Justin Trudeau's Pacific overture - Macleans.ca

Justin Trudeau’s Pacific overture

Paul Wells adds context to Trudeau’s take on CNOOC

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(Paul Chiasson/CP)

As a rule of thumb, any position that gets a politician called “brave,” “courageous” and full of “guts” in a single column is going to be awfully attractive to most politicians. Say hello to Justin Trudeau, who wants the CNOOC-Nexen deal approved and, as he heads back to Calgary this week, is eager to say so.

Readers are encouraged to debate the wisdom of the policy choice among themselves. I’m here to offer a little further information.

First, if we’re going to start whistling slowly and exclaiming that this Trudeau sure isn’t much like his father, it’ll be handy to get his father right from time to time. Pierre Trudeau was (a) the most China-friendly prime minister in history before Jean Chrétien and, well, Stephen Harper and (b) despite his carefully tended reputation as a haughty ascetic, highly prone to compromise in the interest of furthering long-term goals. Let’s take those in order.

Here’s the book Justin’s brother Alexandre edited, annotated and re-released a few years ago, reminding us that when Pierre Trudeau became the first Canadian prime minister to visit China in 1973, it was a return trip for him. “The point is not to judge other worlds by the standards of your own,” Sacha wrote. “It’s something to remember when dealing with the newly resurgent China.”

When Justin Trudeau writes today that “trade remains a paramount objective, but we can no longer rely on the United States alone to drive our growth” and “we cannot afford to miss vital opportunities elsewhere,” I hear strong echoes of Pierre Trudeau’s “Third Option,” which sought precisely to diversify Canadian trade away from the United States. (So: isolationism was the first, rejected, option; free trade with the US the second; trade with the world the third.)

The notion that Canada, sitting like a fedora on top of North America, can have any significant trade partners besides the obvious one is an idea Conservatives used to snicker at, or one of them anyway: in his first Commons speech as leader of the Opposition in 2002, Stephen Harper complained that Jean Chrétien “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.”

The other reason I think Pierre Trudeau would have recognized a familiar style in Justin Trudeau’s announcement is that the older man was hardly immune to taking stances that might alienate the drowsiest elements of his electoral base. He didn’t win three majorities on debating-club points. Take his decision in 1983 to allow Ronald Reagan to test cruise missiles over Canada. (If you take this walk down memory lane, stick around long enough to hear NDP foreign-affairs critic Pauline Jewett’s magnificent rant in rebuttal. “Isn’t this typical? Parliament’s not in session, six o’clock on a Friday afternoon they make the announcement hoping you’re not around either.” Plus ça change.)

Nor indeed does one need to make connections to Pierre Trudeau to see that Justin Trudeau’s stance has roots in solid, if lately undernourished, Liberal traditions. Winning Liberals have often been natural-resource Liberals. Here’s Chrétien this year at the world’s biggest mining conference in Toronto; he subsidized the oil sands up the wazoo and made an Edmontonian his natural-resources minister.

Trudeau’s stance on CNOOC makes it harder for Martha Hall Findlay to pose as the spoiler who Gets The West; draws a clear distinction with the NDP, which doesn’t like the deal; and leaves Harper an unpalatable choice between rejecting the bid and falling into line behind a guy named Trudeau. Interesting.