It would have been nothing short of stunning to have seen anything but a united front this week from Canada’s premiers on the importance of saving NAFTA, but one should not discount the value of boring predictability on such matters.
Political unanimity on the importance of free trade — and the importance of free trade with the U.S., specifically — is a relatively recent phenomenon, and it warms the hearts of us open market enthusiasts to see politicians from across the spectrum championing our cause.
And as premiers gathered at the Council of the Federation meeting in New Brunswick, there was no shortage of ideas on how best to make the case for free trade. There was talk of crafting a strategy to connect with “grassroots” Americans, to sell them on the benefits of trading with Canada — host premier Brian Gallant even suggested that he and his fellow premiers appear on Fox News to make the case directly to the president’s supporters.
While their heart is no doubt in the right place, sending Canada’s premiers into the American heartland — or to the Fox News studios, for that matter — is likely going to accomplish very little. There is already a multitude of voices representing Team Canada, and ultimately it’s going to require savvy negotiating tactics and political will from the federal government and those speaking on its behalf.
WATCH: Canada’s premiers gather in N.B., address carbon pricing concerns
It was that same Brian Gallant who, in the lead-up to this meeting, had been talking up the importance of an issue much more relevant to the roles and mandates of Canada’s premiers. Gallant noted recently that the ongoing trade drama with the U.S. should provide some urgency to the matter of further reducing internal trade barriers that impede trade within provinces.
Rather than prepping for a NAFTA debate with Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson, our premiers would do well to direct their attention to the matter of free trade within Canada.
Oddly enough, as the premiers had all gathered in New Brunswick on Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that he would be hosting a first ministers meeting this fall, with the goal of working toward an “interconnected Canadian economy that is free from unnecessary barriers and restrictions imposed by provinces and territories.”
WATCH: Trudeau says free trade needed between provinces
It’s a welcome announcement, to be sure. It also had the effect of making the New Brunswick premiers’ gathering seem somewhat pointless. What’s the point of the premiers sitting around and lamenting the state of NAFTA negotiations when they’re going to reconvene in a few months and hopefully make some progress on an issue they actually have some control over?
There was an opportunity to at least lay the groundwork for that fall meeting and, in that sense, this premiers meeting wasn’t a total waste. A tentative agreement was reached to effectively double the amount of alcohol that individuals can transport across provincial borders for personal use. Other transportation limits would still exist, though, and there’s still the much bigger issue of protectionist policies keeping out-of-province alcohol products off store shelves.
The Canada Free Trade Agreement, which was signed last year, was supposed to address all of this. Unfortunately, that deal has not lived up to its initial hype. We need meaningful action on this front, and that falls to both the premiers and the prime minister.
Trudeau’s cabinet shuffle this week is evidence that he realizes things have stalled. Dominic LeBlanc has been tapped as the new minister for intergovernmental affairs and internal trade, a clear sign that the boss is looking for some results.
WATCH: Dominic LeBlanc changes portfolios, named Minister of Intergovernmental, Northern Affairs and Internal Trade
Speaking earlier this week in Nova Scotia, Trudeau spoke openly of his frustration on the continued existence of barriers to internal trade in Canada, and that “if we want to continue to demonstrate that we know that free trade is good, (… ) then we need to do a better job of doing it here in Canada.” He went on to say that he plans to “continue to put pressure on premiers to move forward in real and tangible ways on internal trade.”
It shouldn’t require pressure on the premiers, though. If they’re going to claim to be suitable ambassadors for selling Americans on why protectionism is foolhardy, it doesn’t help bolster their credentials if they’re simultaneously defending protectionism within their own provinces. In this regard, Trudeau is correct about walking the talk when it comes to free trade.
If the premiers want to have a meaningful impact in facilitating freer trade, this is where their focus needs to be.