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Politics Insider Why Brian Mulroney is essential to Canada's NAFTA talks

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney arrives with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to receive the insignia of Commander of the National Order of the Legion of Honour from the Embassy of France on Dec. 6 in Ottawa.

Justin Tang/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Brian Mulroney was on the outs in Ottawa when Conservative PM Stephen Harper was in power, and now Liberals are inviting him back to the cabinet room. But it's Mr. Mulroney who will do Justin Trudeau a favour when he speaks Thursday to a committee of the Liberal cabinet on Canada-U.S. relations.

That's not only because Mr. Mulroney probably has rare insights into the thinking of U.S. President Donald Trump and his Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, two of his friends from the wealthy community of Palm Beach, Fla., who happen to be the most important figures in the drive to renegotiate NAFTA.

Read also: Trump's 'leaked' NAFTA letter is a gift to Canada

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It's also because the image of Mr. Mulroney walking into the cabinet room, after all these years, instantly symbolizes how Mr. Trudeau's Liberals want this moment in U.S. trade relations to be seen: as a time for all to come to the aid of the country, when partisan politics are put aside, and when the government is summoning all talents to deal with an overriding national issue.

It is a threat to Canada's biggest trading relationship, after all, and a danger to the economy. And for Mr. Trudeau, it's better to be seen as the leader of a common national effort, not a Liberal PM seeking to get through it with partisan points. It's a time when being a statesman is the best politics, anyway.

To their credit, the Liberals made the all-hands-on-deck approach an early choice.

They scurried to learn all about Trumpworld and discovered Mr. Mulroney's relationships. Mr. Mulroney, who can count free trade as a key part of his legacy, was obviously interested in playing a role again. The former Tory prime minister's involvement in advising the Liberal government, and opening doors in Washington, has now been known for months.

But it wasn't only Mr. Mulroney; his former chief of staff and ambassador to the United States, Derek Burney, was also consulted. As was former foreign affairs minister John Baird, a Harper Conservative, who took calls from current minister Chrystia Freeland.

"These people have not been afraid to reach out and ask for advice in developing a strategy. That's smart," Mr. Baird said. Canadians, he said, want the government to succeed in dealing with Mr. Trump.

It's also tactically smart to send signals that the issue is bigger than partisanship when the government's strategy requires a mustering of forces. The Trudeau government is gearing up a broad lobbying campaign in the United States to press the importance of Canadian trade to local jobs in American states. They could use campaigners from outside Ottawa, too.

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And there's no doubt Mr. Mulroney can have a particular value. The government credits him as a relationship builder. As a friend of Mr. Trump, and particularly of Mr. Ross, he can be an interpreter.

Senior figures in Mr. Trudeau's government have spent much of the past two months trying to tease specific meaning out of Mr. Trump's statements about NAFTA. Mr. Ross, in particular, is gradually fleshing them out in public, and Mr. Mulroney might offer insight about U.S. intentions.

That's important to Canadian NAFTA strategy. Mr. Trump's team, for example, expressed a desire to rework trade arrangements when the United States has a trade deficit with a country. But Canadian officials noted that the U.S. trade deficit with Canada largely revolves around oil exports, the kind that would be expanded by the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline; Mr. Ross has since distinguished between a trade deficit created by unfair practices, and one caused by the fact that the U.S. does not produce enough oil to meet its needs.

Mr. Mulroney might have a few hints about what Mr. Trump really wants. The Trump administration wants to talk about rules of origin – rules that indicate how much of a Canadian car, for example, can come from outside North America. But it might be that what the Trump administration really wants are rules to reduce the amount of Chinese steel in North American cars. Knowing the real target might help Canada devise tactics to avoid taking a hit.

And then Mr. Mulroney not only knows key players, as PM he was known for forging relationships in Washington. "He's the master," Mr. Baird said.

Still, the advice itself isn't the only help he's giving Mr. Trudeau. By walking into a Liberal cabinet committee, he sends a message that this is bigger than partisan politics – and that Mr. Trudeau is treating it that way.

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U.S. President Donald Trump expressed fulsome praise for Canada and Justin Trudeau Saturday night after Brian Mulroney got a standing ovation for singing When Irish Eyes are Smiling during a cancer benefit at the U.S. President’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla.
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