A solid debut for Harper on the international stage

Fashion problems aside, rookie PM showed good grasp of the issues

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The Gazette, Saturday, April 1, 2006

Other than the flak jacket, it was a pretty good trip. But then, maybe Stephen Harper thought Dick Cheney would be at the North American summit.

But while the fashionistas were feasting on Harper's unpressed, unzipped vest at a photo-op on the steps of a Mayan pyramid, the prime minister seemed to find a more sure footing in the substantive aspects of his first international summit.

At yesterday's closing press conference with Vicente Fox and George W. Bush, and later at a session with Canadian reporters, Harper appeared to belong on a world stage on which he was stepping for the first time. And not just any stage, but a continental summit with the presidents of the United States and Mexico, involving important bilateral meetings with both on the margins of the annual trilateral gathering.

Harper might have difficulty with his wardrobe, but he has no problem getting his mind around issues, and crunching complex files into crisp, coherent sound bites.

Harper has often been called a policy wonk, but it's becoming clear after nearly two months in office that he's also very job oriented, a guy with a to-do list or job jar on his desk.

Hence, the Top 5 list for the Parliament that opens on Monday - all of Ottawa has had that one drummed into their heads. Then there was his Top 3 list for his first meeting with Bush - softwood lumber, the looming U.S. requirement for visitors to show a passport or smart card at the U.S. border, and finalizing the new NORAD agreement.

Job 1, softwood lumber, which became the first-day story at the summit. Job 2, managing the border, which became yesterday's second-day story. Job 3, signing the renewal of the NORAD agreement, which can wait until Harper's first visit to the White House, expected in June.

On softwood, Canada and the U.S. have agreed on trying to reach a negotiated settlement, after years of litigation before panels of the NAFTA and the World Trade Organization, in which the only clear winners have been lawyers.

Significantly, the Canadian side will be led by Michael Wilson, our ambassador in Washington and the former trade minister who negotiated the NAFTA in 1992.

This moves the softwood file directly into the orbit of the prime minister and the president. It has been clear from the beginning Wilson would have his own access to the PM. Harper has also made clear to Foreign Affairs he will be running the Canada-U.S. dossier himself. This means every time Harper speaks to Bush on the phone, the prime minister will be personally pressing for a deal. It might also mean the main outlines of an agreement are already in place.

As for the requirement for a passport or biometric security card by the beginning of 2008, as required by a 2004 act of Congress, the good news is that there is still time to achieve technical solutions and political compromises. There's a lot at stake in terms of trade in services - business travel, conventions, cross-border shopping and tourism - along the most frequently traversed border in the world.

When the Canadian dollar was at 63 cents, cross-border shopping wasn't a factor in upstate New York towns, from Plattsburgh to Watertown, to Niagara Falls. At 86 cents, the loonie is taking flight across the border, to the benefit of local economies. This is not unimportant in off-year congressional elections in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

While Harper downplayed the possibility of Congress amending the law, and suggested "we're running out of time," a year and a half really is an eternity in Washington, a town where nothing is resolved until the hands of the clock reach five minutes to midnight.

And then, bills can move from committee to the floors of the House and Senate to the president's desk for signature in a heartbeat. There is nothing like the end of a session in December, and the pressure of constituents and interest groups, to shake Congress out of its lethargy. In the meantime, Harper and Bush have tasked their two cabinet members in charge of security, Stockwell Day for Canada and Michael Chertoff for the U.S., to work on technological solutions. And if there's no legislative remedy, Harper won't have to be stuck with having held out hope for one. Moreover, about two-thirds of respondents to polls in both countries agree travellers should be required to have secure documents to cross the border. So, no solution, but no political downside for Harper, either.

In all, a solid debut for the rookie prime minister. And despite the fashion gaffe, there was one very elegant touch - as he has been doing at home, Harper read his statement yesterday entirely in French first, in the presence of the U.S. and Mexican presidents. No one in Quebec will have missed that. The charm offensive continues, even from abroad.

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