Commentary from Colin Robertson

At G20, Trudeau must reflect on tenure and plot inclusive economic course forward

by Colin Robertson

The Globe and Mail
September 2, 2016

No longer the debutante, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau travels to Hangzhou, China, to attend his second G20 summit (Sept. 4-5). For Mr. Trudeau it’s an opportunity to strengthen personal relationships and to share perspectives with fellow leaders on a global economy that is anemic and an international landscape that is increasingly disoriented.

In his initial summiteering, hopscotching from Commonwealth to climate, from G20 to APEC and later at Davos, Mr. Trudeau’s message was that “Canada is back.”

Subsequent actions are defining its form: more emphasis on humanitarian relief for victims of the ISIS conflict, while still supporting military efforts to bring it to an end; resettlement of Syrian refugees; a Canadian brigade for Latvia to support NATO’s collective security; a robust peace operations commitment; measurable action on climate-change mitigation; and restarts in out relations, first with the U.S., and now China.

At a time of of popular discontent with leaders and government, Mr. Trudeau is an anomaly. He is more popular today than on his election and his government is getting some difficult things done. G20 leaders will be interested in the Trudeau method. They will also want his take on the U.S. election.

As he reflects on his first year as Prime Minister, Mr. Trudeau could make the following observations:

First, there is no magic bullet on economic growth. It takes a lot longer to put stimulus policies into effect, especially when implementation is shared with different levels of government. Well-meant but time-consuming permitting obligations means getting things done in a four-year mandate is very difficult. What is the balance between action on nation-building projects and consultation around social license?

Second, focus on outcomes, recognizing that one size does not fit all. Canada’s provinces were already far ahead in the practical implementation of carbon pricing. But just as their regional energy mix is different – oil and gas, nuclear and hydro-power – so too are their mitigation policies, such as a carbon tax, carbon levy, cap-in-trade.

Third, using social media is essential if democratic leaders and their governments are to sustain public support. A picture and a tweet are more effective in delivering a message than a thousand press releases.

Canadians are assumed to understand Americans better than anyone else, and this interpretive capacity gives Canadian leaders a diplomatic advantage, especially in multilateral forum like the G20. Given his “bromance“ with President Barack Obama, fellow G20 leaders will want Mr. Trudeau’s insights into the post-Obama U.S.

If Mr. Trudeau is shrewd, he should reach out to Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto – who has just met with Donald Trump. Developing a joint approach in their diagnosis, and the opportunities and challenges of the next U.S. Administration and Congress, would serve both countries’ interests. While neither Canada nor Mexico may be the immediate target of U.S. trade action, they will certainly be collateral damage should the U.S. succumb to the protectionist impulse.

For now, developing a united front with the other G20 leaders in support of freer trade and open markets will encourage like-minded allies within the U.S.

Canada also needs to look at other options, especially if the U.S. rejects the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Should, for example, Canada and Mexico seek admission to the China-inspired Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that also includes Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, India and the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations?

Even though it lacks the democratic cohesion of the G7, the G20 is the global economic leadership forum. It was the brainchild of former finance minister Paul Martin, who recognized that the G7 lacked sufficient inclusiveness to address globalization. Elevated to the level of leaders in 2008, the G20 helped mitigate the Great Recession and prevent it from becoming a second Great Depression. One aim of the Hangzhou summit is to help integrate recent climate and sustainable-development goals in global economic governance.

Cynics who doubt the utility of the G20 need to appreciate that the process is more important than the communiqué. The summit sits atop a year-long series of meetings of ministers and central bankers, and formal consultations with business, think tanks, labour, youth, women and civil society.

Complicated, time-consuming and often without an obvious outcome, the G20 in some ways resembles a Canadian First Ministers meeting. But leaders talking together has its own value, especially when the international environment is disordered and chaotic.

A former diplomat, Colin Robertson is vice-president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.


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