Trump and trade, military procurement, Kevin O’Leary and cupping: The week in Canadian politics

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OTTAWA—Politics groupies suddenly found themselves this week discussing the pros and cons of cupping, of all things, after the prime minister popped up on a podcast with telltale purple circles on his forearms.

Cupping, just FYI, is an alternative therapy that involves placing suction cups on the skin to draw blood to the surface. Made famous by swimmer Michael Phelps among others. And yes, Justin Trudeau is a fan.

And water coolers across the capital also overheard many a conversation about Trudeau’s admission that his father used his connections to help his brother, Michel, deal with a minor marijuana charge: was it a smart move to show empathy with youth? Or a sign of privilege blinding the prime minister to the need for an amnesty for small pot infractions?

But chatter about cupping and privilege quickly took a back seat to far more serious matters as the week progressed. Long-standing assumptions about Canada-U.S. trade, the country’s military procurement system and the Conservative leadership were challenged to the core. Here are three ways federal politics touched Canadians this week:

If there were any remaining believers in the theory that when U.S. President Donald Trump talked about tearing up NAFTA he was really just talking Mexico, they were converted this week.

Trump has repeatedly singled out Canada in recent days for not being fair. Canada’s dairy regime hurts U.S. farmers. Canada’s lumber is too cheap and needs to face stiff duties. NAFTA should be ditched, or perhaps just renegotiated, but in a way that prevents Canada and Mexico from continuing to take advantage of American generosity. And Bombardier Inc. is way too subsidized.

The federal government has confronted the accusations with lists of facts and figures, direct talks with Trump and his team, and a public plea to be reasonable and polite. Retaliation does not seem to be in the cards at this point, partly because the only material measure taken against Canada by Trump so far is a 20-per-cent lumber duty. With so much more hanging in the balance, Ottawa does not want to make matters worse.

Military procurement mess

Details released this week about the saga of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman served as a stark reminder of the mess that is Canada’s multi-billion-dollar military procurement system.

Documents obtained by the RCMP and submitted to the court in its case against Norman show in colourful relief that the omnipresent chase for military contracts is high-stakes, ruthless and endlessly political.

Norman was the military’s second in command until he was suspended without explanation in January. The RCMP accuses him of leaking cabinet secrets — ostensibly to make sure he could get a supply ship built quickly by a Quebec-based shipyard.

The correspondence paints a picture of military operators and competitive industry players plotting relentlessly to manipulate not just each other but also the media and elected politicians.

It’s not clear yet whether Norman did anything wrong, or if he was caught in the shadowy network of lobbying and arm-twisting that has come to define procurement in Canada.

Government after government has sought to reform the procurement rules and create new bureaucracies to ensure that taxpayers’ money and legitimate military goals are treated with respect. As one of the Armed Forces’ most widely respected leaders strives to clear his name, it’s obvious there’s some work to do yet.

O’Leary’s adieu

The Conservative leadership race was turned on its head this week when Kevin O’Leary — a reality TV star and a presumed front-runner in the leadership contest — suddenly pulled out and threw his support behind rival Maxime Bernier.

The drawn-out contest to replace Stephen Harper will be decided on May 27, but Conservatives will see a different dynamic over the next few weeks now that O’Leary has essentially conceded to Bernier and arguably robbed some of the other 12 contenders of their focal point.

O’Leary was a latecomer to the race but he injected it with profile and attitude, and challenged it with an unorthodox vision of what it means to be conservative. But he also confirmed, in the end, that the tradition of party leaders speaking both official languages is one that can’t be jettisoned with impunity — even in the age of Trumpian unorthodoxy.