Negotiating with a bully has its challenges

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government may be mishandling many issues, from illegal immigration to the carbon tax, but I do feel a bit sorry for it on the big issue of U.S. trade relations.

Whether you think U.S. President Donald Trump is smart like a fox or dumb as a post, there’s no doubt he’s a bully used to negotiating from a position of strength and used to getting his own way. He’s also petulant, lashing out at any sign of opposition.

As armchair quarterbacks, we can double guess what the prime minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland should have done or said over the past year, but an alternative strategy may not have produced a different outcome.

Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay generally just keeps his head down and goes with the flow, but he seems to have a special friendship with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, and Perdue is purported to be one of the few people who can sometimes talk sense into the U.S. president.

Unfortunately, a friendly but firm approach has not worked on Trump and his administration.

Along with most other countries, Canada imposed tariffs on a long list of American products in response to American tariffs on incoming steel and aluminum. There was little else countries could do to show their displeasure, but it’s a little like kicking the schoolyard bully in the shins while he’s holding you off the ground with his hands clasp around your neck.

The U.S. trade fight with China is different. In that fight, Trump may have met his match. The fallout from that dispute, particularly as it relates to soybeans, will have ramifications both positive and negative for Canadian agriculture.

Thanks to Trump, Canada’s dairy industry and the whole supply management system is in the spotlight like never before. Any trade deal that can be brokered with the Americans will have to include increased access to the Canadian market for U.S. dairy products.

That has been accomplished in trade deals with other countries while keeping supply management intact. Can the same thing happen in a trade deal with the U.S. or will it demand the phasing out of supply management?

All the political parties officially support supply management and say it should be defended. Conservative party leader Andrew Scheer is indebted to Quebec dairy producers, who pushed him past Maxine Bernier for the party leadership. Bernier is one of the few Canadian politicians to publicly call for an end to supply management.

Scheer and the Conservatives will likely criticize the Trudeau Liberals for any trade deal that erodes the virtual monopoly of dairy and poultry, but the criticism will be empty. The Conservatives would follow the same route if they were government.

The Canadian population is divided on the issue, but most Canadians know little about the supply management system. Many will say the system should be defended just because they like the idea of standing up to Trump.

When push comes to shove, you have to strike the best deal you can for the country and the economy as a whole. We’ll need to see the end result of negotiations with the U.S., but the outcome may not have been much different no matter which party was in power.

Valid criticisms abound for Trudeau and his government. On the U.S. trade file, there may have been no way to generate a better outcome.

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