Harper becoming deft at Canada-U.S. relations

The PM and Obama have developed a tight working relationship

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The Gazette, Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Stephen Harper has invested heavily in his relationship with Barack Obama. About $10 billion in the General Motors bailout alone, money which, as the prime minister acknowledged at the time, is not necessarily the kind of "great buying opportunity" he predicted when the stock market crashed a year ago.

But Canada, with 20 per cent of the North American auto industry, was always going to be in for one-fifth of Washington's stake in nationalizing Detroit.

And here's the thing - the GM bailout last spring brought the PM and U.S. president together as partners in a way no summit meeting could have. The deal would never have closed without the involvement of the two political principals. And it was an incredibly complex deal - involving all the key central agencies in Ottawa as well as the Ontario government, as well as their mirror departments and agencies in Washington, culminating with the White House and the Oval Office.

While the GM and, to a lesser degree, Chrysler bailouts might have been the best of many bad choices, the alternative was worse: the auto industry leaving Canada and the manufacturing heartland of Ontario.

But there have been two intangible benefits for the prime minister. First, the GM deal proved that his office could negotiate and implement an unusually complex financial transaction, one rife with negative political connotations.

Harper's government, from the central agencies to the line departments, passed an important test of competence.

More importantly, the GM package deepened the developing relationship between Harper and Obama, who were the closers on the deal.

In doing so, Harper was providing Obama with more than political cover, although it was important for the new president that he didn't have to go it alone. They became working partners on a $60-billion deal. Obama wasn't doing this deal with the German chancellor or the French president, but with the Canadian prime minister, who also happened to be his next-door neighbour.

They would have been spending quite a bit of time together anyway, but the auto bailout has brought them closer on other issues, including climate change.

Consider the number of times the PM and president have met or crossed paths in Obama's first year in office. Where tradition dictates annual bilaterals, usually alternating between Ottawa and Washington, Harper and Obama have met twice this year, once on Obama's first foreign trip, to Ottawa in February; and again on Harper's reciprocal visit to the White House in September. In both cases, these were short working sessions, but by all accounts friendly and productive.

Then there have been any number of multilateral forums, where the PM and president, and occasionally their wives, have come into social contact on the margins of summit meetings.

There was the G20 meeting on the global financial meltdown in London in April. There was the western hemisphere leaders' summit in Trinidad and Tobago, also in April. There was the G8 in Italy in July, and the Three Amigos summit in Mexico in August. Then there was G20 follow-up meeting with Obama hosting in Pittsburgh in September.

And finally, there was the APEC summit, the Asia Pacific Economic Conference in Singapore last weekend, where Harper and Obama met again socially, with Laureen Harper part of the mix. The informal photos distributed by the PM's office clearly show the three of them enjoying each other's company at a social function.

Harper and Obama might come from different political denominations (although the Conservative Party in Canada is no clone of the Republicans in the U.S., and even somewhat more progressive than many Democrats on issues such as public health care, publicly-funded abortions, and gay marriage). But they do belong to the same generation, born at the middle of the last century, and coming to power in the first decade of a new one.

There is the also the preponderance of the Canada-U.S. relationship, from managing a common border to managing the world's biggest trading relationships.

And on both of those points, Obama needs to do better at producing dividends for Harper's investments. Obama needs the U.S. to ease traffic flows at the northern border - it's not Mexico, it's Canada. And he needs to deliver a deal exempting Canada from the Buy American local procurement provisions of his $80-billion National Recovery legislation.

But overall, Harper's handling of his most important file has been impressive, according to the country's leading authority on Canada-U.S. relations.

"I know something about Canada-U.S. relations," says Brian Mulroney, the former prime minister, who also invested heavily in interpersonal relations with American presidents. "And I find that Stephen Harper has been handling the U.S. file masterfully. And results will flow from it."

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