Gary Doer on U.S. elections, the 'fiscal cliff,' and the after-effects of Argo

In conversation with Canada's ambassador to the U.S.

Joshua Roberts

Gary Doer, the former premier of Manitoba, has been Canada’s ambassador to the United States since 2009. He has been at the forefront of pushing Ottawa’s agenda in Washington, including the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would bring bitumen from the oil sands to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Another proposed project—a new bridge between Detroit and Windsor—got a boost on Election Day when Michigan voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have hamstrung the project. And, on Jan. 1, Washington is facing the so-called “fiscal cliff”—half a trillion dollars of expiring tax breaks and scheduled budget cuts which, if allowed to take effect between 2013 and 2021, could tip the U.S. economy into another recession.

Q: During the election campaign, were you reaching out to Mitt Romney to lay the groundwork for continuity on issues of interest to Canada? How does that work?

A: There is a fine line. You are obviously dealing with the elected government of the day. As for people on the other team, you follow their platforms and you go to the conventions to find out what their thinking is on issues that are important to Canada. For example, you could pick up at [the Republican National Convention in] Tampa fairly easily that there was a split among delegates on Afghanistan. That is important given Canada’s commitment to remain in Afghanistan until 2014.

Q: Had you known Romney?

A: I had met him when he was governor. I had met a lot of his team. But having said that, you respect that there is only one administration.

Q: Is there any opportunity to educate a presidential candidate about our issues?

A: Yes, particularly at the conventions. Say there is a foreign affairs panel on Afghanistan, you talk to the panellists afterward or someone you know who is writing the [campaign’s] transition book and say, “Here is Canada’s position.”

Q: The Keystone XL pipeline was one area of contrast between the candidates. Mitt Romney said he’d approve it on “day one.”

A: The reality is we are still trying to get it approved in Nebraska. People forget that on Nov. 1, 2011, Nebraska held a special session to oppose Hillary Clinton’s proposed environmental impact statement [analyzing the proposed route]. On Nov. 10, it was the President who then said, because of this I’m going to delay my presidential permit. So that isn’t part of the Canadian narrative and it isn’t part of the narrative here in Washington, but it is part of the reality. The perception of the people in Nebraska [was] that the route wasn’t the safest route. Now the amended portion goes around [the Sandhills portion of Nebraska’s Ogallala Aquifer]. The amended route, according to the polls in Nebraska, is now supported by the people of Nebraska.

Q: Do you have any notion when there might be a decision?

A: I’ll be in touch with the governor of Nebraska. I know him. And he’s going to have his public hearing. He’s not going to let anyone interfere with that. Then he’ll hopefully sign on.

Q: Then it goes back to the State Department?

A: It won’t go back to State until Nebraska deals with the Sandhills portion of the Aquifer.

Q: Now that you have the results of the election, there is the “fiscal cliff” discussion. What can you do or what do you do as this unfolds?

A: Canada has a deficit of 1.5 per cent of GDP in our budget compared to close to nine per cent in the American budget. We’ll continue to answer questions about our views on how you get a consensus on dealing with deficits—if we are asked. We are not going to tell them, “This is what we did,” because it’s obviously a different system.

Q: So what do you tell them?

A: That there is a consensus to slowly, but surely and fairly, lower the deficit in Canada.

Q: Do you say it’s got to include both revenue increases and spending cuts?

A: Slowly, surely and fairly. The definition of fairly is subjective. We wouldn’t want the Americans to tell us how to manage our fiscal house. And they don’t want us to tell them how to manage theirs. But when we are asked, we try to give them our experience.

Q: Are you asked often?

A: When there is a big topic on the Hill, like budgets, we get asked about it, yes. This fiscal cliff is very important for Canada. It’s huge for us. For workers in Canada and for businesses in Canada, this is a big issue—le grand fromage.

Q: Do you see any reason to believe the fiscal cliff will be averted?

A: Well, I can see a scenario where it could be averted, but I also see a scenario where the tax reductions expire and then people [in Congress] could vote on a tax reduction of something like half [the size]. You could see it happening in two steps.

Q: What about some kind of agreement in the lame-duck Congress?

A: It would be better to have it done ahead of time. That would be preferable to the whole world. If it’s not solved, not only is it a reduction of GDP in the U.S. and a reduction of economic demand in Canada but, for example, the spending cuts include $50 billion of cuts to defence and homeland security [in the next fiscal year]. So obviously we are concerned about that. We have a defence relationship with the U.S. So there are consequences to these things.

Q: If the U.S. cuts significantly on defence spending, does Canada have to spend more?

A: In the Boca Raton [debate], the President did say the sequester cut to defence is not going to happen. That’s what he said. And he now has a mandate to implement that.

Q: On the other big issue, the Beyond the Border plan to increase co-operation and cut red tape at the border, there will be continuity.

A: Yes, that’s very good. To give you an example, we had meetings here in Washington on Monday [before Election Day] with the White House on the Beyond the Border plan.

Q: Where does it stand?

A: We are going though the checklist of items in the plan that was announced. Shiprider [a joint maritime law enforcement agreement] has been announced, cargo protocols have been announced, air luggage [protocols] have been announced, privacy and risk information sharing principles have been agreed to and we’ll be road-testing them with pilot projects. We’re very committed to it.

Q: Do you still see Buy American proposals popping up in Congress?

A: We had four proposals last spring and none of them went through. In February 2010, we worked on getting waivers on the state-provincial procurement issues under the Buy American part of the Recovery Act. That’s because provincial and state procurement wasn’t covered by NAFTA. When we announced the agreement on the waivers we also announced a table to try to deal longer term with procurement on either side of the border.

Q: Have there been negotiations?

A: There have been discussions. I wouldn’t call them negotiations.

Q: What else is on your plate?

A: The first thing we do is keep the lines of communication open. There are a number of economic people leaving Washington: Treasury, Commerce, and we don’t know how that’s going to shake down with trade. Secondly, we are seeking two presidential permits: the [Detroit-Windsor] bridge and Keystone XL. With the bridge, we’ve got the agreement of the governor and the Prime Minister. We’ve got this referendum dealt with. We’re now going to agencies, to the State Department. Then we’ve got the agreement between the Prime Minister and President on regulatory reform and Beyond the Border. We’ve got things like ballast water, softwood lumber, salmon and the Cohen report; we have the Great Lakes water agreement, we have the Beaufort Sea. We are taking over the chairpersonship of the Arctic Council in the spring of 2013. There is a lot of interest in that here in the States.

Q: Were there any other implications for Canada from his election?

A: What we’ve had is what we’ve got. We have good relationships between the elected leader of our country and the elected leader of the U.S., we have credibility on Capitol Hill on a lot of the fundamentals and we are perceived as a good, reliable ally. And, when you cut to the chase, do you know what the biggest outreach program we’ve got going on? Argo. I’ve gotten notes and texts from people thanking [me] for Canada’s role. A friend of mine from Colorado, a former governor, said, “God, when I was at the movie in Denver—and I’ve never seen this before in my life—people stood up and clapped at the end.”