Harper starts the ball rolling with President-elect Obama

The prime minister has tried to dovetail our climate-change needs with the U.S.

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The Gazette, Sunday, November 9, 2008

    "This is a tremendous historic occasion for the United States in all kinds of ways. Obviously, the election of the first African-American president is a tremendous and truly inspiring moment."

    - Stephen Harper

The prime minister, speaking to reporters in Toronto last Thursday, instinctively found the rights words on the occasion of Barack Obama's election as president of the United States. Later that day, they had a brief telephone conversation characterized by Harper's officials as a "a warm exchange."

This was not their first conversation, but the second, following a call Harper placed last June when Obama clinched the Democratic nomination. In their earlier conversation, the prime minister personally apologized for the embarrassing leak of a Canadian diplomatic note quoting an Obama economic adviser that the candidate's campaign rhetoric about re-opening the NAFTA was just that - rhetoric. Obama accepted the apology in the spirit in which it was offered, and at the end of the 10-minute conversation, Harper invited him to Canada in the event he won the election. For the record, Harper always thought the fundamentals of change favoured Obama, and privately predicted last summer that the U.S. election wouldn't really be close.

As he appoints a White House staff and names a cabinet, Obama will have many more important things to consider than bilateral relations with Canada. And as far as that goes, both countries have sovereign interests that come before friendship.

In that sense, if Obama were really serious about re-opening the NAFTA on environmental and labour standards, Harper would very quickly remind him that Canada would be re-opening the energy chapter, and that we are America's leading supplier of oil and gas. Obama already knows this, since there is this thing called a gas pipeline that runs right into Chicago.

But interpersonal relations between the president and the prime minister set a tonal example. They're either excellent, as they were between Brian Mulroney and Ronald Reagan, and later the first George Bush, or transactional as they were between Paul Martin, and later Harper, and the second George Bush. The chemistry between the principals, their determination to set aside differences and be helpful to one another, sends signals to their own offices and throughout the system.

There are two general rules for moving forward on Canada-U.S. relations. The first and somewhat surprising one is that Canada, while much the smaller partner, usually takes the initiative on important files, as was the case with free trade and acid rain. The Americans are usually so preoccupied with other things that it takes a big idea to get the attention of the White House and move an issue through Congress.

And second, it's helpful if a Canadian bilateral agenda fits in with the president's own priorities.

Harper has figured this out. On the day after Obama's election, Harper's government announced it wanted a bilateral climate-change accord with the U.S. It's an interesting concept, and could move that big file along on a level continental playing field, and in a post-Kyoto framework. It's certainly a big idea.

Then, Harper has proposed a three-point priority list for Obama's consideration - the economy, energy and the environment, and global security, including Afghanistan. There's enough right there for officials to put together a full agenda for the first bilateral meeting of the PM and the new president. From the Canadian perspective, the sooner that occurs after Obama's inauguration, the better.

The economy? There were more grim reminders on Friday of the nosedive in the U.S. economy. U.S. unemployment rose to 6.5 per cent in October, its highest level in nearly 15 years. That's higher than Canada's unemployment rate of 6.2 per cent, and no one can remember the last time that happened. While the Canadian economy has created more than 200,000 jobs this year, the U.S. has lost 1.2 million in the first 10 months of the year. U.S. retail spending fell by two per cent in October, following an overall decline in consumption of three per cent in the third quarter. Since the U.S. buys 80 per cent of everything Canada exports, these numbers are very scary.

Energy and the environment? It was both the Obama and McCain campaigns that bundled the two issues into one. And rightly so. If the U.S. wants to penalize "dirty oil" from the Canadian oil sands, that's a much larger conversation than climate change. On the other hand, Quebec is going into green wind power in a big way, and that's a different conversation. The point is, as Harper has said, Canada is an energy superpower and perhaps it's time we started behaving like one.

Afghanistan? We should beware of what we wish for. Though Obama has talked of stepping up the U.S. presence there, that might mean more aggressive action by the Taliban and Osama's gang in Kandahar province.

Finally, Obama's arrival should be a liberating moment for Harper. No longer will he be taunted as a clone of George W. Bush.

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