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Post : Kevin Libin: Trudeau stumbled into a trade war. That isn’t all Trump’s fault
URL : http://business.financialpost.com/fp-comment/kevin-libin-trudeau-stumbled-into-a-trade-war-that-isnt-all-trumps-fault
Posted : June 14, 2018 at 6:00 am
Author : Kevin Libin
Categories : FP Comment

Canadians have always ridiculed Americans for their cocky swagger and over-the-top patriotism but look who’s getting all jingoistic now. It’s hard to miss our trade-war drums beating with unseemly enthusiasm after Donald Trump’s angry reaction Sunday to our prime minister’s post-G7 press conference. Virtually overnight, boasts of being the globe’s great free traders and champions of a borderless world have given way to battle cries for more tariffs, barriers and boycotts against the perfidious Trump Nation.

“Scores of shoppers and travellers are mounting strikes against America’s pocketbook by boycotting U.S. goods and trips to the States,” reports CTV News. The story is really more about people tweeting about plans to do so, but at least one “angry user” in the story claims to have made a point of it: “F*** you Trump. We just booked a $3,000 vacation to beautiful British Columbia. Happy anniversary to us. #Canadastrong #BuyCanadian #F***Tariffs.” But then again “Supreme Leader Lyna” — whose Twitter feed is loudly pro-Democrat and whose bio includes the hashtag #Resistance — lives in California, so it’s more like she’s boycotting herself. But an Abacus poll out Tuesday had more than three-quarters of Canadian respondentss claiming they will be doing everything from avoiding cross-border shopping and American vacations to not buying anything marked Made in the U.S.A. And a Maclean’s report this week helpfully provided a guide on how to “hit back and hurt Trump in the only place he cares about — his wallet,” by boycotting his family’s businesses or any other business that sells Trump merchandise.

[pn-pullquote text="Trudeau has reason to raise a glass himself, now that this rush of pent-up anti-Trump Canadian catharsis has obscured how much he too is to blame for this trade-war disaster" source="" /]

“There's a bit of a patriotic boost going on these past few days," chuckled Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at an event hosted the other day by the supply-managed farmers who have been celebrating that we’re all blaming Trump for this mess instead of their politically powerful protectionist racket, the primary culprit. They were even giving out free milk and eggs near Parliament Hill, Tuesday. Trudeau has reason to raise a glass himself, now that this rush of pent-up anti-Trump Canadian catharsis has obscured how much he too is to blame for this trade-war disaster.

Largely missed in the sudden and furious reaction to Trump’s salty tweets Sunday was a report by CBC’s Rob Russo on The National that night, which clarifies just how wonderfully it appears trade talks were going between Canada and the U.S. That is, until Trudeau held his post-G7 press conference to remind Trump that Canada would “not be pushed around” by any American president and called the president’s treatment of Canada “kind of insulting.”

Trudeau wasn’t wrong, of course, but his comments were clearly ill-timed. Russo reported that Trump had offered a major giveaway to Trudeau in a NAFTA meeting on the G7 sidelines, finally agreeing to waive his longstanding demand for a sunset clause, the automatic expiry of the deal if it wasn’t renewed every five years, which had been one of the last sticking points. Russo said that Trump’s sudden concession was “surprising (to) his own chief negotiator, according to people who were there, and people (there) think that it’s great.” At the end of the summit, with a NAFTA deal perhaps within grasp, the celebrating was underway. Then came the news conference.

It’s obvious to everyone, and probably even to Trump himself, that the president overreacted, calling Trudeau “very dishonest” and “weak,” in his fit of pique. But it’s also not hard to see why he might have felt antagonized. As Don Lenihan, a senior associate at the progressive think-tank Canada 2020 noted in a commentary this week, “In Trump’s mind, the decision to waive the sunset clause had been a generous act of reconciliation. Yet Trudeau publicly denigrated him just to score political points with Canadians.”

Trudeau, who has since refused to confirm or deny Trump's offer about the sunset clause, might not have meant it that way (Lenihan suggests he was actually trying to play it safe, sticking to his previous script, since the deal over the sunset clause hadn’t yet been made public). But the president was also hours away from meeting America’s arguably most dangerous enemy, Kim Jong Un. That kind of pressure is hard to imagine; the resulting over-sensitivity to even a mild display of back talk — just after he left a successful meeting in which he apparently offered a significant, friendly gesture — is, however, perfectly easy to imagine.

And after Kim and Trump’s cordial summit, Canada might just rank as the country least able to get along with the U.S. right now. That can’t just be Trump’s fault. From throwing a stink bomb into NAFTA talks with their “progressive” demands, to bringing in protectionist union leader Jerry Dias to consult on the negotiations, to their defiant defence of the unjustified tariff wall protecting Canada’s dairy barons, the Liberals have not done an excellent job of figuring out how to make a deal with a man who literally loves nothing more than making deals. After nearly a year of discussions, things seem at an all-time low. That cannot be blamed all on one man.

Meanwhile, our own overreaction to some ill-considered comments from that one man is growing dangerous for the future of free trade. The last few days have been paradise for protectionists, with protected-milk parties on Sparks Street, unanimous declarations in the House of Commons praising our mighty agriculture cartel, and Tory leader Andrew Scheer demoting MP Maxime Bernier for refusing to publicly submit to the party’s proudly anti-market beliefs about groceries. The steelworker union is today demanding big, fat tariffs against U.S. imports, and also big, fat handouts from taxpayers to help them survive their battle against consumers. And Dias, head of the labour union Unifor, says we need more tariffs, faster: “I think we have to fight fire with fire … strike back… hit hard,” he said this week. “I believe it’s the only real way to get this guy’s attention.”

Dias evidently doesn’t understand how to handle this White House any better than when he was called in to taint the NAFTA talks, because Canada already has Trump’s attention, unfortunately, and the challenge is how to make the best of it. It was Trudeau’s responsibility to make sure America’s attentions remained friendly and Canada’s exports kept flowing, not to stumble into a trade war. That we’re nevertheless here means he must share the blame.

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