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COMMENTARY: Liberal approach puts numerous trade deals at risk

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam on Nov. 9, 2017. Rob Breakenridge says Trudeau's approach to trade talks seems less about getting the best deal and more about enhancing his 'progressive' political brand.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam on Nov. 9, 2017. Rob Breakenridge says Trudeau's approach to trade talks seems less about getting the best deal and more about enhancing his 'progressive' political brand. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

It’s unclear what Justin Trudeau’s ultimate legacy will be, but being the prime minister who had the dubious distinction of letting NAFTA, the TPP, and a trade deal with China slip through his fingers would go a long way in defining that legacy. More than just being a significant blight on Trudeau’s tenure as prime minister, it would represent a tremendous setback for the Canadian economy.

One has to wonder, then, what sort of dangerous game the Trudeau government is playing here — especially given his claim that this issue keeps him up at night.

WATCH BELOW: Justin Trudeau says NAFTA’s future is an issue that keeps him up at night

Trudeau reveals what keeps him up at night in year-end interview
Trudeau reveals what keeps him up at night in year-end interview

In fairness to the Liberals, they are one-for-one so far in the completion of trade deals, but most of the heavy lifting on the free trade deal with the European Union was done prior to the Liberals taking office. It’s also the case that the NAFTA renegotiation was thrust upon them by an unpredictable American president. For example, just over a week ago, Donald Trump indicated he was willing to extend the NAFTA deadline and let negotiations play out. But then this past week, Trump again suggested he may terminate NAFTA. Navigating these confusing signals is a difficult challenge.

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READ MORE: Time for Liberals to ‘really pour it on’ with NAFTA: Scheer

It is, however, fair to judge the Liberals on how they’re responding to all of this. And so far, it’s less than encouraging.

We are now just days away from the beginning of the sixth and final round of NAFTA negotiations, and there are troubling signs that the Liberal approach may be putting a deal at risk. It was reported by Bloomberg News that the Americans are losing patience with the slow pace of talks and a lack of concrete proposals from Canada. Moreover, there is growing U.S. frustration around Trudeau’s so-called “progressive agenda,” which has included a focus on issues like gender equality and the environment. There were similar warnings earlier this month, and a leaked memo from former prime minister Stephen Harper confirmed many of the same concerns.

Perhaps this is political posturing aimed a domestic audience. If NAFTA talks are doomed anyway, the Liberals may have concluded that there’s some political benefit to the prime minister looking like a martyr for these progressive causes. But if it’s the posturing itself that is threatening to derail negotiations, then the blame lies at the Liberals’ feet. The Liberals, of course, are downplaying all of this, but it’s not the first time we’ve heard of this approach — and how it’s proven to be problematic in trade negotiations.

READ MORE: Trudeau to visit U.S. cities to stress economic ties amid NAFTA uncertainty

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Trudeau recently suffered an embarrassing setback in China, when he failed to secure any commitment from the Chinese on talks for a free trade deal between the two countries. Again, it would appear as though impatience — this time from the Chinese — over Trudeau’s “progressive trade agenda” is at the root of this failure.

That’s not to say such issues are devoid of significance. But it’s hard to see how they constitute make-or-break issues in trade talks. Again, it seems less about negotiating the best deal and more about enhancing Trudeau’s political brand as a champion of progressive causes. However, if establishing a political brand comes at the cost of being known as one who bungles trade deals, that hardly seems worth it.

The revival of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), for example, was an unexpected gift to the Liberals after the American departure from the TPP had seemingly scuttled the deal. Even Trudeau himself has described the TPP as a backup for Canada if NAFTA were to fail. Yet even in this instance, we seem determined to make a mess of things.

READ MORE: Morneau admits NAFTA uncertainty could hurt business investment in Canada

Talks on a new TPP stalled in November, and fingers of blame were being pointed directly at Canada. Japan, for example, has expressed frustration at just how confusing Canada’s position on TPP has become. Frankly, Canadians should be frustrated, too.

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It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which a Canadian government manages to scuttle three trade deals in a single year. Yet 2018 is now shaping up to be a year where such a scenario is suddenly very real. Hopefully it’s not too late for the Liberals to wake up and change course.

Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.