Canada John Ivison: Why the U.S. doesn't take us seriously
John Ivison: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has reasons to snicker
As Justin Trudeau presided over his first Liberal caucus meeting since the election, he must have been snickering up his sleeve. In September, he barely hung on to his minority government status, winning the support of just one in five of those on the elector’s list — one third of the 62 percent who voted. Yet he stands on the brink of again enjoying the free-wheeling, unfettered standing of a majority government prime minister, if a rumoured deal with the NDP transpires.
One early December morning in 2016, Joe Biden got up, inquired into President Barack Obama’s health, and set off for a snowy Ottawa.
The lame duck vice-president was feted at a ritzy state dinner in the capital, where he called on Justin Trudeau to be a defender of the international “rules of the road” during the period of deep uncertainty he predicted would follow Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th president of the United States.
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Republican victories in a series of off-year elections in the United States last week were the result of the Democratic party moving too far to the left of the American public. Democrats now face the choice of reining in the party’s more ideological factions, or risking defeat in next year’s midterm elections, thus providing an incentive for policymakers to move toward the political centre. In Canada, however, we see the opposite effect: a political system that has shifted to the left and is now serving to pull once-centrist parties further afield.
“We’re more like family even than allies. I mean that sincerely,” he said – repeatedly.
But Biden has not walked his fine talk. A preoccupation with domestic politics has seen him adopt a protectionist agenda, which contravenes the trade agreement Trudeau hammered out with Trump and the Mexican government.
His Administration is proposing to increase U.S. content requirements under the Buy American program, and its Build Back Better legislation includes incentives for electric vehicles that are already re-shaping the automobile manufacturing industry on this continent. The proposal is to offer incentives worth a maximum of US$12,500 per car on new EVs made in the United States using union labour. (Canada’s federal incentive tops out at $5,000, although a number of provinces have their own offers.)
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Stephen Harper had a reputation as a strict disciplinarian when it came to caucus management but, in fact, his MPs most often policed themselves, with discipline enforced by a sense of mutual respect and common purpose. One former Conservative MP said caucus regulation was a collective effort. “We kept it under control ourselves. You always had the odd renegade like Garth Turner but overall it worked,” he said. Jay Hill, former chief whip and Government House Leader in the Harper years (and now leader of the Maverick Party), said there were few occasions he had to resort to threatening colleagues, partly because they knew that Harper didn’t tolerate dissent, but mainly beca
Trudeau is in Washington to attend the North American Leaders’ Summit with Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, the first such Three Amigos meeting since 2016. There will be a bilateral meeting with Biden as part of what is billed as an attempt to “deepen economic co-operation and security partnerships.”
After the turbulent Trump years, Biden pledged to lower tensions with America’s trading partners and allies. Yet the U.S. president has proven a fair-weather friend.
Trudeau is set to echo the comments of ministers Mélanie Joly and Mary Ng, that the EV incentives are. Mexico is also urging that the EV proposal be brought into line with the hard-won trade agreement.
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Flavio Volpe, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers Association, once called Trump’s proposal to put a 25 per cent tariff on Canadian autos “the car-pocalypse.” But he said Biden’s proposal to lower prices by 33 per cent for U.S-built EVs is even worse. “It’s the same principle but a different medium – and it’s contrary to the WTO and USMCA.”
The implications are already apparent. The Toronto Star reported last week that 3,000 jobs at the Chrysler plant in Brampton, Ont., will be at risk when it stops making the Dodge Charger and Dodge Challenger brands in 2023, with manufacture of the replacement electric vehicles set to move to Belvidere, Illinois, to take advantage of the U.S. domestic subsidy.
Stellantis, the company forged by the merger of Fiat Chrysler and PSA Group, is contemplating building a battery plant in Ontario or Quebec. But Volpe said he imagines that decision will be affected by the same dynamics influencing the siting of vehicle assembly plants.
Volpe’s proposal to resolve the problem is one that Trudeau is likely to suggest to Biden – namely, to harmonize EV incentives with the trade agreement by dumping the U.S-only clause and replacing it with USMCA signatories, which would bring both Canada and Mexico under the U.S. protectionist umbrella. To counter the union clause, Canada could suggest the adoption of the labour value content provision in USMCA, which states that if manufacturers pay less than US$16 an hour, they must source 40 per cent of their content from plants that do.
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Canada does have reserves of the critical minerals like lithium and cobalt needed in battery production. But nobody believes that Trudeau would dare threaten to withhold Canada’s mineral wealth.
To ask Biden to reverse himself on an issue that is a winner with blue collar voters is a big ask of a president who has shown few signs of sentimental attachment to his liberal kindred spirit in Ottawa.
Perrin Beatty, president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and a former defence minister, said we’re witnessing an evolution in the relationship with the White House. “It used to be special – now it’s transactional,” he said. “It’s overlooked in Canada but the Democrats are the party of protectionism. It was Trump who changed the Republican Party.”
There may be good domestic reasons to amend the bill as it’s written. The Administration hopes to pass it through the House of Representatives in the coming days but the Senate will prove a tougher sell, given West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin is opposed (his state hosts a non-unionized Toyota plant.)
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The Three Amigos? I beg your pardon. Is that an appropriate nomenclature for a conclave of the three finest minds in the statesmanship of our present-day world? What ugly slur next — the Sombrero Summit? Enough of these careless and undignified representations. Surely a meeting between leaders of the intellectual stamina of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and particularly that giant of international understanding and competence — a Churchill for our time — U.S. President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., calls for a more dignified, respectful designation than a play on some fifth-rate movie.
But the president is unlikely to do Canada a good turn just because we treated him to a nice dinner five years ago.
Andrew Leslie, the retired lieutenant general and former Liberal MP, was involved in the trade talks that concluded with USMCA. He said there is a certain lack of respect in Washington for Trudeau. “In my opinion, the two men (Trudeau and Biden) don’t enjoy a very close relationship,” he said. Nor is there high regard for this country’s commitment to its own defence. “They don’t see us as a nation that is serious about defence capabilities, or truly committed to continental defence with the U.S.,” Leslie said.
As he and other senior military figures in Canada point out, the first concern of the White House is security.
“We look at the Canada-U.S. relationship through the lens of trade and what’s in it for us. We don’t necessarily gain advantage from that,” said Mark Norman, the former vice-chief of the defence staff.
He said he would not be surprised if Biden brings up Canada’s defence spending, this country’s position on China and NORAD renewal.
“The bottom line is that this recurring back and forth is likely wearing thin with our neighbours,” said Norman.
On NORAD, Harjit Sajjan, the former defence minister, and Lloyd James Austin, the U.S. secretary of defence, issued a joint statement in August agreeing to replace the obsolete North Warning System patchwork of long and short range radar installation with more advanced technology “as soon as possible”. The old system was designed to give advanced warning of approaching Russian bombers, not ballistic missiles. The two sides agreed to build a network of sensors from sea floor to outer space and develop the capability to defeat evolving aerospace threats to North America.
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Remember the Great Reset ? The theory, which reached its crescendo around a year ago, was that Justin Trudeau & Company planned to transform Canada’s society and economy, at the very least along dramatically more socialist lines — think Scandinavia — or, if you listened to the more bug-eyed prognosticators, into a totalitarian hellscape where private property is abolished and government snipers shoot vaccine darts at scurrying pedestrians. Even Even at the Scandinavian end of the predictive spectrum, it was a preposterously ambitious goal to ascribe to muddle-along Trudeau — not to mention to Canadian voters, who do not generally evince a desire to pay vastly higher taxes.
But it was a typically Canadian undertaking – an open-ended pledge, without a firm commitment or cash attached.
The Liberal election platform also included a promise to upgrade the NWS. But crucially, no money was allocated to build a system that would detect low flying cruise missiles and drones.
James Fergusson, deputy director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba, estimated that a so-called “over the horizon” system would cost up to $11-billion, cost shared 60:40 with the U.S., which would pay the lion’s share. He called it “the most immediate and pressing defence requirement for North American defence.”
But the government has not budgeted to spend any money on NWS modernization in the next 20 years, despite having allocated $143 billion on various pet programs in budget 2021 and a further $78 billion in the recent Liberal election platform.
“The current system is out of date and the government needs to do something. But it is not a priority,” said Fergusson.
“It matters to them (the Americans) and it should matter to us,” said Norman.
“Canadians always underestimate how irritated Americans can get with us on this stuff,” said Leslie.
It really is no wonder Biden is ill-disposed to do Canada any favours. In his speech in Ottawa in 2016, he compared the United States to an overbearing big brother. “I really mean it,” he said. What he left unsaid, is that his analogy makes Canada the immature, undependable younger sibling.
It is a fitting comparison. This is a government that does not take its own national defence seriously, so why should anyone take it seriously?
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Justin Trudeau saw for himself the impact of the atmospheric river that broke rainfall records in British Columbia, leaving dikes breached, homes submerged, highways washed out and livestock drowned. Another pulse of storms is forecast for this weekend. “We’ll see what God has in store,” one resident told Global TV, stoically. But as distressing as the flooding has been, the lack of preparation for extreme weather in the province has been just as shocking. Ed Fast, the MP for Abbotsford, one of the worst affected cities, said all levels of government have been aware for years about the potential for flooding but didn’t act.