Stephen Harper's NAFTA memo shows how little the former PM has changed -

Stephen Harper’s NAFTA memo shows how little the former PM has changed

Paul Wells pokes holes in Harper’s flawed, albeit very familiar NAFTA memo attacking the Trudeau government for its approach to Donald Trump

(Ryan Remiorz/CP)

(Ryan Remiorz/CP)

For a guy whose staff says he has foresworn any comment on his successor, Stephen Harper is turning into a bit of a chatty Kathy. First, during the heady days in July when it seemed Conservatives would campaign relentlessly against Justin Trudeau’s out-of-court settlement with Omar Khadr, Harper wrote on his Facebook page that the settlement was “simply wrong.” Now, Harper has penned a memo asserting that just about everything the Trudeau government is doing in NAFTA negotiations is a strategic catastrophe.

Let’s look at his claims. But first, let’s dispense with two red herrings.

First, the Trudeau Liberals skipped straight to questioning Harper’s patriotism. A PMO staffer tweeted that Harper “would rather side with US, abandon Cdn values, jobs and interests.” This is a familiar dodge. “At this crucial moment, Canada needs unity,” says everyone who’d rather avoid a debate, ever. In fact, Canada can stand a debate on anything, at any time: not only is that what democracy looks like, it was also pretty robustly demonstrated when we got into the free trade game with the United States, thanks to two knock-down, drag out elections on the matter, in 1911 and 1988. In the latter contest, the Liberals were the ones carping about government policy, as one or two of today’s older cabinet ministers may recall. Sauce for the goose is perfectly legitimate comment for the gander.

RELATED: Stephen Harper’s no-good advice on NAFTA

Second, since Harper’s memo was written only for clients of his consulting firm, it could perhaps be protested that he didn’t intend for it to become public. This is not credible. In politics he routinely had staffers write “private” correspondence that magically found its way into media hands, which in fact was the point of the exercise. It doesn’t matter whether that was his intent this time around; he of all people should have known it could happen.

On to the former prime minister’s argument. First, as Canadian Press reporter Alex Panetta reports, Harper “suggests Canada has been too quick in rejecting American proposals as a ‘red line,’ or ‘poison pill.’ He said such knee-jerk refusals are only a viable strategy if you truly believe Trump cannot cancel NAFTA — an assessment Harper does not share.” Panetta quotes some trademark weary-eyed realism from the former PM: “Canada’s government needs to get its head around this reality: it does not matter whether current American proposals are worse than what we have now. What matters in evaluating them is whether it is worth having a trade agreement with the Americans or not.”

That’s true! A substantially degraded deal could, conceivably, indeed be better than none. But it’s odd to suggest the Trudeau government imagines NAFTA is un-killable. They talk about Trump cancelling it all the time. Some of the “poison pills” Chrystia Freeland has identified do look eminently survivable: one of them is U.S. demands for a relaxing of supply management for dairy and poultry products, a sacred overpriced cow of Canadian agriculture that nobody will miss five years after some brave government finally gives it the heave-ho. But you know who defended supply management tooth and nail during the Canada-EU and TPP trade rounds? Stephen Harper is who.

READ: It’s time for Conservatives to ditch dairy cow Marxism

On the other hand, some of the so-called poison pills really would put into question the worth of a trade agreement if they were accepted. Chief among these is a constant, eternal, five-year series of sunset clauses by which the deal would automatically collapse if any party decided not to renew it. That’s the same as not having a trade deal. Trade deals exist to buy stability and predictability in trading arrangements. A deal without stability is like a bucket with a hole in the bottom, good perhaps for firewood but not for the things you usually ask from a bucket.

Incidentally: Know where the term “poison pill” comes from, in the NAFTA context? From Thomas Donahue, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “There are several poison pill proposals still on the table that could doom the entire deal,” Donahue said in an early-October speech. “All of these proposals are unnecessary and unacceptable.”

And finally: What would Harper have the Canadian bargaining position be? In the absence of red lines drawn in public, apparently he would have the Canadian negotiating team tell the Americans, again in public: “We have no bottom line. We will not walk away from the table at any point, for any reason, because we’re pretty desperate for a deal.” I admit I was home sick the day they taught trade strategy at school, but on the face of it this doesn’t seem like a super bargaining stance.

Harper’s second worry is that Canada has tied itself too closely to Mexico, which is, in the world of the wall-building Trump, maybe barely a shade better than partnering with Hillary Clinton. “In fact, the U.S. is both irked and mystified by the Liberals’ unwavering devotion to Mexico.”

A few reactions are possible. One, epidermal: You know what? Canada is irked and mystified by crisis talks over a trade deal that has been overwhelmingly a boon to this country. Life is full of irk and mystery. Suck it up.

WATCH: Trudeau avoids direct response to Harper’s NAFTA critique

A second reaction, more reasoned: NAFTA is designed and has richly evolved as a three-party deal. The departure of any partner would involve costly disentanglement of integrated economies among all three. Mexico’s tariff wall is high and would suddenly be raised against Canadian goods. And the bilateral fallback, the Canada-U.S. FTA of 1988, is lousy by modern standards. And finally, as a reader pointed out to me on Twitter, for as long as Canada can keep Mexico onside, the Congressional NAFTA coalition will include members from states with heavy trade exposure to Mexico as well as Canada. Broad parliamentary coalitions used to be a Harper specialty.

The third reaction is that this is a familiar tune from Harper. Safe communities were a top-line objective of his government, from both a policy and branding perspective; he viewed Mexico almost exclusively as a problem. He told his counterpart Felipe Calderón in 2009 he was imposing visas, out of nowhere during a phone call on another subject [UPDATE: My source for that was on the Mexican side; since this article was posted, it’s been disputed by someone on the Canadian side, who says there was plenty of groundwork for the call. – pw]. He cancelled the last two rotating “three amigos” summits, with the Mexican and U.S. presidents, that would have been held on Canadian soil. A former Harper government staffer wrote to me in mid-2016, after Harper had left office, to explain why: Harper was “concerned that past Liberal governments, especially [Paul] Martin, had traded away a long-standing successful and unique bilateral relationship for some photo-ops.” Martin had, in this view, “joined with a country we have limited shared interests [with] but who the U.S. has significant security, immigration and trade problems with, and now parts of our relationship were being lumped in with theirs and dealt with through this lens, and it was having practical negative impacts.”

So all the practical reasons for keeping NAFTA talks a three-member affair, if possible, for as long as possible—trade integration, tariff risks, the lousy bilateral Canada-U.S. alternative, and U.S. coalition-building considerations—mean nothing to Harper, because he’s worried about what the neighbours will think. This is a fair calculation. But it’s not the only conceivable calculation. And throughout Harper’s memo, as reported by Panetta, there’s another familiar feature of Harper’s thinking as a political strategist outside government: an inability to imagine that somebody else might simply have a different playbook.

Hence Harper’s shame—the word seems precise—at the spectacle of a Canadian government bringing demands to the table that the Americans didn’t bring. These are the famous four horsemen of the lefty-NAFTA apocalypse, the Trudeau-proposed Indigenous, labour, environmental and gender chapters. Never mind that labour and environmental side agreements featured in the NAFTA lexicon as early as 1993, or that Donald Trump has actually shown fitful interest (the only kind this president can offer) in labour and gender issues. No, Harper is aghast: “Did anyone really think that the Liberals could somehow force the Trump administration into enacting their agenda—union power, climate change, aboriginal claims, gender issues? But while the Canadian government was doing that, the Americans have been laying down their real demands.”

READ: NAFTA talks should stick to helping consumers and taxpayers, not pet clauses

No report from the actual negotiating sessions has said that any of the four chapters Harper mentions has been met with substantive American concern. The sticking points are all elsewhere. So maybe Trudeau might get away with some of his demands. And if not, I’m not sure it’s unwise to walk into a negotiation with demands you can afford to see rejected. In a give-and-take, easy gives are not a self-evidently bad idea.

But what’s most striking about Harper’s memo is that its attitude is so familiar. I don’t know everything about Harper, but in researching two books about him I did not find any example of him praising a contemporary prime minister who wasn’t himself. This was especially true if the Canadian prime minister found himself in conflict with an American.

When Ronald Reagan died, Harper called him “the Churchill of his era… an inspiration to us all.” When Pierre Trudeau died, Harper wrote: “Yes, he continues to define the myths that guide the Canadian psyche, but myths they are.” Harper used his first speech in the Commons as Leader of the Opposition in 2002 to criticize Jean Chrétien on his relations with George W. Bush, and he wrote to the Wall Street Journal a year later to apologize for Chrétien’s stance on the Iraq war.

These are all defensible positions, but they’re also striking in their consistency. It has never been obvious to Stephen Harper that a Canadian prime minister could have a legitimate reason for disagreeing with a Republican U.S. president. Or, for that matter, with Stephen Harper. NAFTA could fall apart any moment. That Canadian actions might cause that sad event would come as a surprise to just about any observer with even a cursory knowledge of the unique personality inhabiting the White House.



Stephen Harper’s NAFTA memo shows how little the former PM has changed

  1. Harper is known to be vindictive so it may just be an attempt to stick it to Trudeau and the government that supplanted him.

    Bt It seems odd that this is the second time that Harper has tried to throw a wrench in the NAFTA talks. The first was when the CPC MPs went to he US to bellyache about the Khadr settlement on Fox news-Scheer must have been involved but as Harper himself and his wife and son started tweeting about it all at the same time it at least seemed to be co-ordinated.

    Then this “memo”.

    Chantal Hebert thinks he might be trying to pander to or troll for new clients most likely from the US and probably opposed to NAFTA as it is now.

    “he does not have much to offer the American lobbies that are natural allies of Canada’s NAFTA’s battle on Capitol Hill….From a business standpoint, that leaves the pool of constituencies — mostly in the U.S. — whose interests are not in line with the trade status quo and for whom the renegotiation of NAFTA is an opportunity to wrestle advantageous concessions from Canada.”

    • If any other PM, especially a liberal PM got this involved with our domestic issues outside of Canada in the US, they would be pilloried by the right. The conservatives feel Sheer doesn’t have what it takes to handle any kind of crisis, so they decide to inject Harper as a daddy figure for Sheer. Sheer has already showed his ‘Milkquetoast’ credentials when he walk away from reporters questions in the foyer of the HOCs, and the MSM seem to let him ride it out. The Grits know what they are doing on the Nafta deal, they don’t need a washed up racists PM from the past to tell them how to do their job..All that bashing and mud slinging in the HOCs just don’t seem to pay off for the opposition parties, look at the result of the polls today. the MSM should stop going after shiny issues and go investigate some real news.

      • Whenever these opposition parties go after the liberals for taxes and shortcomings, they should always take good a look a in the mirror to make sure your house is clean. Hope your listening and watching Mr. Sheer, because the MSM should come down on you like an ‘Anvil’ for doing everything to disgrace the finance minister of the liberals, when you managed to find a similar tax scheme as the liberals, one that the conservatives put in place while in government to benefit you and your party, who else in the conservative government have the same scheme going as Sheer, the MSM seem to have to much focus on the liberals right now.

        • Please Mr. Wells stop calling Steve Harper an economist, he worked in a mail room as a gofer and probably killed a dozen careers of good people to get there, he even went after a dead man walking just to get his vote in the HOCs before he died, remember Chuck. Harper has the IQ of a green pea. The more Harper shows his face the better for the grits, the cons should stick him out there more often, Maybe the cons should put Harper out there as a duo with Pierre Polivere, one of Harpers own ‘Jack in the Boxes’ in the HOCs, like Harper, Pierre P pops his head up every now and then.

          • While we’re at it. Neither Harper, Kenney, are Albertans. Born and raised in Ontario.
            Sheer also.
            These westerners such suckers to give these interlopers valuable party nominations and tickets back home to Ontario for their middle career years.
            At least not crass enough stay in Ont after Ottawa career ended.

  2. As always Wells is too kind to Harper. Those not wearing blue tinted glasses see him for the man he is, not an economist, not a statesman, certainly not someone who built “Broad parliamentary coalitions” (wherever that came from), not the political genius that Wells and other pundits proclaimed him to be and definitely not a patriot.

    Harper proclaimed that he wanted Canada to be “unrecognizable” to Canadians when he “was done”. Well he was done sooner than he and his sycophants in the pundit class expected so he never quite got his wish. Canadians like the Canada they know even if Harper does not.

    Wells’ first point was to attack the Liberals for pointing out the obvious – Harper’s unpatriotic mindset. But that is what is really at the center of this memo of his and of his “analysis”. Most Canadians saw this immediately.

    • It appears to me that the relentless and unwarranted hatred for Harper by the political left has not gone away. Interestingly, I still recognized Canada under Harper. I felt he brought common sense to the fore. It is Liberals who are currently making Canada unrecognizable. I am surprised at the number of people who seem oblivious to this.

      • I fully agree Rose.
        “.. the Trudeau-proposed Indigenous, labour, environmental (as in man-made Global warming) and gender chapters” are so off base, they are not challenged at the table by the U.S. because they are regarded by the fluff that will and should blow away.

  3. Christians are never “vindictive”!
    After all the bashing the Liberals have levied on Harper since their first day in office, this article seems two faced and hypocritical, maybe without direction and purpose.
    Definitely, someone is “projecting” their frustration at enormous, but failed, effort to annihilate the “previous government”.
    I would suggest that these articles are arranged by the Liberals to trash the “opposition”, no matter the cost, because it is paid for by YOU and ME!

    Trudeau uses the media BIG time, to push himself and this government, gender choices, choice of immigrants, world leaders, projects that were never meant to come to fruition, etc. etc.,
    even implicating and compensating the innocent to pathologically pay along.
    Trudeau has used the media for months to incite Canadians to spend and borrow, and like sharks scenting our blood, the banks jumped on our debt three times to grow their interest rate and our personal debt!
    This is not “fake news” nor is it “hate news”, this is truth.
    If Morneau is “rich” it is because he has played others a long long time! If Poloz is successful, it is because he is also in “the game”.

    In the ” real” world this promotional media is called campaigning, and this “fake” news with no ethics, nor truth, should morally be paid with party funds…NOT tax dollar$

    “Evil is as evil does” Forest Gump

    • You said that:”Christians are never “vindictive”! My question to you is did you take history subject in school or read history books? If you did not you should.
      Reading your comments I got an impression that you are a person that in the morning you hate few people and in the afternoon you hate the of the world.
      This kind of thinking and rage you are expressing in your comments is not good for your health and your well being. Be careful.

    • Actually more simply … this comment doesn’t make a lot of sense. The only thing I could gleam was that you think this was written by the Liberal party.

      I understand it is an opinion piece, but he nicely questions Harper’s motives. Something you didn’t seem to care about.

      Earlier this year when negotiations first started, the Conservative party in Ottawa (not Harper) said that they would not undermine the government’s negotiating position. They recognize politicizing this will only lead to failure for Canada.

      There was a bruhaha about some of what Canada took to the negotiating table (gender, aboriginal, environment isses) or “virtue signalling” as Erin O’toole complained about. You may remember this grumbling was short-lived. See my earlier point about cross-political support.

      This isn’t an attack on Conservatives, but speaks to our former PM’s character.

  4. With this memo and previous comments about the Khadr settlement Harper is showing that he is a very sore and vindictive looser.
    Two years ago you were beaten badly by :” Not ready yet” Junior politician that you Conservatives/Alliance/Reform Party and your advisers underestimated badly.
    As a former PM of this country you should be helping present Government to get the best deal for Canada and majority Canadians, rather then best deals for your present business clients.

    • “Harper is showing that he is a very sore and vindictive looser.“ This is nonsense. Harper has seldom come out to criticize the Liberals. There have been a multitude of occasions on which he might have done so. The Khadr payment is fair game — many, many Canadians are upset and continue to be upset that this was done and upset at how it was done (middle of the night transfer.) This does not even acknowledge the additional payments to 3 men who ostensibly were `tortured` in Syria. It has never been made clear why we are paying for this.
      I do not think that Conservatives underestimated Trudeau in any way. His government has made many missteps, but in fact I for one do not believe that Trudeau is the guy running the show. He was very well prepared for the role he plays — going around the country, glad handing people (kind of like Duffy, only in Duffy`s case it was an accepted role for a Senator)­. Trudeau, however, is supposed to be Prime Minister. I say `supposed to be`because he clearly is not. What he is is the Liberal front man.
      Harper tried for many years to work towards the betterment of Canada. Given how badly he was treated, I would not now criticize him if he chose to stay on the sidelines. Regarding, `getting the best deal`however, I think that is exactly what he is doing when he (rarely) speaks out against the foolishness of the Liberals. Liberals need to smarten up as the country is languishing under their leadership.

      • Gerald Butts is really running the show and look at the mess he developed for Ontario.

  5. Pretty obvious to me at least that labour standards, union isssus, and environmental standards are being brought to the negotiations because of Mexico not US.
    Harper understands that doesn’t he?
    On Mexico taking our manufacturing jobs because of low wages, low standards of all kinds, we are more aligned with the US and even Trump.
    But we won’t say it!

    • Really. You think Climate Change saber rattling by Canada isn’t aimed at Trump. That’s like poking a bear in the eye with a stick. You will end up wishing you hadn’t.

  6. “Stephen Harper’s NAFTA memo shows how little the former PM has changed”

    Dinosaurs would rather go extinct than change.

    Or his business is drying up and he wants some free advertising.

  7. Where was Steve when they were setting up the team? His expertise might have come in handy.

    After all he ‘successfully’ negotiated away the $7 billion NAFTA court award for a ‘fleet’ of three Boeings ( he saved the Company that is currently suing the ass off us and Bombardier), a handful of magic beans and the gratitude of Bushco the second.

    “A good deal is one where both sides get something and complain about not getting everything”, said the President at the time. I’m still trying to figure out what he wanted – other than not paying anything.

    Streve could have really ‘stood up’ to Trump.

  8. Justin Trudeau’s idea of a good deal is selling out Canadian softwood lumber producers for a State Dinner in his “honour” at the White House.

    Justin Trudeau’s idea of a good deal is charging Canadians for speeches when he was a sitting Member of Parliament.

    Justin Trudeau’s idea of a good deal is taking free vacations from one of the world’s wealthiest persons who also is a large recipient of funds from the Canadian government.

  9. Wish to hell all the Liberal media would look at the big picture, this country is going to hell in a hand basket. You folk who believe Liberals are the be all, end all, shame on you all. Canada first! I am not going along to get along with the new BUZZ WORDS that you all want to spew out and I am not going to change my way of life in my Country for anyone!

    Do not try to silence me, don’t call me a islamophia, racists, white supremacist, xenophobia, Gender racists, gender discriminator, Misogynist or whatever the hell the buzz word of the month is. I pay taxes, I care how they are being pizzed away, and the MEDIA is so up Liberals (you know what) it is ridiculous.

    I used to think Macleans was a stand up news source, magazines, but boy have you changed!

    Paul Wells, just how many of Justin’s events have you hosted, how many interviews have you done with him, how many videos have you drooling over him!? Seriously, Paul you are wearing thin on a lot of people who do NOT agree with Justin’s smug, and nasty comments about the Canadian TAXPAYERS who pay for his NEWEST vote base, Jihadi Justin!

    • Lol, your “Jihadi Justin” sounds like Trump calling Obama “ISIS”. Most of my rather educated, smart and successful friends are liberal, and some dear ones are Conservatives. But they clearly denounce any of the social nonsense you are talking and the fear the Conservatives stoke. They are fiscally conservative but respectful of the Liberals’ social values and idealism which moves society forward and not backward. What’s making you so angry? The fact that the Conservatives under Harper not only violated a minor’s Canadian rights (whether he was a terrorist or not is not my expertise) but colluded with a foreign power to cause physical harm to their own citizen who was a minor? And that the government would be found guilty and their lawyers advised a settlement? You know I’m talking about the Khadr case? And you would be ok for your government to do that to you while you were a minor, influenced by criminals or not? Then you need to look into yourself and see why someone may be encouraged to call you an “islamophia, racists, white supremacist, xenophobia, Gender racists, gender discriminator, Misogynist or whatever the hell…”

      • Almost all the Liberals I know are very close to being outright socialists and that includes Justin Trudeau as well as his communist loving father. And most are Liberal Arts grads with little understanding of reality. I’m all for sound and deserving social programs but there has to be some prioritization and efficient and effective management. Those concepts are foreign to most Liberals, including Trudeau, who see the wealthy as an unending source of tax dollars for them to fund any whim that comes along.

  10. Wrong article but right author so I’ll put it here.

    Wells, moment of truth, support Science, rationality, Perimeter Inst, research in science and tech, or join the gathering anti Trudeau, anti Payette Ottawa media herd forming to go in for the kill.

  11. You dismiss Harper at your own risk. He will catch you with your pants down again.