LILLEY: Team Trudeau wakes up to American protectionist threat

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The Trudeau government finally appears to be waking up in Washington.

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Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly made the trip the American capital Friday to press issues surrounding protectionist measures being pushed by the Biden administration.

Top of the list of concerns: measures that would hurt auto jobs in Ontario and the Line 5 pipeline that delivers western Canadian oil to Ontario and Quebec but cuts through Michigan where the governor is threatening to shut it down.

“Canadians know we have to defend our interests and we can never take anything for granted,” Joly said Friday.

Except the Trudeau government has been taking things for granted.

After being hyper-vigilant during the Trump administration, responding to every protectionist threat, Trudeau’s team took a more relaxed approach to Joe Biden being in the White House. Maybe they thought a friendly Democrat would be easier to deal with — but they were wrong.

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Biden campaigned on strong protectionist measures that would ignore trade deals such as CUSMA, the renegotiated NAFTA, as well as World Trade Organization rules. He’s kept Trump’s protectionist policies in place and upped the ante.

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Canada has always had to deal with protectionism, but in the past we could count on a relationship between the prime minister and president of the day to try to tamp down on the worst parts of protectionism emanating from Congress. Since the Obama administration, protectionism has started in the White House and been pushed on Congress.

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It’s popular with voters and with Biden’s popularity currently below water, he’s unlikely to be easily swayed.

The Trudeau government should have been ready for this and should have been working on this from Day 1, but they haven’t been. I’m heartened that they are making the right moves now, even if it is late in the game.

Joly’s meeting Friday comes on the heels of trips to Washington by Industry Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland.

Meanwhile, International Trade Minister Mary Ng is in Geneva for a meeting of the WTO where she is rallying allies against the American protectionist measures and will try to push Canada’s case with her American counterpart, Katherine Tai.

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During her news conference Friday, Joly said the government was pushing its message that these protectionist measures threaten jobs on all sides of the border to anyone in Washington who will listen.

“We will continue to make sure that this is well-known throughout the administration but also throughout Congress,” Joly said.

This is what the Trudeau government needs to do: Find allies in Congress and in the business community to make the case that these measures will not only harm Canadian workers, but also American workers.

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Flavio Volpe, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, has suggested when Prime Minister Trudeau visits Washington next week for the Three Amigos summit he could propose a solution that would benefit all three North American leaders. While the Biden proposal on autos would give a tax break of up to $12,500 for an electric vehicle assembled in the U.S. with 50% American parts and an American-made battery, Volpe says that could become a North America-wide initiative.

By Volpe’s calculation, if Canada and Mexico joined the U.S. in offering matching tax breaks but within a North America-made context, it would help secure more than 750,000 American jobs in the parts industry.

Whatever Trudeau does, it has to stop the current proposal. Whether that is by shutting down what is before Congress or finding a new solution along Volpe’s line of thinking does not matter.

What matters is acting in a way that protects Canadian jobs.

Team Trudeau is late to the game, but hopefully not too late. The whole country needs the PM to succeed next week.

blilly@postmedia.com

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