Harper and U.S. protectionism: a trip down memory lane

There is a real difference between the prime minister Harper was criticizing in 2002 and the one he has become in 2012


On May 28, 2002, the House of Commons debated a supply motion from the opposition Canadian Alliance: “That this House has lost confidence in the government for its failure to persuade the US government to end protectionist policies…”

Stephen Harper rose to speak. “Mr. Speaker, this will be my first speech as the leader of Her Majesty’s official opposition,” he said. He offered the customary thanks to his electors and the people of Alberta, before shifting gears. “I do not have a lot of time so I want to focus instead on the issue we chose for today’s supply debate, which perhaps is the most important issue that ever faces Canada: our relationship with the United States and in particular the increasingly troubled relationship we have on the trade front.”

The motion of the day referred to softwood and agriculture disputes. “To this I could easily add a third, energy,” Harper said, “the issue of pipeline movement of Alaskan gas reserves to the lower 48.” Or a forth, border restrictions.

“The question we must ask is why this has occurred. Why do we find ourselves victims of protectionist, isolationist and unilateralist sentiments from the United States? Why are Canadian interests being systematically ignored in Washington?”

“In fairness,” Harper was willing to acknowledge “the reality of the United States’ domestic political interests, this being an important election year in the United States.” But there was another reason: “the consistent and complete inability of the present Canadian government to make our case to American authorities, to congress and especially to the Bush administration.”

Why was there a secretariat for the Asia-Pacific in Foreign Affairs but none for the United States? Why all the trade missions to China? The reason, Harper said, was the Jean Chrétien had never been a free trader. “The Prime Minister went back to the future. He tried to revive the failed trade diversification of the 1970s, the Trudeau government’s so-called third option strategy, which did not work then and is not working now.”

What was missing, Harper said, was a proper working relationship between the Prime Minister and the President. He quoted former Canadian ambassador to Washington Allan Gotlieb: “Without the Prime Minister in play, the president will not be in play.”

Here, at last, it is possible to see real light showing between the Prime Minister Harper was criticizing in 2002 and the one he has become in 2012. The reason Chrétien wasn’t taken seriously in Bush’s Washington, he said, was because Chrétien was soft on a bunch of security questions.

“It should not be surprising that when Canadian ministers suddenly show up in Washington and demand something be done about softwood duties or agriculture many high level American decision makers do not pay much attention.”

So now what? “On this I will make a very controversial observation. When it comes to United States-Canada relations, the government has much to learn from former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

“Whatever Mr. Mulroney’s shortcomings… he understood a fundamental truth. He understood that mature and intelligent Canadian leaders must share the following perspective: the United States is our closest neighbour, our best ally, our biggest customer and our most consistent friend. Whatever else, we forget these things at our own peril.”

The new opposition leader wrapped up his argument, the first he wanted to make on the subject he had selected in his parliamentary debut as a national party leader: “We will be unable to get the U.S. administration on board unless whoever is in the White House and leading members of congress value and respect what our Prime Minister brings to the table.”


Harper and U.S. protectionism: a trip down memory lane

  1. Harper was unhelpful to Obama during the Democratic nomination, once Obama got elected he was unhelpful at the Copenhagen climate conference, then was in open conflict with Obama at the G20 on the need for stimulus, and finally Harper joins forces with GOP Tea Party elements in Washington to try to force Obama’s hand on Keystone through a high-stakes Congressional showdown. Harper got a bit of payback today.

    • What?????

      • Turn up your volume.

        • LOL!

    • Yup, and payback’s a bitch.  LOL

    • I would agree with you, and with Wells, if I didn’t think Obama’s decision was election-related.  In other words, even if Harper had lots of political capital in Washington, I don’t think it would buy him KXL in the current climate.

      • Exactly.  The comments are, as usual, full of groundless speculation, this time, about – hold your breath, “cause and effect”.  Harper Haters, do take a deep breath before gum flapping.  

  2. Hi-larious.

    (If not for the fact that this is very serious business.)

  3. When Harper looks in the mirror these days,who does he see staring back?

  4. I am not sure why Wells chose to go down this particular memory lane today, as if the decision that Obama made today had anything to do with protectionist policies on the part of the U.S. or some dysfunction in his working relationship with PM Harper.

    This decision has nothing to do with protectionism or tension between leaders. Obama says the delay decision was made to give TRP more time to propose a new route, and provide more time for environmental studies. However, it is quite obvious that the real reason is to postpone any backlash against Obama until after the election. Funding and votes from his traditional support on the left enviro-movement wouild have been endangered if the Pipeline been approved today.

    Those who make a connection between Wells` memory lane and what happened today should know they are being led.

    • Yeah, sure we are being led by a guy with over 20 years experience of the Ottawa bubble as opposed to your ? 

      • I think Wells is very good at his job.

        • Yes, all part of the vast left wing socialist millionaire conspiracy. 

          • Real problem he is not being fed the ungarbled by the Liberal government as he used to be. Liberals are not much to feed on now.

          • Maybe you could ungarble what you just wrote – I’m  having trouble understanding what exactly you are insinuating.

          • Addenda for Jan below; Wells always used to write his columns as if he were a fly on the wall of Liberal caucus, meetings etc. Now there is no Liberal wall worth mentioning to be a fly on.

      • “Yeah, sure we are being led by a guy with over 20 years experience of the Ottawa bubble.”

        When I read that at first I took the “we” to be “Canadians”, and I thought you were referring to the fact that our PM has been in politics since high school, and a professional politician/lobbyist for 19 years.  LOL

        • LOL…i used the lesser we.

    • You reject the premise of his assumption, isn’t that the Harps debating technique? It seems like a very similar situation  – election year politics dominating decisions, not the relationship between the two countries.   

    • You could both be right.

    • I agree with you in that the US election has much to do with the decision.  No matter what the reasons are behind the decision, the fact that the PM’s no brainer decision was rejected shows a “complete inability of the present Canadian government to make our case to American authorities” since the decision went against the federal governments wishes.  If the present government had the ability to make their case, the pipeline would be approved.

      I think that there is more to the decision than just election cycle politics and that is a basic weakness in the argument that the pipeline is in the US’s interest.  It does not address their energy security as the oil will be exported, the construction jobs are temporary and the operation jobs are few, and the whole point is to drive up the price to something close to world prices.  The pipeline is in the Texas’s refineries interest and the oil sand producers interest.  By extension, Canada will benefit.  A benefit to the US is not so clear.

      • I know some of that oil refined in Texas is exported, but if the U.S. is a net-importer of oil, would it not be wise for them to have the possibility of diverting that export-oil for domestic use if for any reason their imported oil was cut off ?

        This is no time to have a short-sighted President worried about his re-election.

        • They could divert any oil that was not under contract.  Similarly, if their imported oil was cut off, they could seek replacement anywhere on the world market including oil piped to the west coast of Canada.  

          The US imports oil but doesn’t much of it get exported after refining?  I thought they just became a net export of some types of refined products.

    • It is also worth noting that between 2002 and now, Harper has worked diligently to develop new trading partners that meet our standards.  When first coming into office, Harper made a point of bitch-slapping the Chinese government into place.  With the dramatic democratization and blossoming of human rights in China that has resulted, China now is the morally responsible place to sell our ethical oil.

      • Harper’s hectoring has improved human rights in China?

        • Pretty sure the post above yours is sarcastic. 

          • Ah yes, I didn;t notice ot was Stewart. 

  5. I think the Dippers and the Libs truly can go home.  Harper is a very competent Opposition to, uh, himself.  Not that Harper will listen any better, mind you.

    • Someone likely could and maybe should produce a short film of Stephan Harper circa 2002 vs 2012.
      Time and experience can change a person’s standpoint but it’s incredulous how many parliamentarians attack each other ruthlessly for doing so.

  6. Canadians are wildly self centred, we seem to personalize our relationship with US while Americans barely know who we are. If we just woo the Americans, they will do whatever we want? Not likely.

    2000 Harper would not be impressed with performance of 2012 Harper is what I think.

    Wells – I thought your ‘controlled flight’ analogy was a clever one but I would extend it further and apply it to entire Fed Government. We actually need to produce wealth to pay for baby boomer health care and lavish State pensions but government is tranquil, money will just magically appear because the normal laws of economics don’t apply in Canada, apparently.

  7. Ever since Harper capitulated completely on softwood lumber, America knows it has nothing to fear from the CPC government and can simply do as it wishes. 

    • Right – JC sat on his arse and did nothing for six years.

      • Better than bending over….

  8. I may be the first American to comment here, but I think the problem is different. It appears Canadian leaders (including Harper in 2002 and 2012) seem overly focused on winning over American leadership. That’s exactly backwards.
    Canada needs to make its case to the American people. We need to hear Harper (and by “we” I mean those of us who are not political junkies). Canada had an excellent case to make on the softwood lumber nonsense (Washington basically made it more expensive to build and buy a house just to make a few lumberers happy), but as far as I know, no effort was made to reach out to real estate folks, home builders, etc.
    In the case of Keystone, most Americans are baffled by Obama’s ideological nonsense (even the Governor of Nebraska – the state with the greatest concern about the ecological effects of the pipeline – says it should be approved and construction should start with they work out the kinks in his state), but it certainly wouldn’t have hurt if Harper had made his views known more loudly down here.
    Most Americans see Canada as a friendly neighbor, and a growing number appreciate it as an energy source. The more Canada makes clear how upset it is, the more likely the deal gets done – either by this president in response to pressure or by the voters who would be more considerate to replacing him. 

    • Thanks for your comments neighbour! Canadians find this a divisive issue. Harper is a ‘my way or the highway” kind of guy so the notion of gaining consensus is an anathema to him. 

      • Hey let’s be honest…Obama was onboard with Keystone until Robert Redford got involved and reminded Obama who his base is.

        • No different than Harper being beholden to “Ethical” Big Oil.

          • What an idiotic statement.

          • That “ethical” oil pays for social programs in Quebec….where will the money come from if it is shut down and Alberta becomes a have-not province like Ontario is now?

          • Right on! Both pipeline projects will be big contributors to Canada’s national and provincial economic health and ou9r economic health is essential to contribute to health care costs and other social programs.  For me this trumps the Robert Redford squeals any day. 

          • What about Nebraska farmers – do you think they should have had any input into this? This is from August, 2010, no mention of any celebrities, just people who live in Nebraska.


          • Last I heard they have proposed a re-routing which Nebraska govt is  OK on.

    • I lost all respect for Obama when he put the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository on hold, then cancelled funding last year.  This was only to ‘buy’ support from Nevada and enviro-nuts, not based on science.  U.S. taxpayers are on the hook for $11 billion in contractual requirements.  Meanwhile U.S. nuclear facilities are stuck having to store spent fuel on site.

      • These decisions are not about reality but about perception.  That is why movie star environmentalists like Robert Redford ignore the coal industry and attack things like Keystone.  Canada is low-hanging fruit….who cares if you hurt our feelings….there are so few of us we don’t even make a dent at the box office.

  9. “Emerging* Energy Superpower” – Stephen Harper, 2006

    * still emerging 2012

  10. I don’t think the evidence supports the conclusions of 2002 Harper or even Mulroney for that matter. The US doesn’t really have friends it has interests and nothing, absolutely nothing seems to trump internal US politics. This is an argument for Canadian PMs simply pursuing Canadian interests, whatever they deem them to be. Sure it helps to be a friend and going out of your way to poke a stick in a sitting US president’s eye will get you nothing but grief. But in the end they look out for theirs first, why shouldn’t we?
    For instance had Trudeau stuck around to pursue free trade[ a royal commission or something recommended it under his watch] i don’t believe the overrriding factor for success would have been his sometimes rocky relations with the prez – first and foremost would have been: is it in the US national interest. Mulroney’s love in with Reagan did no doubt make things a good deal easier then it would have been for Trudeau, but it wouldn’t have been the magic bullet Harper seemed to think it was in 02.

    • You should never underestimate the importance of a good personal relationship in business, careers, government, etc.

      • I don’t disagree. But take Mulroney’s NAFTA deal as example. Mulroney was quite frankly a major US suck [ i even respect Harper more in that area] but what did it really get him? 
        There’s a consderable weight of informed opinion that says the deal basically sucked for us, we could have done better. Sure, Brian sucked as a negotiator anyway but i think my point still stands – the US always looks out for # 1 first and last – so should we. That’s how you earn real respect.

    • The truth is that if Obama doesn’t get re-elected, his friendly relations with any world leader won’t count for jack.  He needed to keep the support of his base.  Why do you think he supported Keystone and did a 180 degree change?  No because he doesn’t live Stephen Harper…but rather because he got a message from his supporters….that Hollywood would not be pounding on doors if he didn’t follow through with their environmental agenda.  I think Harper understands that.  Afterall wasn’t Obama talking about re-visiting NAFTA as an election promise in 2009?  

      • As i said, like has not a lot to do with it – Nixon and Trudeau despised each other – did it hurt us in any substantial way?

        Pearson and Johnson had problems – so!

        Dief and Kennedy were matter and anti matter – hmm, maybe it cost Dief an election – i doubt it.

        Besides what makes you think Obama’s goal of weaning  the US off oil  aligns with Harpers vision of Canada as an energy super power? He does have a mandate of his own you know. 

        • Yes, but it doesn’t change the fact that Obama was supporting Keystone until his base gave him a spanking.

  11. Ha ha, chortle chortle – Harper gets hoist by his own petard, sayeth Wells.  Except, of course, that the contexts of Harper’s admonishments to Chretien and Obama’s current kabuki dance over Keystone XL are entirely different.  The failure of Chretien to reduce US protectionism vis a vis Canada was attributable to Chretien’s lack of effort, largely a consequence of his undeniable contempt for Bush and his administration.  Harper’s “failure” is in spite of his concerted efforts to convince Obama to reduce US protectionism vis a vis Canada.  He shares this failure to convince Obama to do the right thing on Keystone XL with a large number of Obama’s (soon to be former) supporters on a variety of other issues e.g. closing Guantanamo.

    • “…Chretien’s lack of effort, largely a consequence of his undeniable contempt for Bush and his administration…”

      Jean Chrétien was PM between1993 and 2003
      Bill Clinton was President beween 1993 and 2001

      And they had an excellent relationship, as good as Mulroney with Reagan. 

      Harper however has gone out of his way to antagonise Obama –  nafta-gate, hiring of Fleisher and our pm’s appearance on Fox where he was snookered into an uncomfortable criticism of the President.  

      What is undeniable is Harper’s contempt for Obama.  IMO, Chrétien had a better relationship with GWB than Harper has with Obama.  Chrétien never interefered in internal American politics like Harper did with hiring of Fleischer and his appearance on FOX (for which we had to pay).  There was the Ducros incident, but it was Ducros herself and not Chrétien. As PM of Canada Harper has personally gotten involved in US partisan politics.

      • I honestly don`t know where you get the idea that there is any animosity between Harper and Obama.

        I know it is a fine line between getting involved in U.S. politics while promoting Canadian interests there, but it appears Harper is very aware of that fine line, hence the respect and good feelings from Obama.

        • Who would lob the cheap shot ‘It’s a no brainer’ at a friend?

      • Um, Chretien’s nephew all but endorsed GWB’s opponent in 2000. That didn’t exactly help matters.

      • “Jean Chrétien was PM between1993 and 2003
        Bill Clinton was President beween 1993 and 2001

        And they had an excellent relationship, as good as Mulroney with Reagan. ”
        Harper was speaking about the Canada-US relationship in 2002.  Whatever Chretien might have accomplished in this area because of his “excellent relationship” with Clinton didn’t prove to have much staying power, especially when Chretien held Clinton’s successor in such contempt.

        • Pretty well most of the world held Clinton’s successor in contempt!

  12. I hope Harper will hold his breath and think a long time before hiring Ari Fleischer again.

  13. In 2002 Canada was comfortable having the U.S. as our biggest trading partner – made sense.  They bought most of our resources and we bought much of their manufactured goods. 

    I think Harper, and TransCanada, really were taken by surprise over the opposition to Keystone XL.  The enviro-nuts really want to shut down the Alberta oil sands and other interests want their cheap oil.

    “No Keystone XL means Canadian crude will stay dirt cheap

    Caving to pressure from environmental groups, the Obama administration on Wednesday rejected the $7 billion-plus Keystone XL pipeline.

    Over many months of controversy, opposition to Keystone XL project become so rancorous that if Barack Obama would have approved the pipeline now he would have been starting his re-election campaign with little left of his traditional support base.

    Throughout the approval process TransCanada officials appeared to have been caught off guard by the vociferous protests the pipeline elicited. A similar pipeline three years ago was approved with little opposition.

    Canadian heavy oil (the Western Canada Select contract) – exported only to the US due to a paucity of pipelines – sold for $21.20 less than US crude on Wednesday. The price Canadian producers receive  has been sinking steadily since September when the price differential was only around $8.

    The US benchmark, West Texas Intermediate on Nymex, in turn traded at a discount of just under $11 to the international North Sea Brent benchmark that settled at $111.50 on Wednesday, meaning oil sands producers now sell some of the cheapest fuel on the planet. Canada exports two million barrels of crude to the US per day of which 1.5m come from oil sands.

    Apart from environmental campaigners and clean energy proponents, other players may also be rejoicing the death of Keystone XL: MINING.com has argued in the past that if Keystone XL is built the biggest losers will not be the Greens, it will be Big Oil: Keystone XL will bring Canadian crude, which sells at a steep discount, more in line with global prices. At the same time a huge slice of the record profits of Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil will we wiped out. Here’s why.


    • Keystone isn’t dead, just sleeping.

  14. Wow, slow news week? Two anti Harper articles in your banner feature. First the Keystone pipeline will be approved right after the election so I guess Macleans has to slant the delay as protectionism and not just internal US politics in an election year. Second when the border deal goes through, Macleans will run another anti Harper article on the fact that we are now too close to the US (giving up our sovereignty, etc) – anyone at Macleans like to make a wager on this?

  15. Oh it was totally worth it. 

  16. Persuasive kind of guy, that Stephen Harper.  His ability to undo can only be described as a gift.  Perhaps Steve should have a talk with Brian Mulroney.

  17. You really pine for the days when you were a fly on the wall in Liberal Caucus, don’t you, Inkless?

    Anyway, these are new days with different issues at stake – i.e the weird and wonderful American election process.

      There is no doubt that the pipeline will be built when the political BS settles into a smelly dust at our feet.

     Actually, Obama is less than impressive – a political coward sucking up to a rabid environmental constituency. .And he is running scared, I think

  18. One of the great strengths of the Chretien era was that he never kneeled and tugged at his forelock before Bush, who was possibly the worst president in US History. Given that Stephen would do anything to curry favour with Americans, it should come as no suprise that he hasn’t captured the hearts and goodwill of the current administration. Bullies never respect acquiesence. Furthermore the Yanks seem to have suffered through their neo conservative dark age, while we are still in the midst of ours. Hopefully this too shall pass and after the tories we shall once again return to a nation that has both self and international respect, and manages to recognize the importance of balance in a multi layered society. Barcus

  19. Does Wells have any evidence for his interpretation of events, other than a cute parallel. The internet is abuzz with commentary that aligns with Calvin’s point of view. Wells’s is new to me.

    Either way, it may be all for the best from BC’s point of view. This just adds to the demand for the Northern Gateway. Along with the new port at Prince Rupert, it will save the middle of BC from ghost town status.
    -Pete E

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