Fen Osler is the author of Master of Persuasion: Brian Mulroney’s Global Legacy
It was a first. At no time in Canada’s history has a former prime minister – let alone a prime minister from an opposing party – been asked to appear before cabinet. Yet, on April 6, 2017, Brian Mulroney, Canada’s 18th prime minister, returned to the cabinet room along with his former chief of staff, Derek Burney, to brief a special cabinet committee on Canada-U.S. relations.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his officials were keen to plumb Mr. Mulroney’s direct experience with the negotiation of the North American free-trade agreement and get his advice on how to deal with the United States’ new President, Donald Trump, who no one, least of all Mr. Trudeau himself, expected to win.
There was a palpable sense of urgency. The Prime Minister and his officials were clearly worried. Mr. Trump had threatened during his election campaign to tear up NAFTA, a cornerstone of Canadian prosperity since the agreement was signed by president George H.W. Bush, Mexican president Carlos Salinas and Mr. Mulroney in 1992, going into effect on Jan. 1, 1994, after being ratified. Now that he was President, Mr. Trump was going to renegotiate it, but clearly on his own terms. Canada and Mexico were put on the defensive. Never a good place to be, especially in a political environment that is as rancorous as it is unsettling.
When Mr. Mulroney entered the cabinet room, he reportedly looked around, paused and then asked his startled interlocutors why his portrait had been removed from the wall. As someone stumbled for answer, Mr. Mulroney laughed that it had never hung there and probably never would. There were chuckles all around. It was vintage Mulroney.
The conversation quickly turned serious. Mr. Mulroney stressed that a close personal relationship between the Canadian prime minister and the U.S. president, such as the one he had with presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, is essential to “access” in Washington, as is the development of close relations with congressional leaders. With access, you get influence. Without it, you are “one of two hundred” in the queue. He remarked that Mr. Trudeau and the cabinet were off to a good start and had set the right tone with the new Trump administration. Patience and perseverance were now needed to build and sustain a constructive dialogue on trade.
Mr. Mulroney also said that it would be necessary for Canada to learn to say no in the face of potentially disruptive American demands. He remarked that Canada had suspended negotiations in 1987 when its primary objective to secure a dispute settlement mechanism in the agreement was not being addressed. “No deal is better than a bad deal,” Mr. Mulroney cautioned.
Mr. Mulroney also underlined the importance of building domestic coalitions in the United States that would help Canada press its case on U.S. leadership. He urged the entire cabinet to take its message about the benefits of NAFTA in job creation and economic growth from trade links with Canada deep into the American heartland. “Remember, too,” he added, “the key role of Congress in approving any trade deal. He also referred to his own experience in negotiating agreements with the Americans on acid rain and the Arctic to show how we did it and why we should never give up, keeping our eye on the ball, our heads down, arguing with facts, not emotions, and not taking the bait (especially that delivered in presidential tweets).
The other piece of advice, which Mr. Mulroney did not deliver to the Prime Minister but is highly pertinent, is that if a new deal on NAFTA is reached, Mr. Trudeau will have to “own” it. There is little doubt that at the end of the day, Canada may be forced to make concessions, be they over supply management, procurement, intellectual property or investor-state relations, for example, while getting something beneficial in return. The Prime Minister will have to aggressively promote the deal with Canadians – as Mr. Mulroney did with the original Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement – no matter how contentious key provisions in the agreement are domestically.
That Mr. Trudeau and his senior officials have reached out to Mr. Mulroney on how to manage Canada-U.S. relations and the renegotiation of NAFTA speaks volumes about how both see a higher national purpose at stake now. The Liberals have also been disciplined and professional to date, true to Mr. Mulroney’s legacy proving, as he once said, that “there is no Liberal or Conservative way to negotiate with the U.S. There is only a Canadian way.”
It also a moment of supreme political irony. Little love was lost between former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, Justin’s father, and Mr. Mulroney. The elder Trudeau was Mr. Mulroney’s nemesis on Meech Lake and did everything he could to undermine Mr. Mulroney’s efforts to forge a new constitutional accord for Canada that would satisfy Quebec’s interests. The two titans of Canadian politics locked horns more than once. Time clearly has healed those wounds but not without effort and good will. It is widely reported that Mr. Mulroney and the younger Trudeau reached out to each other early on, which speaks well of both.
The other irony is that in the federal election of 2015 the Conservative-led government of Stephen Harper was accused by Mr. Trudeau of bungling the management of Canada’s relations with the United States. Mr. Trudeau promised a closer, more collaborative relationship, premised on the expectation that Hillary Clinton would win, and which proved to be horribly wrong. In fact, so sure was the Trudeau government that Ms. Clinton would win that it invited vice-president Joe Biden to Ottawa for a postelection visit, with all the bells and whistles including a formal dinner at Rideau Hall, to mark what it assumed would be a relatively seamless transition from one Democratic administration to another.
If you look back, the federal election of 1988 – which was fought over the free-trade agreement with the United States – was bitterly contested. The Liberals, led by John Turner, stridently opposed the agreement on the grounds that Canada would be selling out to the Americans and lose its national identity in the process. Many Canadians, including key members of Toronto’s literary establishment – Margaret Atwood, Pierre Berton, Rick Salutin – felt the same way.
Testifying before a Parliamentary committee in 1987, Ms. Atwood infamously remarked, “Our national animal is the beaver … noted for its industry and its co-operative spirit. In medieval bestiaries it is also noted for its habit, when frightened, of biting off its testicles and offering them to its pursuer. I hope we are not succumbing to some form of that impulse.”
Fortunately, the beaver didn’t succumb to its worst defensive instincts. It and its progeny have only become more prosperous and fatter with age under NAFTA. After nearly a quarter-century of free trade, an entire generation has become more accustomed to the benefits of free trade and the importance of trade liberalization – NAFTA, CETA (the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement) and the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership). All are enduring testimony of the Mulroney legacy.