Respectful discussion on ag trade a breath of fresh air

Canadian politicians are getting to know U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.

The former Georgia governor made his first visit to Canada as agriculture secretary June 5, where he met with his Canadian counterpart, Lawrence MacAulay, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Ontario Agriculture Minister Jeff Leal.

Ottawa billed the meeting, which was largely ignored by the press, as a get-to-know-each-other meeting.

Talks, MacAulay said after the discussions, were of a general nature.

For its part, Washington called it a pre-North American Free Trade Agreement meeting, given that formal talks cannot start until at least mid-August because of congressional rules.

All the parties involved have said they feel the meeting went very well.

“We had a very productive discussion and found several areas of mutual interest,” Leal said in an email after the meeting.

So far, Perdue and MacAulay appear to be getting along. That’s not entirely surprising given their similar backgrounds.

Both gentlemen, for instance, are former farmers in their 70s. Both prefer to work “face-to-face,” a commonality MacAulay has repeatedly suggested could mean Canada will have at least one open line to Washington on a regular basis.

At first glance, a good relationship between agriculture ministers may not seem like much. Here in Canada, the portfolio is hardly seen as influential when compared to high-profile files such as finance, foreign affairs, trade and defence.

But in an “American First” Washington that is constantly grappling with political crises, Perdue could be a powerful ally for Canada.

For one thing, he seems to have the president’s ear. Perdue is widely credited within Washington circles for convincing U.S. President Donald Trump that withdrawing from NAFTA would be a bad idea.

In Ottawa, the story goes Trump was talked back from the NAFTA cliff after a phone call from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The U.S. secretary is also a firm believer in free trade. Farm groups south of the border have said he understands agriculture’s need to export its products to other markets.

He’s also backed the World Trade Organization and has cautioned against any swift trade action that could spark retaliation from other countries.

Those views are similar to the ones Canadian politicians keep pushing on their many trips to Washington.

It’s also likely one of the reasons seven Canadian premiers met with him when they descended on Washington a few days after Perdue ventured north. At this point, anyone who has proven they can get the president to listen and believes in free trade is someone to know.

So, the discussion lines remain open with more trips planned.

Officials have said Perdue will visit Prince Edward Island, MacAulay’s home province, sometime this summer. For his part, Perdue has invited MacAulay, his wife, Mexican Agriculture Minister José Eduardo and his wife to Savannah, Ga. in the next few weeks. Dates of both trips have not be finalized

Will Canada and Perdue see eye-to-eye on every file? Likely not.

The American agriculture secretary has made it abundantly clear he’s not a fan of the Canadian dairy industry’s new milk pricing policy. After his meeting in Toronto, Perdue called the new Class 7 category “underhanded” and questioned whether it meets international trade rules.

Ottawa has since insisted Canada is meeting its international obligations. MacAulay confirmed the file was mentioned during their meeting in Toronto. He said he told Perdue the new dairy pricing decision was made by industry.

“We respectfully agree to disagree” seems to be the mantra on the dairy file. Still, that position doesn’t appear to have affected the open dialogue policy adopted by Perdue and MacAulay.

And so the talks continue.

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