Mulroney back on Parliament Hill in role as NAFTA broker
Former PM expects so-called country-of-origin rules to be an area of discussion in the eventual trade deal negotiations.
OTTAWA — Brian Mulroney is back on Parliament Hill, and he’s not mincing words about the challenges Canada faces in renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The former prime minister, a personal friend of Donald Trump and for many the grandfather of free trade in North America, has been helping Justin Trudeau’s government navigate the new US administration.
He was meeting with members of the Liberal cabinet to brief them on the efforts so far and how NAFTA negotiations between Canada and the US are likely to proceed.
“I think they’re going to be very challenging,” Mulroney said of the upcoming talks, citing the unpredictable nature of the US administration and its comments on the trade file.
Following Trump’s fiery anti-NAFTA rhetoric, a meeting with Trudeau at the White House appeared to cool the US president, who at the time seemed “to have adopted a pretty reasonable posture,” Mulroney said.
“Then the letter from the (US Trade Representative) comes out with a different version of things, so we’ll just have to wait and see.”
He says so-called country-of-origin rules, long a sore spot in NAFTA, are likely to be an area of discussion in the eventual negotiations, and he’s urging the government to put a strong negotiator on the file.
Mulroney was asked how it felt to be a conservative prime minister in a Liberal cabinet room. “As if I never left,” he quipped.
Also present at the meeting was US ambassador David MacNaughton and one of his predecessors in that job, Derek Burney, Mulroney’s former chief of staff.
Mulroney keeps a home in Florida and has long been friends with Trump and his incoming point man on NAFTA, Wilbur Ross.
Sources say Mulroney has since had several phone chats with Trudeau, offering to establish connections, provide advice and convey one country’s perspective to the other.
Mulroney wasn’t the only bridge-builder: Chrystia Freeland set up the initial meetings in New York between the Trudeau and Trump teams.
He credits everyone for making the most of these new connections.
“I can tell you I’ve heard from two leaders of the American administration… telling me the Canadians… were the best and the nicest people the Americans were able to deal with anyone around the world,” Mulroney said in a recent interview.
“How do I know that President Trump feels that he had a very good meeting with the prime minister and he liked him a lot?… Because he told me. At dinner… They just hit it off… He liked the cut of his jib. He liked the way he spoke. He liked a lot of things.”
Mulroney was equally laudatory of the opposition’s behaviour, saying Rona Ambrose and the Conservatives lowered the partisan temperature on a critical issue of national interest, and sent a letter offering help wherever possible.
“This is a national challenge,” he said.
“If we were ever to lose NAFTA you’d see grave challenges in Canadian society. So in something like this there’s not a Conservative, or a Liberal way to look at this. There’s only a Canadian way.”