The Conservatives on NAFTA: Here to Help

 Andrew Scheer

As has been noted already during the NAFTA 2.0 process, including by the former Conservative prime minister who achieved the original deal in his Q&A in this issue, Canada is far more unified across partisan lines this time than it was three decades ago, when a brutal election was fought on free trade. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has some constructive input on how the Opposition this time, while less oppositional, can play an important role in securing an agreement.

The Conservatives are Canada’s party of free trade.

This is a policy legacy of which we are immensely proud. Free trade agreements signed under Conservative governments have led to greater prosperity, job growth and opportunity for Canadians across our country.

It’s not simply a matter of looking at trade statistics—free trade lowers prices for Canadian consumers and opens up new markets for Canadian small businesses. Its positive effects are felt in every community in Canada.

Conservatives understand why Canadians are anxious about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) re-negotiations. With 1-in-5 Canadian jobs linked to trade, it is clear that NAFTA is integral to Canada’s prosperity. It is therefore not surprising to find out that the majority of Canadians are concerned about the ongoing re-negotiations.

The Conservative Party’s proud history of free trade and these fundamental Canadian interests are top of mind for our MPs as Justin Trudeau engages in re-negotiations. After a decade in office, and with a solid record of expanding free trade access to over 50 countries, Canada’s Conservatives have a great deal of insight and experience to offer.

Canada and the United States are the world’s largest trading partners. Our trade relationship has created 550,000 jobs in the auto sector, 400,000 in forestry and 211,000 in aerospace. These industries, and dozens more, move over $2 billion in trade over the Canada-U.S. border every single day. We are the top trading partner of 32 U.S. states, and approximately 9 million American jobs depend on trade with us.

These are the stakes as the Liberal government sits down to renegotiate NAFTA with the U.S. and Mexico. The numbers may be abstract, but the reality for millions of Canadians is that their jobs and livelihoods depend on this robust trade relationship. Canada cannot afford to bargain away access to the U.S. market. We can’t allow protectionist rhetoric on either side of the border to undermine our ability to trade freely across the border.

I have been giving a great deal of thought to the question of how we define our role in this process, first and foremost as Canadians, but also as Conservatives, and as the Official Opposition.

Our Conservative Opposition will not be mere observers to this process. Indeed, we’ve already acted to promote Canada’s interests directly with decision-makers in the U.S. My predecessor as leader of the Conservative Party, Rona Ambrose, moved quickly to defend Canada’s interests, visiting Washington in January and taking Canada’s case to senior American lawmakers like Sen. Orrin Hatch, Chair of the Senate Finance Committee. During a return visit in April, she met with met with U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, among others.

Conservative MPs have been reaching out to their American counterparts, and many have been to Washington over the course of this year. Many members of the Conservative caucus have experience in negotiating trade agreements and in building our continental relationship. Members of Parliament like Randy Hoback and Gerry Ritz have been working hard to promote Canada’s interests and make sure their counterparts understand the importance of a robust and open trade relationship. Our Caucus will continue to assist the government by promoting the merits of free trade whenever they have the opportunity to do so.

Our Conservative Opposition wants to see Canada succeed at the negotiating table. That means doing everything we can to argue Canada’s case and promote free trade, but it also requires the vigorous work of an Official Opposition, holding the government to account in Parliament.

It is our job as Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition to ask serious questions about the Liberal government’s priorities in these negotiations. This is a duty we undertake with the greatest respect to the values and interests I have outlined above. It is not a matter of routine partisanship, an accusation the government might well make in response to any criticism they receive during these negotiations. Conservatives won’t seek to emulate the Liberal approach to free trade talks in the 1980s, when a Liberal MP famously remarked that his party would blame “every sparrow that falls” on the government. This is not our Conservative approach.

We believe that a strong, principled Opposition will strengthen our negotiators’ defence of Canada’s interests in these talks. There is a parallel to be noted with the American trade negotiation process. The United States Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, is responsible to Congress. During his confirmation hearings at the U.S. Senate Finance Committee in March and April, Lighthizer was interviewed by senators of both parties, Democratic and Republican, over his positions on various trade issues. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, demanded the trade representative take a hard line over softwood lumber. Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania, wanted Lighthizer to oppose Canada’s supply management program. Regardless of their party, every senator pressed the incoming Trade Representative to defend their state’s interests in negotiations with Canada over NAFTA. This isn’t seen as rote partisanship. It’s the job of America’s elected representatives.

American negotiators come to the table knowing they have to deliver something that will secure enough votes to pass through Congress. And this need to sell Congress on the deal has its uses as a bargaining tactic, one that Canadian negotiators will find all too familiar.

We think pressure from an effective Conservative Opposition can serve the same purpose. That’s why Conservatives won’t hesitate to raise these important questions and to demand the government tell Canadians its plan to defend the jobs that depend on NAFTA. As we see Congress pressing American trade negotiators to take a hard line with Canada, we will push our government to defend, and even expand, our trade access to the American market. When the Liberal government fails Canadians on major trade issues Conservatives will hold them accountable. For example, the Liberal government’s inability to secure a softwood lumber agreement with the former Obama Administration left the Trump Administration with significant leverage over Canada at the NAFTA negotiating table because of the tens of thousands of jobs that are created by our forestry sector. The Liberals will also find increasing difficulty making the case that U.S. firms need access to the Canadian market as they pursue misguided economic policies that raise the cost of operating a business in Canada. Conservatives have not hesitated to point out the problems these Liberal failures have created for our position in this negotiating process.

We will also be pushing the Liberals to go beyond just meeting with politicians. When the U.S. threatened Canada with their “Buy American” policy, the previous Conservative government did not just make our case to Washington by ourselves. Instead, we found businesses all across the U.S. that employed American workers thanks to trade with Canada. We had them help make our case for us; they helped us convince U.S. lawmakers that it was also in their country’s interests to keep our borders open. The Liberals need to be doing much more of this kind of heavy lifting. I believe that Donald Trump is much more likely to agree with Canada’s position if he is convinced of the benefit to his own country.

Above all else, these negotiations should not be handled with a wait-and-see approach. We need clarity on Canada’s plan and on what we expect to win through these negotiations. Getting these answers and holding the government accountable is central to our role as Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. This is not blind partisanship; it’s our Parliamentary democracy at work.

The legacy of our landmark free trade agreement with the United States, and its subsequent expansion into the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico, is one of massive economic expansion, job growth and integration between our continent’s three large, dynamic economies. Millions of jobs across the continent depend on free trade between our countries, a fact Canadians understand well. This is why Conservatives take these NAFTA negotiations with the utmost seriousness. We have a very important role to play, and a great deal of wisdom and experience to offer. We will do whatever we can to promote Canada’s case south of the border, but we will also hold the government to account when we believe Canadian jobs could be at risk. NAFTA is a historical legacy of the Conservative Party, and we will not stay silent when Canada’s prosperity is threatened by U.S. protectionism, or Liberal mismanagement.

Andrew Scheer is Leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, Leader of the Opposition, and MP for Regina-Qu’Appelle.