OTTAWA — Liberal cabinet ministers say former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney gave them useful advice Thursday during their closed-door meeting on the upcoming renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The unprecedented display of non-partisan co-operation, a rarity on Parliament Hill, also had a tinge of deja vu. A smiling Mulroney, who departed politics a quarter century ago, said it was "as if I never left" as he exited the hallway from the Centre Block's cabinet room.
Trudeau was not at the meeting of his cabinet committee on Canada-U.S. relations. Some of his ministers, however, said Mulroney was making a valuable contribution.
Former prime minister Brian
"He brought years of experience and perspective that will be very helpful in making sure that we achieve the very best results for Canada," said Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale.
Mulroney has been helping Justin Trudeau's government navigate the new U.S. administration. (Photo: The Canadian Press)
"It's always interesting to hear the expertise and experience from people who have had decades of experience dealing with the United States," added Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne.
Mulroney's government fought and won an election on the first Canada-U.S. free trade deal in 1988, which became the precursor of the current NAFTA deal when Mexico was brought on board.
NAFTA talks will be challenging: Mulroney
The 79-year-old former prime minister, a personal friend of Donald Trump, has been helping Justin Trudeau's government navigate the new U.S. administration. Mulroney has said Canadian politicians have to set aside their domestic partisan interests to protect the country's economic interests with the U.S.
But he didn't mince words on what the Liberals faced moving forward on the NAFTA with an unpredictable Trump administration.
"I think they're going to be very challenging," Mulroney said of the upcoming talks.
Following Trump's fiery anti-NAFTA rhetoric, a meeting with Trudeau at the White House appeared to cool the U.S. president, who at the time seemed to have adopted a "pretty reasonable posture," Mulroney said.
"Then the letter from the (U.S. Trade Representative) comes out with a different version of things, so we'll just have to wait and see," Mulroney added.
Timeline on talks is slipping: ambassador
"It is a document that reflects a territorial wish for advantage by the Americans, so you could expect it'll be tough."
Mulroney was meeting with members of the Liberal cabinet to brief them on the efforts so far to divine the Trump adminstration's specific intentions and how NAFTA negotiations between Canada and the U.S. are likely to proceed.
He says so-called country-of-origin rules, long a sore spot in NAFTA, and the dispute resolution mechanism are likely to be difficult areas of discussion in the eventual negotiations.
U.S. ambassador David MacNaughton and one of his predecessors in that job, Derek Burney, Mulroney's former chief of staff, joined the cabinet discussion.
MacNaughton said the timeline on the start of the talks is slipping, but the Americans control that agenda, so Canada will wait and be ready when the time comes to negotiate.
"I keep being assured that it's imminent but imminent seems to be dragging on," MacNaughton said after the meeting.
"It's always interesting to hear the expertise and experience from people who have had decades of experience dealing with the United States."
He said the Liberals have forged "extremely good" relations with the Trump White House, which has been "extraordinarily responsive" to Canada. But he predicted tougher times ahead.
"Obviously we're getting into some things that are pretty tough," MacNaughton said. "The Americans are no slouches in terms of their negotiations, but neither are we."
Mulroney spoke of the need of the government to eventually appoint a strong negotiator.
"In my case, I looked around Canada for the very best negotiator and I found him in Simon Reisman," Mulroney said.
He said it was too early to say what Canada might have to give up in the forthcoming talks because there is no clear picture on what the American demands will be.
But the veteran politician added: "The question is, what will they have to give up, too?"
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