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Opinion Harper’s NAFTA memo could push Ottawa’s united front to crumble

There goes the united front. Stephen Harper's memo, "Napping on NAFTA," was just the biggest crack in the smiley-face consensus Canadian politicians have been putting on. Who doubts there will be more?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's own façade, a relentlessly upbeat optimism on the trade deal, almost begged for a slap across the face with a sock full of pessimism, and who else but his predecessor, Mr. Harper, who never saw an international situation that didn't look like a gloomy ball of risk, to deliver?

Mr. Harper penned a memo to clients of his Harper & Associates firm, leaked to The Canadian Press, that sounded an alarm. If his point was that we have to prepare for the post-NAFTA worst, then Mr. Harper is right. But it didn't provide real advice for the talks.

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Still, it's a signal that will encourage Mr. Harper's fellow Conservatives to start slipping off the Liberals' NAFTA message.

The Conservatives have, for the most part, been playing ball with the Trudeau Liberals' call for a beyond-partisan approach to the renegotiation. U.S. President Donald Trump isn't a popular figure in this country, and many Canadians view his North American free-trade agreement threats as bullying. And the Liberals had reached out to ask former prime minister Brian Mulroney to help, and asked former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose to serve on a NAFTA advisory council. But there are signs Conservatives itch to be free of those chummy constraints.

Even in early days, just after Mr. Trump was elected, former trade minister Ed Fast suggested Mr. Trudeau should ditch Mexico and work on a bilateral deal with the United States, an inclination Mr. Harper shares. Andrew Scheer, the Conservative Leader, said in September that the Liberals are jeopardizing Canadian jobs by putting forward proposals on issues such as climate change, gender and Indigenous peoples. That, too, was one of Mr. Harper's complaints.

But the biggest part of Mr. Harper's memo was warning that talks are going badly, and Mr. Trump might pull the plug. Canada, he said, must realize that it doesn't matter if it gets a worse deal than what it has now; what matters, "is whether it is worth having a trade agreement with the Americans or not."

That's partly a reflection of the sour feeling that the talks could fail. And that prospect also encourages the opposition to break more with the government's handling of the negotiations.

The Liberals are squealing that Mr. Harper is disloyally weakening the knees of Canadians so the Americans can take advantage. But Canadians don't need an entire political class telling us to keep calm and NAFTA will carry on. Already, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has become a little more pointed about the problems. If Mr. Harper's leaked memo was advising clients to manage their risk, the risk of a non-NAFTA Canada, that's reasonable. But it doesn't provide a viable alternative strategy for negotiations.

The Liberals' bottom line doesn't really revolve around proposals for gender, or Indigenous people, or climate change. That's political symbolism. Mr. Trump's team won't have much trouble ignoring the parts it's not interested in entertaining.

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And why dump Mexico now? It may be Mr. Trump's chief political target in NAFTA, but American trade with Mexico also motivates pro-NAFTA lobbies inside the United States, in border states such as Texas or specific sectors. Mr. Trump cancelled plans to trigger the six-month NAFTA withdrawal process in April after Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue warned it would hurt farmers.

One big motivator: Without NAFTA, Mexico would be free to impose far higher duties under the World Trade Organization on U.S. exports such as corn, and buy it from competitors such as Brazil instead. Those are the interests that sway members of Congress, the only body that could force Mr. Trump to stay in NAFTA.

So far, the United States has proposed so many non-starters that it cannot expect there to be a basis for a deal. There's no outward signal that Canada could find a separate deal alone, or even a deal that is better than none. It's not clear what Mr. Trump wants, or if he knows what he wants. The Liberal government's position in the talks seems to be to wait, and find out.

It's now likely to be a rockier wait for the Liberals. They're going to hear more voices from across the Commons suggesting they should do more, more quickly, even if there isn't yet a deal to be done.

After Mr. Harper has sounded the alarm, his fellow Conservatives will be itching to follow.

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