Politics

NAFTA could be improved, Ambrose says, as Trump pushes for renegotiation

After previously suggesting the Liberal government shouldn't have been so quick to agree to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose said Friday that the deal could be improved through talks.

'We're losing jobs because we're uncompetitive,' interim Tory leader says

Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose suggested last fall that Justin Trudeau's government wasn't taking a tough enough stance in the wake of Donald Trump's demands to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. Now she agrees the deal could be improved. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

After previously suggesting the Liberal government shouldn't have been so quick to agree to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose said Friday that the deal could be improved through talks.

"NAFTA was written when the internet wasn't even around," she said at the conclusion of her party's caucus meeting in Quebec City.

The bulk of NAFTA's text dates back to the early nineties, although some sections have been added and amended in years since. 

"I've had conversations with the Chamber of Commerce, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — a lot of people believe there are things that could be renegotiated in NAFTA.

"As long as we make sure ... it's in the interest of Canadians, obviously there's things that could be improved in NAFTA," she said.

Concerned about the loss of manufacturing jobs to Mexico, President Donald Trump campaigned last year on a pledge to either renegotiate NAFTA to get a better deal for American workers, or use his executive powers to give notice that the U.S. would terminate the agreement.

Last November, Ambrose accused the Liberal government of jumping the gun when Canada's ambassador swiftly articulated a willingness on Canada's part to reopen the deal.

Trump's concerns with NAFTA are "about Mexico, not Canada," she said then.

Ambrose's attacks implied Canada looked weak for capitulating to Trump's demand to rework the deal. 

"Wow. That is some tough negotiating," she said in a speech to her caucus last fall. "Clearly [Prime Minister Justin Trudeau] never read [Trump's book] The Art of the Deal."

President Donald Trump, seen here during a press conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May Friday, wants to move very quickly to start renegotiations. But this week's confrontations with the Mexican government over Trump's intentions to build a wall along the border suggest talks are unlikely to proceed smoothly. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

But in the weeks since, it appears the Conservative position has evolved to now accepting the need for at least amendments to the deal.

Updates to the deal may be useful. Labour mobility provisions, for example, don't include many now-common information technology professions on the list of workers eligible for temporary entry to the U.S.

Trade skeptics among Conservative base?

Conservatism in Canada, particularly prior to Stephen Harper's tenure as leader, has sometimes featured a strain of trade skepticism in its ranks.

Anti-free trade campaigner David Orchard, for example, once seriously challenged for the leadership of one of the Conservative Party's predecessors, the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada.

David Orchard (right), who campaigned against Canada's free trade deals with the U.S. and Mexico, twice ran for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party, a predecessor of the party Ambrose now leads. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Ambrose was asked Friday about whether there are voters among her party's base today who might see layoffs like the 625 workers announced Friday at the General Motors CAMI assembly plant in Ingersoll, Ont. as evidence trade agreements threaten jobs.

Some of the electoral gains the party made under Harper's leadership came when so-called blue-collar voters in ridings with significant unionized manufacturing businesses switched from voting NDP to voting Conservative.

Unifor's national president, Jerry Dias, who represents the CAMI workers, said Friday that the General Motors move shows NAFTA is a terrible deal — only the latest labour leader sharing Trump's views.

Could the anti-trade rhetoric that propelled Republicans to victory in the U.S. last year take hold in Canada's Conservative-voting ranks?

"As someone who believes in free trade, I worry about the world becoming less interested in free trade," Ambrose said. "Globalization writ large has made the world wealthier, healthier and safer."

Plus, protectionism is bad for Canadian business, she suggested.

"We have a small economy. And we need open borders so that we have access to more markets," she said.

'We're uncompetitive'

Ambrose said the CAMI layoffs are a symptom of something else: poor government.

"We're not losing jobs because of NAFTA. We're losing jobs because we're uncompetitive," she said. "That goes back to government policy."

"If our taxes are higher, our labour costs are higher, our energy costs are higher... then there is no level playing field anymore and we'll lose." 

While concerned about the job losses, Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains said Friday that the government remains "optimistic about the strength and future of Canada's automotive industry."

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