Justin Trudeau and Mike Pence: unlikely partners in an alliance of necessity

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau showed this week just how far he's willing to go to shore up his relationship with the Trump administration and get the new NAFTA passed - far enough to put him at odds with the Liberals' traditional allies, the Democrats.

Trudeau is willing to use the VP as a foil on abortion - but he needs Pence's help to keep NAFTA on track

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence make their way to a joint news conference in Ottawa, Thursday, May 30, 2019. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The meetings in Ottawa this week between U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau produced a lot of warm words about friendship, shared history, leadership and the importance of the Canada-U.S. trading relationship.

It also injected a note of cold reality: this Liberal prime minister is prepared to go a long way to make his relationship with the Trump administration work, even if means fraying ties with Democrats.

With Pence at his side at their joint media availability, Trudeau first took a shot at Conservative opponents in Canada who questioned the advisability of insisting that the new North American trade deal include chapters to promote labour rights, the environment and gender equity.

From there, the prime minister offered some unsolicited advice to progressive politicians in the U.S., taking aim at congressional Democrats who are refusing to ratify the deal without assurances that those labour standards will be enforced in Mexico.

"They are significant things that we look to the U.S. Democrats to understand are significant improvements and are issues, like Canadian Liberals, they care deeply about," Trudeau said.

"So we are confident that the work being done on ratification is possible because we made sure from multiple angles that this was a better deal for Americans, Canadians and Mexicans."

Democrats: We can judge the deal for ourselves, thank you

Translation: if Liberals are happy with this deal, Democrats should be, too.

This matters, because the Democrats now control the House of Representatives. And at least one leading Democrat on the House ways and means committee that will review the deal is unimpressed by Trudeau's pitch.

"Well, you know, we're capable certainly of judging on our own what the implications of these agreements might be," said Michigan Representative Dan Kildee in an interview with CBC Radio's The House airing Saturday.

"Obviously there's interest in having an improved agreement among the three countries. But we shouldn't settle for something that's marginally better when we can make it a very good and sustainable agreement with far more certainty. And that's all we're trying to do."

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township: "We shouldn't settle for something that's marginally better." (Jake May/The Associated Press)

Canada's position is that the deal adequately protects workers and this country's national interests. Canadian union representatives on the advisory council put together by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland support the deal as-is.

Re-opening the deal, they argue, would create uncertainty. And uncertainty is bad for economic growth.

Self-sabotage on the southern border

The White House is eager also to secure a political win by getting the new trade deal through Congress as quickly as possible. Apparently that's still the plan, even though President Donald Trump might well be sabotaging it by imposing new tariffs on Mexico this week — this time to pressure the Mexican government to stop the flow of migrants before they reach the U.S.

Pence has been making stops in Michigan, Ohio and other key states to promote the benefits of the trade deal. Those stops apparently helped to convince him that the Trump administration's "national security" tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum were hurting American businesses.

That helped turn the very conservative Pence into a surprising ally for progressive Liberals.

Even after he apparently was subjected to a lecture from the prime minister on the rollback of abortion rights in some U.S. states, Pence represents a friend for the Trudeau government (or at least a more predictable partner) inside the White House on economic and trade files.

Freeland praised the former Indiana governor for his efforts in getting Trump to lift the tariffs.

"And I do want to say he has played an important role in the United States, both in the NAFTA process and the discussions around lifting of the national security tariffs," she said.

Kildee represents an auto-making district that includes Flint, the city where General Motors was founded a century ago. GM once employed 80,000 people there. Today, the company employs a tenth of that number in the city; many lawmakers blame that decline, in large part, on carmakers moving jobs south to Mexico, where wages are lower.

Kildee said he supports a proposal put forward by two Senate Democrats that includes measures to bar Mexican exporters from benefiting from the deal's reduced tariffs if they violate workers' collective bargaining rights.

The government of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador brought in labour reforms earlier this month that are meant to strengthen unions and their collective bargaining rights.

Democrats responded by announcing this week that they intend to send a delegation to Mexico to make sure that's actually happening.

'We have to have some proof'

Kildee insists he and his colleagues will not be pressured by President Trump or anyone else into ratifying the deal without changes to protect workers.

"We have to have some proof that Mexico is going to live up to this because we have plenty of evidence in the past that they've been unwilling to do to so," he said. "This is just too important for our workers."

With an election fast approaching, quick ratification of the new NAFTA is extremely important politically for the Liberals. And that makes Trudeau and Trump the most unlikely of allies, especially given Trump's habit of using trade and tariffs to punish his country's largest trading partners and closest neighbours.

"We are now ready to proceed with ratification of NAFTA," Freeland said Friday. "I am in close touch with my counterparts in both Mexico and the United States to be aware of their domestic processes and our intention, in so far as possible, is to move in tandem with our partners."

If Trump has his way, that will happen this summer.


Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998. Follow him on Twitter: @chrishallcbc