WASHINGTON — Officials from a variety of U.S. government departments have been poring through the Liberal party's successful election campaign platform for clues about what Canada's new government might mean for them.
That early assessment was on display at a Washington event where employees from different U.S. federal agencies asked questions about aspects of the Liberal program.
They also expressed some concerns in a discussion that touched on a variety of topics that included intelligence-sharing, military spending, space exploration, research and development and climate change.
"It was a very wide range of things discussed," said Andrew Finn of the Wilson Center, which helped organize the event for U.S. policy-makers.
It happened at a symbolically important juncture in Canada-U.S. relations.
Last Friday, at the very moment President Barack Obama was preparing to announce he was rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline, participants from the American government and non-government organizations gathered near the White House to discuss the future.
One moderator opened the event by joking that Canada had suddenly become sexy, and interesting. There's even talk of an Obama-Trudeau visit soon.
But the session quickly got into the dowdier details of bilateralism.
The first question was about Canada's military spending _ the lowest in the G7, which prompted the newsmagazine the Economist to run an item earlier this year titled, "Strong, proud and free-riding."
An official from the U.S. State Department asked whether the military might get some of the money the new Liberal government was promising to spend on infrastructure.
The reply from one panellist, former Chretien-era PMO official Randy Pettipas, whose group Global Public Affairs helped co-organize the event: "Canada doesn't have a huge appetite to spend a lot of money on defence. It hasn't in a long time - and I don't see that changing."
An FBI intelligence analyst expressed concern about plans to modify anti-terrorism laws. Without specifically mentioning Bill C-51, he asked about Liberal promises to revise existing law.
"How feasible is that with the Canadian public?" the FBI analyst asked. "And what is the feasibility of that going through?"
Two panellists told him not to expect big changes. The Liberals have promised to make changes to C-51, Pettipas noted.
One audience member said there's real concern in the U.S. about intelligence - and whether the acceleration of information-sharing in recent years might lose stream.
Theresa Cardinal Brown was the first Department of Homeland Security attache at the U.S. embassy in Ottawa and played a role in originally designing the co-operation program Beyond the Border.
She said there's some worry about whether the new government will share information on the 25,000 Syrian refugees it wants to bring in; whether it will weaken C-51, which simplifies intelligence-sharing between Canadian departments; and, generally, whether it will maintain the intelligence-co-operation of recent years.
"It's just a generic concern," said Cardinal Brown, who now runs the consulting firm Cardinal North Strategies.
"So that will be watched closely."
A representative from NASA, meanwhile, said there's enthusiasm at the agency about what a new government means for Canada's participation in space co-operation and research-and-development.
Another panellist predicted Canada could resume an old role on international files that Brian Mulroney played frequently: as interlocutor between the U.S., and countries that view America skeptically.
However, he also tried tempering expectations. Christopher Sands of Johns Hopkins University warned that:
- The new government has many rookies, and there will be growing pains.
- The Trans-Pacific Partnership could be a challenge. He said he'd expect the new government to try working out a new side-deal to the massive trade pact. He said the deal might benefit Canada in many ways, but causes hardship in the auto sector.
- The softwood-lumber dispute is probably coming back, with a decade-old agreement now expiring.
- There's a mismatch in priorities. The new Canadian government is young, excited, and wants to do big things. The U.S. administration has a year left, and many of its most powerful actors are already gone.
"We're going to have to be really sensitive to the fact that Canadians are really hopeful for this government,'' Sands said. "Don't make them look bad."
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