsteps of Jean Chretien, who had a profitable business going, slapping backs and making deals in unsavory corners of the world.

But Harper was never a backslapper, and although he scores speaking gigs and offers advice to Republicans, it’s not clear that he is making it rain as a consultant.

People who make their livings working the trade file see the memo as a clumsy sales pitch gone sideways, not a considered public critique. The memo, headlined “Napping on NAFTA”, found its way into the hands of the Canadian Press’s crackerjack Washington correspondent, Alex Panetta, on the weekend.

READ MORE: Harper to Trudeau: Canada is ‘napping on NAFTA’

Harper’s people swear it was a leak, and I believe them, although it goes against brand for Harper, who we thought was good at keeping secrets.

This is one of the ways that international consultants shill for business, sending memos with inside dope to clients and people who they would like to have as clients. The tone—warning of a doomsday scenario—is typical of the genre. Consultants need to convince clients that they have insights that the clients need.

I hope Harper’s other memos are more on target than this one.

He warns that Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are doing a lousy job of managing NAFTA negotiations with the Americans.  “I fear that the NAFTA re-negotiation is going very badly,” Harper writes. “I also believe that President Trump’s threat to terminate NAFTA is not a bluff … I believe this threat is real. Therefore, Canada’s government needs to get its head around this reality: it does not matter whether current American proposals are worse than what we have now. What matters in evaluating them is whether it is worth having a trade agreement with the Americans or not.”

Harper writes that Canada is too quick to reject American proposals, that we shouldn’t be sticking with Mexico, that the Liberals shouldn’t be asking the Americans to approve progressive policies on climate, Indigenous rights and labour standards. Harper also attacked the government for the softwood lumber issue and Bombardier subsidies.

He raises a couple of points that are debatable—some of our proposals do seem designed for domestic consumption, for example—but his central point would amount to job-killing surrender, and the tone of the memo is so unstatesmanlike that it’s no wonder it was leaked.

The Liberals reacted quickly, painting Harper as Trump’s stooge, suggesting he is weakening Canada’s negotiating position. The Conservatives offered a half-hearted defence, saying that Harper has a point.

This may be the end of the uneasy truce on trade that has prevailed between the Conservatives and Liberals since Trump’s election, in which case Harper, not Andrew Scheer, is setting the policy for the party. If so, the party had better try to do better than Harper’s critique.

Whatever you can say about the Liberals, about their Christmas vacations, numbered companies and undisclosed French villas, you can’t say that they are napping on NAFTA.

The Liberals have been travelling around the United States like never before, boring American lawmakers and business groups with NAFTA pitches at every opportunity. Trudeau even twists arms in Trump’s own family.

The Liberals have two former Harper ministers—Rona Ambrose and James Moore—on their NAFTA advisory panel, and the negotiator, Steve Verheul, is the same guy who handled Harper’s trade deal with Europe.

Harper likely has a point about the trade troubles caused by the ugly but politically expedient Bombardier bailout, but the rest of his critique seems coloured by his longstanding hatred of Liberals.

Trump has made promises to voters in manufacturing states that he cannot keep, convincing them that he can give them back their lost jobs by getting tough with America’s trading partners. But technological change, not trade, is responsible for most of those job losses, and erecting trade walls will hurt, not help, the former factory workers in the rust belt.

That’s not our problem. That’s Trump’s problem.

There are powerful forces at work, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Congress and the courts, that stand between Trump and his schemes to wreck the economy of three countries by withdrawing from NAFTA. We need to align ourselves with those forces, and the Mexicans, hang tough and wait for Trump to smarten up or be driven from office.

It’s hard to believe Harper believes otherwise.

In the most recent NAFTA talks, the Americans proposed what Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland called a “series of unconventional proposals,” including an automotive rule-of-origin system that would blow up the supply chains that automakers use in all three countries. There’s no way Canada can agree to that, and the Americans seem to know that.

“We’re asking two countries to give up some privileges that they have enjoyed for 22 years, and we’re not in a position to offer anything in return,” U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in an interview last week.

The same day, Harper suggested we’re being too tough. He should take care that he doesn’t damage his reputation with this kind of thing.

WATCH: Trudeau avoids direct response to Harper’s NAFTA critique


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