With the federal government still mulling its full response to U.S. President Donald Trump's recent trade war measures, BC Liberal Party leader Christy Clark decided this week to step into the breach.
In response to the punitive countervailing tariffs levied on Canadian softwood exports and the target Mr. Trump also placed on the country's dairy industry, Ms. Clark felt it was time someone took a stand against these actions and nominated herself. While denouncing the United States for abandoning its commitment to being a good trading partner, she proposed a ban on U.S. thermal coal transiting through British Columbia's ports – a move only Ottawa could authorize.
If that sounds like someone starting a fight they can't finish, you wouldn't be far off. Although Ms. Clark, acting in her role as Premier while she campaigns in a provincial election, did suggest that if Ottawa was too much of a wuss to give Mr. Trump some of his own medicine, she'd do it herself through tariffs the province could apply bilaterally.
This is good for Ms. Clark for one reason: sagging in the polls and desperately needing a PR lift, the announcement allows the Liberal leader to look tough in the face of U.S. trade aggression.
For his part, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, through a spokesman, issued a supportive but completely non-committal response, saying his government considers "carefully and seriously" any request from a premier. Or read another way: we get what's really going on here and we're willing to play along for now.
Thermal coal is a scourge to the earth, and anything that stops the spread of its use is a good thing. But the fact is the federal government supports the shipment of the stuff through the Port of Metro Vancouver. Last year, it approved a new thermal coal port on the Fraser River to export as much as four million tonnes of it overseas. But Ottawa is now suddenly going to stop the United States from doing the same in the name of helping Christy Clark win an election?
Of course, Mr. Trudeau could do this if he likes, if he's willing to risk the wrath of Mr. Trump and possibly ignite a full-on trade war. But somewhere in the Prime Minister's Office, I'm sure, exists a document outlining the ramifications of such a battle, and they are undoubtedly grim. Mr. Trudeau doesn't want to invite such a confrontation because he knows it would spell disaster for this country. What is that old expression? You don't bring a knife to a gun fight? Sure, we could do some damage ourselves to the much larger American economy, but ultimately we'd become a bug on a windshield in any trade war with the United States.
That is why a political pro like former prime minister Brian Mulroney is urging calm, patience, and diplomacy in responding to Trump's actions and rhetoric. He, better than most, understands the consequences of a bloody trade war with our southern neighbours.
Mr. Trudeau also has to be careful about countenancing any unilateral action by the provinces amid these new trade tensions. It's one thing to grandstand on the issue amid a heated election, but it's quite another to follow through on threats, jeopardizing relations between the two countries.
British Columbia isn't nearly as reliant on trade with the United States as, say, Ontario. While Ms. Clark may feel she has nothing to lose picking a fight with Mr. Trump, since he's already gone after arguably British Columbia's most important export to the United States – lumber – her actions could have repercussions for someone like Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, whose economy relies heavily on good trade relations with America.
Look what happened to the loonie as a result of U.S. action on lumber alone; it was sent crashing, so spooked were currency traders over concerns this might just be the beginning of the United States flexing its trade muscles against Canada.
Do we really want to see just how low the loonie can go?
My guess is that if Ms. Clark wins the May 9 election, this issue will die a quiet death. And if she loses, it will go away just as softly.