Wilbur Ross says Canadian provincial elections a reason to speed NAFTA talks

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross says Canadian provincial elections in 2018 are part of the reason NAFTA renegotiation need to move quickly. But that claim is being questioned, since it is the federal government dealing with the trade pact, and there are only three provinces holding elections next year.

Experts question claim since federal government handles trade file

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross says provincial elections in Canada are part of the reason NAFTA talks need to move quickly. But, his claim is being questioned by trade experts. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

One of Donald Trump's most trusted cabinet members says provincial elections in Canada are part of the reason  NAFTA talks must move at "record-breaking" speed.

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross made the comments to the Washington Post during a live question and answer session today, covering a range of financial issues. 

But trade experts are questioning Ross's claim, since the federal government handles trade issues and only three provinces have elections scheduled for 2018.

Ross said NAFTA talks "can't drag on too long because of the political calendar."

"You have the Mexican presidential elections in mid-summer next year, you have Canadian provincial elections around the same time....and then obviously in November next year we have the mid-term (U.S.) elections."

"As you get closer to all of those political dates, the ability to get anything done will go down," Ross added.

Lack of understanding: Ritchie

"It's a comment that displays a surprising lack of understanding of the Canadian political context," said Gordon Ritchie a member of the original Canadian NAFTA negotiating team.

"First of all, the file is a federal responsibility. Second, the provinces are all on the same page," Ritchie said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has reached out to his provincial counterparts for a series of phone calls to discuss NAFTA. Premiers representing different political parties have cooperated on the issue, and most have also engaged their U.S. counterparts to encourage continued trade with Canada.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, right, speaks with Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland as they leave a news conference that included Mexico's Secretary of Economy Ildefonso Guajardo Villarreal, at the start of NAFTA talks in Washington in August. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

"I don't see any impact of any provincial election on any of this stuff," Ritchie added.

"Canadian provincial elections should not have much of an effect on Canada's ability to conclude the negotiations," agreed Laura Dawson, the director of the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

"Provinces have, by and large, been supportive of trade agreements as long as their concerns are taken seriously by Ottawa," Wilson said.

Even if the provinces had a larger say over trade issues, only three have elections planned for 2018: Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick.

While Ross is an influential member of the Trump cabinet, and has outspoken ideas on trade, NAFTA renegotiations are being led by Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. Trade Representative. 

'Record-breaking pace'

Ross said it is "too early to really tell" whether Canada and Mexico are bargaining in good faith, noting that only 10 days of talks have been held so far, over two sessions.

"That's not a lot. It took them eight years to do an average trade treaty, so we're trying to get done more or less by the end of the year, a whole re-vamp, so this is an an unprecedented thing," Ross added.

Canada has said it is open to moving quickly on NAFTA talks, but a source close to the discussions has told CBC News Canada will not sign on to a bad deal, just to meet a deadline. 

Ross said he's also supportive of following through on Trump's threats to kill the deal, if the U.S. doesn't get what it wants.

"The president has made clear if they [the talks] don't work, he's going to pull out, so that shouldn't be a shock to anyone. And really that's the right thing."

The next round of negotiations will take place in Ottawa, Sept. 23-27.


Katie Simpson is a foreign correspondent with CBC News based in Washington. Prior to joining the team in D.C. she spent six years covering Parliament Hill in Ottawa and nearly a decade covering local and provincial issues in Toronto.