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Trudeau appears to have moved on to shaping perceptions of a trade deal that’s near

On NAFTA, it all sounds a little like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is doing what he always says he will not do – negotiating in public.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Justin Trudeau, whose comments on NAFTA negotiations were once confined to vague sunshine, is all red lines this week. As the potential for a deal gets closer, the Prime Minister is trying to define what constitutes success.

That’s not really a message for the American directing the negotiations, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. It’s for Canadians.

Mr. Trudeau is trying to set out some goalposts on which to score.

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That’s why we are suddenly seeing Mr. Trudeau puff up his chest to stand up for the North American free-trade agreement exemption for Canadian cultural industries – though there hadn’t been much previous sign the United States is driving hard to take that away.

Then there’s Chapter 19, a binding dispute-settlement mechanism that Mr. Trudeau described pithily as a way to rein in cheaters such as U.S. President Donald Trump. That’s been a must-have for Canadian negotiators since talks began, but this week Mr. Trudeau set it out clearly in a high-profile, prime ministerial declaration of the bottom line.

It all sounds a little like the PM is doing what he always says he will not do – negotiating in public. But it is more about preparing the ground for the public.

If there is a deal, success for Mr. Trudeau isn’t just about what’s in it, but how it’s perceived.

There are going to be concessions, some controversial. He’s going to want to be able to point to some wins – defensive victories, mostly. He’s already picked “saving” culture and Chapter 19.

This trade negotiation is also unusually personal. Mr. Trump made it that way, with browbeating on Twitter, in leaked off-the-record comments, at rallies. Canadians will judge Mr. Trudeau on how he handled it. Did the PM get bullied? It was popular when Mr. Trudeau said, at the close of the G7 summit in June, that Canada won’t get pushed around. It probably helps to repeat that he won’t sign a bad deal.

Early in the talks, there was more of a good-cop, bad-cop approach. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland talked tough; Mr. Trudeau smiled and said it will all work out. Now, Mr. Trudeau is taking pains to be assertive, including on some specific points.

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He vowed to protect “our sovereignty and our identity,” by preserving Canada’s cultural-industry exemption, saying it’s unthinkable that Americans could buy Canadian TV networks or newspapers – reassuring those who break into a cold sweat at the spectre of Fox News taking over CTV.

There’s no reason to think that’s really the Americans’ top concern. It’s something the United States asked for in the past, but it has been off the U.S. priorities list for a long time. “My mind is boggling at the notion they’ve reached that far back in the closet to drag that one out,” said Derek Burney, former Canadian ambassador to the United States and chief of staff to Brian Mulroney, a veteran of the Canada-U.S. free-trade talks and original NAFTA negotiations.

So it’s a pretty good bet that “saving” the cultural exemption is something Mr. Trudeau can deliver, and claim as a win. He’s going to need that, because if and when a deal is done, it will include things he isn’t so keen on trumpeting.

The Americans will want the concessions on intellectual property it has already wrested from Mexico. Mr. Trump has demanded Canada scrap the supply-management system for dairy products – and Mr. Trudeau will probably instead concede a piece of the Canadian dairy market. But that will spark outrage from dairy farmers and Quebec’s campaigning provincial politicians. That’d be a good time for Mr. Trudeau to argue he has preserved cultural sovereignty.

It’s more complicated when a measure portrayed as a must-have − a dispute-settlement mechanism like the one in Chapter 19 of the NAFTA – is a technical matter of process. If Mr. Trudeau is going to claim saving Chapter 19 as a win, it helps to make Canadians think it’s worthwhile.

Mr. Burney said he thinks Mr. Trudeau is trying to boil down Chapter 19 to a simple, understandable idea – that it defends Canada against cheating – to explain to the public why it’s valuable.

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Mr. Burney argues Chapter 19 is indispensable because it allows Canadian business to settle an issue clearly and quickly, without the burden of taking a case through U.S. courts. “We certainly need some defence against trade measures in the United States that are illegal according to their own laws,” he said.

But Canada will not get an exact replica of Chapter 19 in the new NAFTA. Mr. Lighthizer is officially out to kill it. Getting a deal means rewriting it, and both sides are working on a new version of the dispute mechanism. What’s not yet clear is whether Mr. Trudeau will allow it to be weakened significantly, so long as he can say it’s there.

There will be other selling points. The Liberals will tout the new auto provisions, which require US$16-an-hour wages in more Mexican car plants, as a “progressive” Canadian idea that bridged Mr. Trump’s rhetoric about preserving U.S. jobs with the promise to improve the lot of Mexican workers made by that country’s left-leaning president-elect, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

But for the most part, the Canadian team is fighting a defensive battle against concessions. Mr. Trudeau is highlighting the ones he won’t make, in a sign he believes a deal might be close. His public stands this week weren’t so much about setting red lines, but about trying to define how a deal should be judged.

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