Justin Trudeau and his government were handed two painful and costly lessons last week.
One lesson was not to take the courts for granted. Trudeau and his people were read that lesson in a Federal Court of Appeal decision that froze construction on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
The second lesson was never, ever again, to trust anything Donald Trump says. He blew a hole in months of painstaking negotiations for a new or revised NAFTA agreement when he disowned the efforts of his own negotiating team; declared that Canada had been abusing the United States on the trade front for decades; and insisted he would not sign any agreement that did not give the U.S. everything it wanted. So much for good-faith bargaining!
As to the first lesson, the government had mistakenly assumed that the 1,150 km pipeline project faced clear sailing. All requisite regulatory and political approvals having been obtained, surely the courts would brush aside lingering legal challenges.
Based on that assumption, the government agreed to buy the pipeline from Kinder Morgan for $4.5 billion, plus however many additional billions might be needed to finish the job if Ottawa could not find a private sector operator prepared to take the pipeline off its hands.
Not so fast, said a three-member panel of the Federal Court of Appeal. It found major flaws in the National Energy Board’s approval process – inadequate consultation with some of the Indigenous groups along the pipeline route, and failure to assess the potential risk to the marine environment from increased tanker traffic off the British Columbia coast.
The court did not kill the pipeline, but it set some onerous conditions for the NEB and the government to meet. There is little doubt that the government would not have considered buying the pipeline if it had foreseen the possibility of a court-imposed roadblock.
It could appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court of Canada, but it won’t. No Liberal government interested in re-election would venture to ask the highest court to set aside legitimate Indigenous and environmental issues.
The Trudeau government is cornered. Politically, it has no choice but to meet the court’s stipulations – and to do so post-haste. Delay will only make matters worse.
While the government can be accused of lack of foresight – or an absence of a pipeline Plan B – it cannot be held responsible for the NAFTA mess.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and her team will be back in Washington on Wednesday, doing what they have been doing for months – bargaining in good faith. They play by the rules, just as Canadian negotiators played three decades ago in the free trade negotiations with the administration of President Ronald Reagan. Reagan may have been on the cusp of dementia, but he was an honourable leader who kept his word.
Not so with Trump. While Freeland went out of her way last week to say the American team was negotiating in good faith, the same could not be said of their boss. First, he negotiated some sort of bilateral trade deal with Mexico, then he deliberately cut Canada out of the process.
That may be partly out of personal ill-will he has developed toward Trudeau since the G7 summit in Quebec. It is surely out of Trump’s narcissism and his conviction that any set of negotiations can have only one winner – Donald J. Trump.
In her best-selling new book, “Unhinged,” Omarosa Manigault Newman, the only black female in the mainly male, overwhelming white, upper echelon of the Trump White House – and a woman who had worked with and for Trump over a period of 15 years – describes his increasing irrationality and outbursts of rage directed at his staff, supporters and even members of his family.
Her conclusion: “His mental state was so deteriorated that the filter between the worst impulses of his mind and his mouth was completely gone.”
How can anyone negotiate with leader in that condition?