OTTAWA – The Conservatives’ former leader doesn’t agree with the current leader’s assertion that Canada got taken to the cleaners by Donald Trump on the renegotiated NAFTA.
Rona Ambrose, who was interim Conservative leader after the party’s 2015 election defeat, says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did make some concessions to get a deal – particularly offering up some limited access to Canada’s supply-managed dairy sector – but also made some important gains.
“I think at the end of the day, we came out doing well,” she said in an interview Tuesday.
Andrew Scheer, who took over the Conservative helm from Ambrose in 2017, has called the new NAFTA a “historic humiliation” and has accused Trudeau of “capitulating” in the face of the mercurial U.S. president’s threats to scrap NAFTA altogether if he didn’t get a new continental trade deal favouring the United States.
Scheer raised the issue again Tuesday in a statement challenging Trudeau to take part in a leaders’ debate on foreign policy scheduled for Oct. 1, less than three weeks before the Oct. 21 federal election.
“(Trudeau) has been incredibly weak on the world stage – backing down to Donald Trump on NAFTA, humiliating Canada and severely damaging relations with India and failing to stand up for Canada’s interests in China,” he said.
Scheer’s assessment of the new NAFTA is not shared by Ambrose, who was a member of a panel Trudeau appointed to provide advice and help create a united multi-party front during the turbulent negotiations.
“I think even the most critical economic analysis shows that, in terms of any loss of GDP, it’s a wash between the U.S. and Canada and Mexico gets hardest hit,” she said.
One assessment by the C.D. Howe Institute found that all three countries will be worse off if the treaty is approved by their legislatures and comes into force: the U.S. economy will be 0.1 per cent smaller than it otherwise would have been, the Canadian economy 0.4 per cent smaller, and the Mexican economy 0.79 per cent smaller. The effects are primarily because of U.S. efforts to get more protections for its manufacturing sector, the analysis found.
“Yes, we gave up some access (in the dairy sector) but we have to remember what we got in return, which was Chapter 19 … That was a big one for us, for Canada,” Ambrose said.
Chapter 19 lays out the trade agreement’s dispute-resolution mechanism and is, in Ambrose’s view, “the heart of the deal for Canada.” Trump was determined to scrap it and allow American courts to judge trade disputes in future but the Trudeau government held firm that some kind of independent dispute-resolution system must be part of the deal.
“It wasn’t an idle threat (from Trump),” said Ambrose. “They were extremely critical of Chapter 19 and I think right up to the last minute it was their intent to scrap it.”
In addition, Ambrose said Canada scored success on having international labour standards and environmental principles entrenched in the deal.
Ambrose said Scheer’s criticism of the dairy concession is consistent with his strong support for supply management. Dairy farmers were instrumental in his leadership victory over Maxime Bernier, who advocated dismantling supply management and has now left the Tories to found his own party.
Scheer, who has dubbed the new trade pact NAFTA 0.5, has also criticized the deal for extending patent protection for pharmaceuticals, which could drive up the cost of prescription drugs. He’s also maintained the deal makes Canadian automakers less competitive and that it gives the U.S. “unprecedented” say over Canadian negotiations with future potential trade partners.
“The prime minister had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to negotiate a better deal and he failed,” Scheer told the House of Commons last May. “He gave Donald Trump everything the president wanted and more.”
But Ambrose said she doesn’t think Canada was outmanoeuvred by Trump.
“No. I think at the end of the day, there’s three parties, everyone gained a little and everyone gave up a little. That’s the nature of a negotiation.”
Former Conservative cabinet minister James Moore, who also served on Trudeau’s NAFTA advisory panel, refused to comment on Scheer’s contention that Trudeau caved in to Trump.
“It’s a fair question, it’s a reasonable story but I’m not going to get sucked into the election,” Moore said in an interview.