Good reviews for Harper

PM manages to raise climate-change issue with Washington

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Friday, July 7, 2006

There's never been so much French spoken at a White House news conference during a visit by a Canadian prime minister as there was yesterday.

Stephen Harper, as has become his custom, delivered his opening statement entirely in French first. As recorded in the transcript of the event, the White House was clearly unprepared. As posted to the White House website later in the day, Harper: "(Begins to speak in French)" then "(Returns to speaking English)." Later on, in response to a question, Harper: "(Answers in French)" then "(Continues in English)."

The protocol of White House news conferences for visiting heads of government is that there are four questions, two from each country's press corps. From the Canadian side, Harper called on Christine St. Pierre of Radio-Canada and Bob Fife of CTV, and even answered his question in French as well as English. She had a question about border security and he had an inconvenient one about whether, in light of missile tests by North Korea, Canada might want to reconsider its decision not to join in deploying a ballistic missile shield around North America.

It drives visiting delegations crazy that the American reporters routinely ignore the agenda of these bilateral meetings to push the hot-button story of the day. Both American journalists asked about Kim Jong Il, the, um, eccentric dictator of North Korea who can't feed his people even while firing off seven missile tests. This isn't supposed to be the deal with the five powers with interest in the region, the U.S., Japan, Russia, China and South Korea.

And, of course, the very idea of a crazy dictator firing off missiles in the direction of North America is a much more compelling story than the softwood- lumber deal. Or even the issue of secure identity cards being required to enter the United States from Canada by the end of next year under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative passed by Congress.

The softwood story took a decidedly negative turn before the agreement was initialed by both sides last Saturday. The U.S. muscled a cancellation clause into the final text, one that would allow them to walk away from the agreement by giving six-months notice after two years, rather than seven to nine years as in the April 27 agreement in principle.

The Americans do this all the time, reminding their interlocutors that an agreement in principle is one thing, a legal text quite another. After the free-trade agreement was negotiated in 1987, the U.S. spent the next two months trying to dilute the dispute-settlement mechanisms that had been Canada's deal- breaker in the negotiations. This is what happens when you're dealing with the biggest boy on the block.

In British Columbia, the Campbell government and the industry are not happy about this last-minute Canadian concession, and they have every right to be annoyed. While it's highly unlikely the Americans would avail themselves of a cancellation clause, it's now part of the agreement, though it wasn't part of the deal.

White House visits come in all shapes and sizes, from brief encounters in the Oval Office, to the full deal - state dinners. The Canadians clearly preferred to keep it to business, so that Harper would not be portrayed at home as Bush's poodle. There could have been a ceremonial signing of the new NORAD agreement in the East Room, but in the end the Canadians preferred to have it just initialed by Peter MacKay in Ottawa and Condoleezza Rice in Washington.

But the Americans kept upgrading the visit. Exceptionally, they put Harper up for the night on Wednesday in Blair House, across the street from the White House. It's their top guest quarters, where presidents-elect stay prior to their swearing-in, and where Harry Truman lived while the White House was undergoing renovations in the early 1950s. It is rarely offered to a visiting head of government.

By the end of the news conference, Bush was calling Harper "Steve," something only his close circle in Calgary normally does. That's just Bush, he calls everyone by their nickname, but back in Ottawa Harper's campaign team might have blanched a bit.

Harper said two things that stood out: "Canada and the United States have the strongest relationship of any two countries, not just on the planet, but in the history of mankind."

And climate change, which wasn't supposed to be on the agenda, was, because Harper put it there. "The president and I have agreed," Harper said, "to task our officials to provide a more forward-looking approach on the environment, climate change, air quality and energy issues in which our governments co-operate."

That's a very important statement. It means while Harper regards the Kyoto-emissions reductions targets as unattainable, he now regards climate change as a serious issue. And so he should.

 
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