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With border deal, Harper nails down key election plank

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks at a news conference with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington on Feb. 4, 2011.

LARRY DOWNING/REUTERS

Friday's announcement by Stephen Harper and Barack Obama of talks aimed at creating a new continental security perimeter while slashing of red tape obstructing cross-border trade is a shot across the bow to both countries' bureaucracies. We are the heads of our governments, the two men were effectively saying, and we want results.

Failure is all we have to show for seven years of efforts to unclog the increasingly congested Canada-U.S. border. The Security and Prosperity Partnership, a grand bargain aimed at harmonizing product safety and quality regulations, foundered on George W. Bush's waning popularity and the fact that Mexico, which is less developed than its northern neighbours, was part of the talks.

Since then, one-off efforts to fix this problem or that - such as a pilot program to inspect, seal and pre-clear trucks heading across the border - foundered amid departmental turf wars.

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To get things kick-started, the President effectively declared he was willing to expend political capital on improving Canada-U.S. trade and security. The Prime Minister, for his part, agreed to put security on the agenda, which could lead to greater integration in policing the continent amid fears of eroding sovereignty.

We'll see in a few months' time if they really mean it, whether they both conclude it's worth the political cost to implement the agreements on trade, infrastructure, regulatory reform and security put forward by the working group. They might not. This could fail. If it does, it will be years before any political leader on either side of the border will be willing to try again. Trade will suffer; profits will thin; jobs will disappear.

Regardless of the outcome, Canadian governments and businesses will seek to expand trade links with the emerging economies, especially China. But the United States will always be, overwhelmingly, Canada's most important trading partner. That isn't subject to debate.

There is much, though, that we can debate, especially if there is an election this spring. The Conservatives will make expanding trade and security ties with the United States a central plank of their election platform. After all, protecting jobs and keeping people safe are the two overriding priorities of this government, or so the Conservatives like to tell us.

And Mr. Harper knows he's putting Michael Ignatieff in a tough spot. The Liberal Leader must either (a) oppose the talks, and risk driving away voters in southern Ontario where the economy stands or falls on trade with the United States; (b) support them, and give up hope of wooing voters away from the NDP; or (c) refuse to commit until we know the specifics, and look weak.

Canadians deserve an open debate about whether and under what conditions Canada and the United States should further integrate their economies and their security regimes. We may soon get that debate, in the shape of an election campaign.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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