LILLEY: Trudeau needs facetime with Biden and so far, he’s failing

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It’s often said that a good part of Canada’s foreign affairs file is managing the relationship between Ottawa and Washington. On that front, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is failing badly, something that was on display Monday.

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Trudeau finally had a one-on-one meeting with an American politician — just the wrong one. Instead of meeting with President Joe Biden, Trudeau’s itinerary proudly proclaimed that he was meeting with Michael Bloomberg.

That’s right, Trudeau’s big meeting was with a retired mayor of New York who failed to win the Democratic nomination against Biden.

We can add the Bloomberg meeting to those with the prime ministers of Argentina, Spain and Holland — all countries which really aren’t all that important for Canada’s economic future. Trudeau did have a brief meeting with Britain’s Boris Johnston and Italy’s Mario Draghi, but he hasn’t met with Biden while at the G20 in Rome nor at the COP26 in Glasgow.

This matters because our trade with the United States matters and Biden is pushing ahead with even more protectionist measures.

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Rather than finding a solution on softwood lumber or embracing the recently renegotiated NAFTA, Biden is making it more difficult for Canadian businesses to bid on American contracts and is pushing a tax proposal that could seriously damage Ontario’s auto industry.

Where is Trudeau on this? He’s missing in action.

Trudeau can’t get a meeting with Biden and Canadian officials aren’t getting the key access they used to in Washington.

Discussions with people close to the trade file describe a situation where Canada isn’t liked or hated in Washington right now, we just aren’t on anyone’s mind. That would be an acceptable state of affairs if there were no issues in the relationship, but that’s not the case. There are issues to deal with, but Trudeau has his priorities elsewhere.

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When he delivered Canada’s national statement at the climate summit in Glasgow on Monday, Trudeau announced that his government would impose hard caps on Canada’s oil and gas sector.

“That’s no small task for a major oil and gas producing country,” Trudeau told the conference.

“Climate action can’t wait.”

Neither can the people whose jobs rely on access to the American market — be it in lumber or autos — but Trudeau isn’t leading on that front. He’s absent.

Given that the Ontario government, and the province’s auto industry, have put a big push on to be leaders in electric vehicles, you would think that Trudeau would make this issue a priority. The plan is to have parts, assembly and raw materials for electric batteries come from Ontario’s plants and mines.

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If successful, the province would be a North American leader. To be successful, though, means not only access to the US market but a level playing field.

The Biden administration wants to offer Americans a tax rebate of $12,500, but only on electric vehicles assembled in the United States with 50% American-made components and an American-made battery.

As electric vehicles move from playthings for the wealthy to an everyday car, that kind of rebate will be a driver of purchasing decisions and investment decisions by manufacturers.

Biden’s plan would violate both the free trade agreement and World Trade Organization rules, but using the dispute resolution mechanisms in those agreements would take years. To solve this, Trudeau needs to convince Biden that his plan is wrong, not just for Canada but the entire auto industry and American workers, as well.

To be able to do that, he needs to meet with Biden, not one of the guys Biden beat on his road to the White House.

Trudeau needs to start taking his job of looking after Canadian interests as seriously as he takes his job of making grand climate announcements.

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