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ANDREW MacDOUGALL: Steel was a start. But Trudeau needs to rack up more wins

The U.S. agreed to lift steel tariffs for Canada and Mexico this week - Reuters

The overdue resolution to the tariff spat meant the much-criticized prime minister was once again a man of action. He needs to keep behaving like one.

Thank you, Donald Trump.

It’s not a phrase one usually associates with Justin Trudeau, but it’s hard to believe the words weren’t spoken by the prime minister when news broke that Canada and the United States had finally resolved their manufactured dispute over steel and aluminium tariffs.

Not in the specific sense, of course; the steel skirmish was the U.S. president’s unnecessary own-goal from start to finish. The tariffs should never have applied in the first place, and they should definitely not have been applied under the trumped-up auspices of “national security,” the War of 1812 notwithstanding.

Yet, even with the tariff sucker punch, Trudeau should remain thankful for Trump.

Indeed, having Trump as a foil has always been Trudeau’s trump card. By standing up and spouting progressive orthodoxies in the face of Trump’s angry isolationism, Trudeau gave large swathes of the Canadian and global commentariat the saviour they thought they had lost in Barack Obama. Trump has made a record of accomplishment less of a requirement for Trudeau and his Liberal government than simply fighting the right corner.

Trump has made a record of accomplishment less of a requirement for Trudeau and his Liberal government than simply fighting the right corner.

But if Trudeau wants to spend another four years in the Governor General’s spare shed, he’s going to need a bit more than that. After all, the choice come October won’t be Trudeau versus Trump; it will be Trudeau versus Andrew Scheer. Or Elizabeth May. Or even Jagmeet Singh.

And while the instinct of this government has always been to try to tie the Conservatives to elements of Trumpism, the SNC-Lavalin scandal has made the whole “white nationalism is moving north of the border” battlecry rather obvious (and more than a bit desperate). It’s also hard to claim white knight status when the country is still learning the Kafkaesque details of Mark Norman’s brush with justice.

The victory on steel and aluminium ought to point the way forward. Instead of wagging the dog or moaning about the non-existent threat to abortion, the Liberals need to return to being a government of action.

The overdue resolution to the tariff spat meant the much-criticized prime minister was once again a man of action, and that his traumatized press team could look ahead to the morning clippings with something other than dread. The relief was evident in how thickly Team Trudeau laid on their win. The prime minister’s social media channels filled with images of him telling steelworkers in Hamilton the worst was over. “He wanted to tell them first. We’ll always have Canadians’ backs,” Trudeau’s director of communications tweeted, in case we couldn’t figure it out, a rousing score no doubt playing in the background. Hours later, there was a suite of behind the scenes photos: Trudeau with workers; Trudeau hugging his foreign minister; and Trudeau counting his lucky stars.

But when your government has become better known for commemorating things on social media than for actually getting things done to commemorate on social media, it’s probably better to err on the side of modesty. It’s better to get the next thing done.

With governments now having the ability to broadcast a first version of history, it’s easy to forget that public life is actually about substance, not style. Governing is about getting the small decisions right alongside the bigger calls. Nor do people expect perfection in their representatives; witness the praise Trudeau received for taking Canada backwards a few steps on North American free trade in the face of Trump’s economic illiteracy.

All the more reason, then, to start racking up the action. And that should start with China. Donald Trump makes a fun pantomime villain but in Xi Jinping the world has the real thing.

Whether it’s building a surveillance state and using it to virtually imprison its Muslim population, building hundreds of coal-fired power plants, or militarizing the South China Sea, the current Chinese regime is busy imposing its will. And for five months it has held  Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in custody in apparent retaliation for the U.S. extradition request of Huawei CFO Meng Wangzhou. It’s time to bring them home.

Now that Trudeau is back to being buddy-buddy with Trump, he should involve American diplomacy in efforts to free the two men. Whatever China has at stake with Canada pales in comparison to its relationship with the United States. Instead of sucking up to China, Trudeau should be tucking in under Trump’s wing on questions such as unfair trade practices and Huawei’s designs on 5G networks.

Pace the Trudeau of a few years ago, there simply isn’t that much to admire in China’s dictatorship. Its views and values are antithetical to ours. Let’s stop pretending otherwise.

Trudeau’s naïveté on China is a weak point with voters. Getting a result there would go a long way to showing voters that Trudeau’s Canada is a principled nation of deeds.

Andrew MacDougall is a London-based communications consultant and ex-director of communications to former prime minister Stephen Harper.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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