No Shortage of Ideas for Martin and Bush
by Margret Kopala

Published by the Ottawa Citizen, April 17, 2004

“Of course it would be better if we played from one deck of cards instead of six hands against the dealer,” Larry Hill said.

The Saskatchewan farmer and chairman of the Canadian Wheat Board’s trade committee was comparing the problems of the wheat board and the softwood lumber industries, both of which have been subjected to interminable legal challenges and punitive duties from American special interests. Recently, even Canadian cattle, just when it looks like they could start moving across the border, have been threatened with legal challenges.

“You would have to get agreement from a lot of sectors,” Hill concluded. “For instance, would Alberta be willing to play the energy card?”

If the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE) has its way, that one deck of cards could be in hand sooner than anyone expects.

Last week, Canada’s most influential business organization released its discussion paper NEW FRONTIERS Building a 21st Century Canada-United States Partnership in North America. Signed by Richard George of Suncor Energy Inc. and Thomas d’Aquino who led the charge for the Free Trade and North American Free Trade Agreements, this document means business beyond any normal sense of the word.

In fact, this document is so important, it’s not surprising the prime minister dispatched his parliamentary secretary on Canada-US relations, Scott Brison, to Washington with a few timid proposals on the same subject a few weeks ago. With so much anti-American sentiment in his caucus and elsewhere, he will need some distance from next week’s high powered meeting in Washington of CCCE members. There, the meeting will hear from the US president’s Chief of Staff Andrew Card, US National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice and Senator Hilary Rodham Clinton, among others.

All this is taking place conspicuously in advance of the prime minister’s visit with the president on April 29th and 30th. By then, favourable rulings from the NAFTA panel on softwood lumber and the Comments period on opening the US border to Canadian cattle should be available. Of course, the prime minister says softwood lumber and cattle are his primary focus on this trip.

But a rare op-ed article in the Globe and Mail by former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed on the need for Canada to cultivate the US Congress and a pull out section in the National Post on Alberta oil, suggests all this stage setting is about something else.

That something is spelled out in New Frontiers – whose timely recommendations, if accepted by the US and Canada, would decisively deepen their relationship.

“North American economic integration is now well advanced and irreversible,” the introduction states, “and in the face of global terrorism, the economic and physical security of the continent have become indivisible.”

With its emphasis on new institutions, the recommendations are less NAFTA Plus and more European Union Minus. Mostly, though, it provides a direction and a template that could solve Canada’s problems, and particularly western Canadian problems, with the US around cattle, lumber, wheat plus a whole range of other trade and, post September 11, security issues.

Drawing on consultations with academics, business leaders and government officials in Canada, the United States and Mexico, the paper argues for a comprehensive approach to building a new partnership with the United States. Its list of objectives include reinventing Canada-US border operations, smoothing customs processing, reinvigorating the North America defence alliance and developing new institutions to manage it all.

The paper concedes resource products such as softwood lumber, wheat, sugar, fish and other agricultural products have been “the flashpoints for most of the highly visible trade disputes between Canada and the United States in recent years,” and that “exemption from United States trade remedies such as anti-dumping and countervail duties was perhaps the most significant objective Canada failed to win during previous free trade agreements…”

But with the war on terrorism changing perceptions in the US about the importance of energy security, with well established reserves in the Alberta tar sands, it’s time, the paper proposes, to obtain security of access and supply in all resource sectors.

It’s a big plan, one that depends on co-operation from all governments and sectors and particularly from Alberta and its energy sector. But if American cattlemen take Canada to court for allegedly ‘subsidizing’ BSE-crisis-stricken ranchers with government assistance, you can bet Ralph Klein will be willing to play the energy card.

Margret Kopala’s column on western perspectives appears weekly.

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