Free-trade climate should thaw after November

There are several phases of promises in an election cycle.

There are promises to get you noticed.

There are promises to get you supported.

There are promises to get you nominated.

There are promises to get you elected.

Often that’s as far as any promises go. Look around you for evidence.

It would thus be political convention about the conventions of the Republicans and Democrats to dismiss what we Canadians heard over the last two weeks as posturing that sustains only until the next low-pressure system.

But judging from nighttime TV from Cleveland and Philadelphia, I’m not sure we can say Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are readying to water down their wine at all soon. 

The pressure on Clinton and the pressure by Trump stand to alter cross-border chemistry. The themes that ran through both gatherings – protectionism, economic disruption, trade antagonism – should concern Canadian business that wants its largest trading partner to be predictable and not petulant.

Instead, the tenor of the American conventions felt like that stray Canadian tenor at baseball’s All-Star Game: an unpredictable rogue digression from what has made us comfortable, proud and committed.

Take, for instance, the prospects for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Only a year ago, there was elation about a long-sought deal. Only a few months ago, concerns about its possible collapse were being dismissed. It is, after all, Barack Obama’s signature international economic proposal in his eight years, and no one expected it to unwind. 

No matter: Hillary hates it more than ever thanks to Bernie Sanders, Donald hates it and most everything else more than ever simply by getting out of bed every day. 

If Canada wants it, Canada will need to build it unilaterally and bilaterally, country by country – the next president, man or woman, appears unwilling to lend the office’s signature.

The U.S. under the next president appears to be aiming to be more of a competitor than a collaborator, particularly with regard to Asia, and it stands to be more protectionist than at any time in the three decades of our free-trade era.

The electioneering has yet to be earnest, but in these preliminary stages Trump’s tear-up-the-deals mantra is only slightly higher-pitched than Clinton’s not-so-sure-about-NAFTA narrative. Both disquiets should alarm, because our investment climate utterly depends on stable trade arrangements. This bodes badly for B.C. lumber and other commodities.

Post-inauguration, we have two prospects to avoid seismic economic disruption. 

The first hope, if Hillary wins, is the First Spouse, or whatever they will call Bill. He passed NAFTA, is a poster boy for globalization, and his post-presidential foundation owes much to Canadian contributions from the likes of B.C.’s Frank Giustra. Hillary may forget she raised a lot of money for her campaign touring Canada in recent times, but Bill has an elephant’s memory on friends, deeds and obligations. Canada can only hope it can call in a favour.

The second is the most logical and traditional, the U.S. Congress. Even if the campaigning is worrisome, it is likely that Canada can count on its check-and-balance function to rein in Trump and stymie Clinton if either as president gets off-leash. Ask Obama: the most powerful job in the world is not so powerful many days. 

While there are Republican and Democratic foes of NAFTA, there are also dozens of representatives whose constituencies depend on exports north. Canada has done its fair share of lobbying for its interests and ensuring elected officials are enlightened of self-interests.

Anger about economic orthodoxies may help take Trump or Clinton into November victories. Hillary may punch through the glass ceiling, Donald may lust for his barrier with Mexico, but both are bound to hit the long-established brick wall. 

Kirk LaPointe is Business in Vancouver’s vice-president of audience and business development