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NAFTA, the NDP and a new tag line: 3 ways federal politics touched us this week


Published on August 5, 2017

Incoming White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci points as he answers questions from members of the media during the press briefing in the Brady Press Briefing room of the White House in Washington, Friday, July 21, 2017. Parliament Hill was absorbed by the scandal that was Scaramucci this week, with even the most focused of policy-makers wondering how their best-laid plans on NAFTA could possibly deliver, given the constant chaos engulfing the White House. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Pablo Martinez Monsivais

OTTAWA — Parliament Hill was absorbed by the scandal that was Anthony Scaramucci this week, with even the most focused of policy-makers wondering how their best-laid plans on NAFTA could possibly deliver, given the constant chaos engulfing the White House.

Even with the resignations of three key political figures over the past few days — Newfoundland's finance minister Cathy Bennett, Ontario environment minister Glen Murray and former B.C. premier Christy Clark — Canadian politics looked placid in comparison.

Scaramucci — fired Monday as Donald Trump's communications director just 10 days after he took the job — was let go by the president's new chief of staff John Kelly, whose visit to Canada last winter when he was secretary of homeland security was so enthrallingly normal that political insiders in Ottawa took some heart.

Beyond the Scaramucci gossip and some outrage over sweltering Air Transat passengers stuck on a plane on a runway for six hours, federal politics brought changes on NAFTA, the NDP and government's approach to economics.

Here are three ways politics mattered this week:

NAFTA Togetherness

The Liberals' strategy on renegotiating NAFTA shifted into high gear this week as the first round of talks on Aug. 16 drew closer.

One of Canada's top negotiators, Kirsten Hillman, has been named deputy ambassador in Washington. New consuls-general have been dispersed across the U.S. to sing the praises of Canadian trade. A multi-partisan advisory council that includes National Chief Perry Bellegarde and former Conservative leader Rona Ambrose has been set up. And the premiers have all committed to showing a united front with Ottawa — as long as they are kept in the loop.

Missing in all this togetherness is the broader public, which needs to stay convinced that renegotiating NAFTA is in its best interests. Listening to public opinion could prove tricky at times: Can Canada's negotiators resist the U.S. push for more competition in the telecommunications sector — which would threaten the market dominance of big Canadian companies — if it means lower fees for Canadians' devices? Can Canada ignore the U.S. demand for larger volumes of internet purchases to cross the border duty-free at a time when Canadians are embracing online shopping? At what point do Canadian dairy-farm supporters become fans of cheaper milk?

For all of Ottawa's deliberate knitting together of alliances, the U.S. has some natural allies of its own in Canada.

Money and the NDP

The race to become the next leader of the federal NDP has become more well-defined now that party members can see clearly how each of the candidates is faring at fundraising.

Numbers released this week from Elections Canada show Ontario legislator Jagmeet Singh is well in the lead in terms of money, although he is second place in terms of the number of donors. His support is highly concentrated in his home base of Brampton, Ont., but he has raised more money than his competitors in the biggest provinces — Ontario, B.C. and Quebec.

MP and former punk-rocker Charlie Angus comes in second for the amount of money raised since January, and first in the number of donors. Niki Ashton and Guy Caron place third and fourth.

If political donations are a measure of party-member engagement and enthusiasm, there are undoubtedly many NDPers taking a closer look at all the party totals for the year so far. The NDP is a very distant third place behind the Conservatives and the Liberals at a time when the left-wing party is struggling with debt.

A new tag line

Job creation numbers were up again in July, for the eighth month in a row, and unemployment is now at 6.3 per cent — the lowest since before the global financial crisis of 2009. The report comes after last week's news that the economy as a whole expanded by a juicy 0.6 per cent in May.

As is becoming a habit, federal Liberals quickly associated themselves with the strong numbers, along with a new tag line: "Lots of hard work still to come."

The tag line is more than idle chatter.

The Bank of Canada is responding to the strong growth by tightening up the very loose monetary conditions that have fuelled domestic spending for so long. And market economists are asking whether the federal government should be tightening up too, just as major infrastructure funding is starting to flow in a serious way.

The tag line suggests that no, they will not rein it in, and that they see a lot more room for fiscal expansionism in the future.

Heather Scoffield, Ottawa Bureau Chief, The Canadian Press