The Hill Times – Freeland strikes alliance with populist Maine governor who understands value of trade

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[As published in the August 21, 2017 edition of The Hill Times]

Canada’s NAFTA lobbyist-in-chief has revealed the key but unorthodox ally she has found inside U.S. President Donald Trump’s inner circle—one who is fluent in the president’s own bombastic political language.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland told a committee of MPs last week that she often speaks with him on the phone to discuss ways the Trudeau government can make its NAFTA advocacy resonate within the administration and, most importantly, in the president’s ear.

But he is not your typical D.C. power broker. He proudly spends as little time in Washington, D.C., as he can, a fact that endears him to the president and the “drain the swamp” supporters they share.

Despite speculation, he has not taken an official role within the Trump administration, although he has joked to reporters he would be happy to serve as Trump’s ambassador to Canada in the summer and Jamaica in the winter.

At least for now, though, when the thoroughly progressive Freeland wants to bounce an idea off an outspoken populist, she dials Maine, the small state where Gov. Paul LePage has raucously ruled as a headline writer’s dream since 2010.

“I have been in close contact with him. I speak on the phone with him often. He is an influential voice in this administration,” Freeland told the International Trade committee last week, as she outlined the labour, environmental, and gender-equality objectives of Canada’s negotiators.

“I have also found him—not solely in conversations with me, but also in his advocacy in Washington—to be very good in explaining a key element of our economic relationship with the United States, which is we build things together. That is a key element and it can sometimes be missed.”

LePage knows Canada well. His first language was French. He lived in New Brunswick through most of the 1970’s, where his adult daughters still live today, and he worked in the province’s forestry sector which is closely integrated with the industry in Maine.

But what makes LePage most valuable to Freeland is that his connection to Canada neatly intersects with a political brand of populism and hyperbole that he shares with Trump.

“I was Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular,” LePage said in February 2016 when he became one of the first governors to endorse Trump.

The Boston Globe called it a “bromance” in March 2017, and in April Trump warmly poked at LePage’s recent remarkable weight loss.

“I knew him when he was heavy, and now I know him when he was thin, and I like him both ways,” Trump said.

Many of the blunt adjectives used to describe Trump’s crude and cartoonish political style were tried on LePage first, with the same approximate result among his staunch supporters and detractors.

When Freeland calls LePage, she knows she is the only progressive on the call and it would be naive to think LePage is acting solely out of sentimentality for Canada. But as she reminded the International Trade committee on Monday, the jobs of 38,500 Maine residents depend on exports to Canada in a small state where jobs are scarce. Therein lies the Trudeau government’s NAFTA strategy in a nutshell with its focus on American jobs and our integrated supply chains.

Despite their political differences, when Freeland talks jobs, she is speaking LePage’s language and tapping in to the cold calculation that—like her—his own self-interest and the economic health of his state are hanging in the balance as NAFTA negotiations get underway.

Freeland does her homework, and would know that when Canadian fishermen mounted barricades to block Maine lobster exports from reaching New Brunswick processing plants in 2012, the usually explosive LePage did nothing to cause an international incident. Instead, he calmly identified an opportunity for his state to build up its seafood processing capacity and keep more of its resources, and jobs, at home.

Likewise in June, the pro-jobs governor took the extraordinary step of writing U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to lobby against new tariffs on Canadian lumber that would hurt his state and its workers.

“He understands very well the intense and interconnected relationship between Maine and Canada. He happens to have a personal background in the forestry sector and that informs his point of view in a very useful way,” said Freeland.

For now it appears both Freeland and LePage need each other, and so when Canada’s progressive foreign minister calls, it is likely Maine’s Republican governor will continue to pick up the phone.

Jesse Robichaud is a consultant with Ensight, an Ottawa public affairs firm. He served as an adviser to former Progressive Conservative New Brunswick premier David Alward from 2010 to 2014.[:]