Tom Mulcair's Washington gambit

The NDP leader talks up Canada-U.S. co-operation

Fred Chartrand/CP

Tom Mulcair’s spent the past few weeks convincing Canadians that the NDP is a friend, not foe to the oil patch—a pitch that fell flat in some corners. Now, Mulcair is hoping to sell his message on U.S.-Canada economic cooperation to an American audience.

This morning, the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., heard what Mulcair had to say about the importance of the trading relationship Canada enjoys with the United States, the opportunities and pitfalls of foreign investment in Alberta’s oil sands, the necessity of environmental sustainability, the dangers of an unelected Senate, the pity of voter disengagement in Canada, the many ills of Harper’s Conservatives, and the many virtues of Mulcair’s NDP. To say the least, the speech was not boring.

“Good morning, eh?” Mulcair opened, before galloping through prepared remarks that topped 2,800 words. He mostly stuck to his script early on, hardly taking a breath between sentences. “It’s an honour to be here with you today to discuss how our two countries can work together to build a balanced, sustainable North American economy in the 21st century.”

The NDP leader signed off on the same wavelength. “In the last century, our two countries served as a model of partnership and progress for a waiting world. We built that partnership on the strength of these values. In the 21st century, as we prepare ourselves for an increasingly complex set of challenges, let’s re-commit to those same values, and to those who share them. When we look out onto a horizon filled with uncertainty, it is those most familiar and most ardent principles that will give us strength. And that will allow us to overcome even the most daunting hurdles. Together, we always have.”

What was sandwiched in between was more interesting.

He praised the economic partnership that crosses the 49th parallel. “We both enjoy modern, dynamic economies. We both respect fundamental labour, environmental and human rights. These shared values are the strength upon which our economic relationship has been built,” said Mulcair. “When it comes to our economic partnership, those shared principles have served pragmatic ends.”

Does that mean the cornerstone of that partnership, the North American Free Trade Agreement, was pragmatic? Mulcair shed some light on that during the question period that followed, when he specifically noted that free trade in professional services has been “quite productive” on both sides of the border. When he was running for the NDP leadership, Mulcair previously argued in favour of the same NAFTA provisions he highlighted this morning at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Later, while commenting on the potential Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement between Canada and Europe, Mulcair talked about erasing trade barriers that serve no purpose. He pointed to the gradual evolution of the European Coal and Steel Community into, eventually, the European Union as the preeminent example of nations working together for common economic ends. “If there’s no need for a barrier, don’t have it,” he said.

If ever there was any doubt that a Canadian political leader could head to D.C. and slam his country’s prime minister, Mulcair blew that doubt out of the water. He interrupted his prepared remarks only to insert anecdotes explaining exactly where he thinks Harper’s team has gone wrong. He saved his strongest ad libs for the government’s changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act. And he didn’t stop there. There was much more.

What else did Mulcair say?

He repeated his common refrain about exploiting the riches that lie beneath: “New Democrats believe that Canada’s natural resources are a tremendous blessing. They can be a source of wealth and prosperity for our country for generations to come.”

He bashed Canada’s Senate, and admonished its American counterpart: “In an unprecedented move for an initiative of such importance, this bill was killed in Canada’s unelected Senate, much in the same way that ground-breaking climate change legislation was killed in your Senate a few years ago. Though the end result may be the same, at least you can take solace in the fact that your Senate is elected.”

He praised Canada’s relationship with the U.S.: “Canada and the United States have enjoyed a close economic relationship that—while not always perfect—has overwhelmingly served the interests of both sides.”

He seemed to credit the NDP with creating Canada’s world renowned financial system: “What is far less understood is that the strength of Canada’s financial system is built as much on our values as it is on our expertise. Canada was not immune to the siren call of financial deregulation that swept across the rest of the developed world just over a decade ago. In the 1990’s, Canada’s Liberal and Conservative parties alike joined the chorus. It was only New Democrats who held the anchor tight against the calls for radical deregulation. Today, Canadians are grateful that we did.”

He seemed to impart wisdom on American elected officials: “The United States faces a serious long-term budget challenge. That cannot be denied. But the arbitrary austerity of sequestration is not a solution to that challenge or to any other. Neither are the gridlock and brinksmanship that have gripped your Capitol. At its heart, the pursuit of public life must be the pursuit of the public interest and of good government.”

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