OTTAWA — Liberal cabinet ministers say former prime minister Brian Mulroney provided them with useful advice Thursday during a closed-door meeting on the upcoming renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
It was part of an unprecedented display of non-partisan co-operation, a rarity on Parliament Hill — a remarkable healing of old political wounds and uniting in the name of managing a new, wildly unpredictable U.S. presidency.
There was also a hint of deja vu. A smiling Mulroney, who departed politics more than a quarter century ago, said it was “as if I never left” as he exited the hallway from the Centre Block’s cabinet room.
Trudeau was not at the meeting of his cabinet committee on Canada-U.S. relations; he was in New York City for a women’s leadership summit. His ministers, however, said Mulroney made a valuable contribution.
“Our relationship with the United States should be non-partisan,” said Transport Minister Marc Garneau, who chairs the cabinet committee. “We welcomed Mr. Mulroney this morning and certainly we benefited from his insights.”
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Mulroney ”brought years of experience and perspective that will be very helpful in making sure that we achieve the very best results for Canada.”
Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said it was “interesting to hear the expertise and experience from people who have had decades of experience dealing with the United States.”
Mulroney’s government fought and won an election on the first Canada-U.S. free trade deal in 1988, which became the precursor of the current NAFTA deal when Mexico was brought on board.
The 79-year-old former prime minister, a personal friend of Donald Trump, has been helping Justin Trudeau’s government navigate the new U.S. administration, setting aside his bitter antipathy for his father, Pierre Trudeau, in the process.
Mulroney has also been embraced by the new Conservative party — the one that former prime minister Stephen Harper essentially banished him from almost a decade ago after winning power, cementing a bitter rift between the two men.
He has repeatedly urged Canadian politicians to set aside their domestic partisan interests to protect the country’s economic interests with the U.S., praising interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose for offering to work with the government.
“It was good to see him (Mulroney) accept the invitation to participate,” said Conservative foreign affairs critic Peter Kent. “As we have said any number of times, this is a bipartisan issue.”
But he didn’t mince words on what the Liberals faced moving forward on the NAFTA with an unpredictable Trump administration.
“I think they’re going to be very challenging,” Mulroney said of the upcoming talks.
Following Trump’s fiery anti-NAFTA rhetoric, a meeting with Trudeau at the White House appeared to cool the U.S. president, who at the time seemed to have adopted a “pretty reasonable posture,” Mulroney said.
“Then the letter from the (U.S. Trade Representative) comes out with a different version of things, so we’ll just have to wait and see,” Mulroney added.
“It is a document that reflects a territorial wish for advantage by the Americans, so you could expect it’ll be tough.”
Mulroney was meeting with members of the Liberal cabinet to brief them on the efforts so far to divine the Trump administration’s specific intentions and how NAFTA negotiations between Canada and the U.S. are likely to proceed.
He says so-called country-of-origin rules, long a sore spot in NAFTA, and the dispute resolution mechanism are likely to be difficult areas of discussion in the eventual negotiations.
David MacNaughton, Canada’s U.S. ambassador, and one of his predecessors in that job, Derek Burney, Mulroney’s former chief of staff, joined the cabinet discussion.
MacNaughton said the timeline on the start of the talks is slipping, but the Americans control that agenda, so Canada will wait and be ready when the time comes to negotiate.
“I keep being assured that it’s imminent but imminent seems to be dragging on,” MacNaughton said after the meeting.
He said the Liberals have forged “extremely good” relations with the Trump White House, which has been “extraordinarily responsive” to Canada. But he predicted tougher times ahead.
“Obviously we’re getting into some things that are pretty tough,” MacNaughton said. “The Americans are no slouches in terms of their negotiations, but neither are we.”
Mulroney spoke of the need of the government to eventually appoint a strong negotiator.
“In my case, I looked around Canada for the very best negotiator and I found him in Simon Reisman,” Mulroney said.
He said it was too early to say what Canada might have to give up in the forthcoming talks because there is no clear picture on what the American demands will be.
But the veteran politician added: “The question is, what will they have to give up, too?”