Morneau focuses on Canada-U.S. links

OTTAWA — In his search for common ground with the new U.S. administration, federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau has been drawing parallels between the underlying forces that elected Justin Trudeau and Donald Trump.

Morneau, whose most recent U.S. visit took him to New York and Indiana this week, said he’s been telling American political leaders that the same middle-class angst that fuelled Trump’s victory also helped propel the Trudeau government to power.

“As we go out to the United States, we reinforce the importance of jobs — that’s a common factor that we share with Americans,” Morneau said this week in a post-trip interview.

“Having secure, well-paying jobs over the long term is the surest antidote to anxiety about the future.”

Morneau’s visit was part of Canada’s ongoing political charm offensive in the U.S., which has been intensifying since Trump took office in January.

Canadian leaders from all levels of government have been travelling stateside and highlighting the economic benefits for both countries of their cross-border business relationship.

It’s prompted by fears north of the border that several U.S. trade and tax proposals under discussion would, if implemented, have significant economic impacts in Canada.

Morneau said he recently met with Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, and they discussed the similarities between conditions in their respective countries.

Earlier this week, he told a World Economic Forum event in New York that he made a point of telling his U.S. counterpart, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the same thing when they spoke last month at a G20 meeting in Germany.

“We talked about the challenges that fuelled our election in Canada and the challenges that fuelled the new administration in the United States — and the very real sense that we both need to strengthen the middle class in our countries,” he said.

The Trudeau government is trying to show Americans that their Canadian counterparts share many of the same fears and challenges as Trump supporters, said Christopher Sands, a U.S.-based political science professor and Canada-watcher.

“Politically, it’s smart. Don’t treat Trump as crazy or impossible, but try to find a way to seem as normal and as comfortable with him as possible and he’ll be the same with you,” said Sands, director of the Center for Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

The most recent national elections in both countries came as middle-income workers were feeling squeezed, said Sands. But Canada didn’t see the same kind of “populist, nationalist, frustration with the establishment” present in the U.S., he noted.

Colin Robertson, a retired Canadian diplomat with extensive U.S. experience, said Morneau’s approach suggests the Trudeau government continues to seek “convergent points” with the Trump administration and with state governments.

“I think that’s probably wise,” said Robertson, who noted that while the two governments’ approaches on issues like refugees and climate are different, they have shared interests in achieving growth.

Many Trudeau cabinet ministers have been asked to focus some of their outreach efforts on key states with strong economic relationships with Canada.

Morneau has been asked to pay close attention to Indiana, in addition to his finance minister’s roles in the U.S. capital and New York.

His office sent out a release this week saying that Canada is Indiana’s top customer. It also said nearly 190,000 jobs in the state are directly connected to trade and investment with Canada.

Indiana’s importance runs even deeper because it’s the home state of U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence, the former governor.

“I found that the relationship with Vice-President Pence started off on a very strong footing when we were in the White House,” Morneau said.

“He’s very interested and because of his background in a state like Indiana, which has such a strong relationship with Canada. He already has a good starting point in understanding how important the relationship is.”

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