Watson: Is Trudeau muscular enough on openness?

Justin Trudeau got an impressive shout-out in the lead editorial of the globally-read Economist magazine two weeks ago. Not for his nicely bronzed pecs, but for being one of two world politicians – Emmanuel Macron, France’s minister of economy and industry was the other – coming to the defence of global openness in an era in which, as the editorial writer put it, the drawbridges seem to be going up everywhere, if not yet quite as alarmingly as, in 1914, the lamps were going out all over Europe.

The Economist didn’t elaborate on our prime minister’s defence of openness – of bridges, not walls, as Hillary Clinton neatly puts it – but presumably it had something to do with his party’s pledge during last year’s federal election to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees. (As of this writing, the government’s website puts the updated total at 29,817.)

That’s all to the good. Or at least we hope it’s all to the good: With the totals in the tens of thousands, it doesn’t take a very big error rate to let in some bad apples. Accepting refugees is a strong endorsement of openness, and also, as the government website points out, in our invariably self-congratulatory way, a Canadian tradition: “Open hearts and welcoming communities: it’s the Canadian way.” A linked website, “Canada: A History of Refuge,” describes 18 refugee episodes dating from 1770, though with no mention of “none is too many.”

But apart from accepting refugees, has Trudeau really done much for openness lately? The Trans-Pacific Partnership may or may not be a good deal. Economists disagree about the wisdom of going for regional deals rather than trying to push forward the now 164 member and therefore almost immovable World Trade Organization. And powerful local interests always manage to attach carve-outs and exceptions onto such deals, leaving them far from ideal. But, as trade goes, the TPP is the main symbol of openness on offer these days. Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland signed the TPP in a ceremony in New Zealand in February. But Parliament hasn’t debated or ratified it yet. Trudeau has talked about the need for consultation and discussion – when are consultation and discussion not desirable? – but he has hardly been a powerful voice supporting the deal.

Mind you, since both presidential candidates in the United States now oppose TPP, including the Secretary of State who helped put it together, perhaps there’s not much point supporting it. But if not TPP, at least stand strongly on guard for NAFTA. And do everything you can to help move the WTO along, despite its inertia. Our drawbridges in supply-managed agriculture have been up for so long they’ve rusted into place. Young, muscular Trudeau could get his sledge hammer out and start pounding away at them.

Last month, the provincial premiers came up with yet another agreement to make interprovincial trade slightly easier. It will actually be legal now – no longer a criminal offence – to move wine among three Canadian signatory provinces: Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia. But a majority of provinces “aren’t quite there yet,” as Donald Trump might say. It’s pitiful, isn’t it? For the most part, traditional drawbridges in our own country are firmly stuck in the “Up” position. A federal government headed up by a still-popular prime minister could be much more aggressive in prying them open but for whatever reason finds that inexpedient.

I’ve never been one for “the world needs more Canada.” If the world thinks that, great. Mainly, though, it’s Canadians pushing that self-serving line. But the world does need more Canadian voices and actors for openness. It’s good The Economist thinks Trudeau is doing that job. He needs to keep at it. Roll up his sleeves, if he wore sleeves. Put his back into it. Get those photogenic delts, traps and lats working hard for it.

William Watson is acting chair of the Department of Economics, McGill University.

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