OTTAWA — Ian Brodie has been waiting a decade to tell his side of the political story that was known as NAFTA-gate.
In 2008, Brodie was the circumspect chief of staff to then-prime minister Stephen Harper when his casual conversation in a budget lock-up with a reporter set off a chain of events that led to a full-blown political tempest that temporarily upended Barack Obama’s march to the White House.
It led to an internal government investigation, upheaval in the Prime Minister’s Office and raised fears about something that is now a major source of continental angst — the possibility of the United States torching the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Brodie, now a University of Calgary political scientist, revisits the 2008 political drama in his new book on the role of the PMO in Canada’s political system, “At The Centre of Government: The Prime Minister and the Limits of Political Power.”
Brodie, as he did at the time, denies leaking anything to anyone, but for the first time he offers his perspective on the affair and how it affected governments on both sides of the border.
He says it offers a timely lesson on the cost of politicizing NAFTA, especially in light of President Donald Trump’s threats to blow it up if he can’t renegotiate it to the U.S.’s advantage.
“Nearly a decade later, we can see the cumulative damage done by three decades of political attacks on NAFTA,” Brodie writes.
Brodie says Bill Clinton sharply criticized the agreement as then-governor of Arkansas in 1992 but eventually ratified it. Over the years, candidates for lesser offices also criticized the deal. In 2008, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama “both took shots at it” when they were competing for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Throughout all that, Canada and Mexico did not call out these campaigns “for their irresponsible rhetoric” and to “correct the record” about the economic benefits NAFTA brought to all three countries.
“Or, rather, no one called them out until President Trump took aim at NAFTA, and at that point it was too late,” Brodie writes.
“I regret whatever damage I might have done to Canada-U.S. relations, if any was caused. I also wish that some of the people who attacked me had directed some criticisms to American politicians taking unwarranted shots at NAFTA’s impact. That might have helped head off the far more serious problems created by President Trump’s presidential campaign.”
Brodie was drawn into the NAFTA debate during the federal budget’s media lockup in Ottawa in February 2008.
He was circulating the room when he had a pivotal conversation with a CTV reporter — the exact contents of which Brodie says he cannot remember to this day.
At the time, it was reported that Brodie told some CTV reporters that the Hilary Clinton camp said she had no intention of following through on some tough talk about renegotiating NAFTA, suggesting that some domestic political posturing was taking place. Brodie apparently got the candidate wrong but his comments set reporters onto the story, which eventually led to a pivotal leaked memo.
The Canadian government memo was obtained by the Associated Press and detailed a similar conversation about NAFTA between Obama’s economic adviser, Austan Goolsbee, and a senior official at Canada’s Chicago consulate.
An investigation by the Privy Council Office cleared Brodie and blamed officials at Foreign Affairs for disseminating the memo too widely to keep it secret. “To this day, I do not know who leaked the diplomatic report on the Goolsbee meeting to the Associated Press. It was not me.”
Brodie writes that Harper was “rightly furious” with him, especially because he couldn’t remember what he’d said to the reporter in the lock-up. Brodie writes that he was sure if he said anything at all he would have “downplayed the potential impact” of those political moves on Canada-U.S. relations.
Behind the scenes, Brodie was feeling the full impact personally, with fellow PMO staffers wondering whether he would survive the day.
“Harper took matters into his own hands and for a while I took a back seat running the office.”
When a scandal reaches the heights of the PMO, it “hurts” the ability to make timely decisions.
Brodie says he noticed that after leaving government, when Harper’s later chief of staff, Nigel Wright, was “ensnared” in the Senate expense scandal involving Sen. Mike Duffy.
“Any scandal that reaches into PMO leaves a prime minister unable to depend on his aides for help.”
Brodie left PMO later in the spring of 2008, but he writes that he told Harper more than a month before NAFTA-gate erupted of his intention to go. He and his wife were planning to have a second child and they “could not manage a larger family and PMO at the same time.”
Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press