Did Prime Minister Justin Trudeau intend to cause an international incident?
That’s what many columnists and pundits are still trying to figure out after our national leader’s confusing absence, and sudden reappearance, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum (APEC).
Let’s go back a few steps.
Trudeau was in Danang, Vietnam, last week to meet with other world leaders at the APEC summit. One of the main issues was the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which had been left in the dust after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew his country last January. The remaining 11 countries, including Canada, would meet to discuss whether they would revamp and relaunch the agreement.
TPP Version 2.0 was thrown for a massive loop, however, when Trudeau didn’t attend the scheduled meeting. The international press called it everything from a “snub” to Australia’s Fairfax Media correspondent Lindsay Murdoch’s suggestion that the PM had “sabotaged” this trade arrangement.
At the time, it was pretty hard to argue. Trudeau didn’t attend the meeting and no Canadian official was offering an explanation.
This narrative changed within a few hours.
International Trade Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne met with the media and acknowledged that progress had occurred. When asked why the PM hadn’t shown up at the original TPP meeting, Champagne said “things are fluid” at APEC – and chalked it up to a “misunderstanding” about his schedule due to a bilateral meeting that “took longer than expected.”
This bilateral was with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The two leaders had reportedly disagreed on a number of issues about TPP. “The scheduled meeting with Prime Minister Abe … went long,” Trudeau told the media, “we obviously had a lot to talk about, and at the end of the meeting it became clear it was in everyone’s interest to postpone the meeting on TPP11.”
The PM also noted, “I wasn’t going to be rushed into a deal that was not yet in the best interest of Canadians. That is what I’ve been saying at least for a week, and I’ve been saying it around TPP12 for years now and that position continues to hold.”
In the end, the TPP countries (including Canada) reached a partial agreement on Nov. 11. While this doesn’t guarantee the trade deal’s passage, everything seems to be moving in the right direction again.
What exactly happened here?
Trudeau’s explanation is plausible. Bilateral meetings can often go much longer than expected and hold up other meetings and proceedings. If there were some points of disagreement about TPP between Canada and Japan, they obviously had to be dealt with beforehand.
Meanwhile, there are moments when world leaders get tied up for other reasons. At the G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy, in 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrived late to the traditional “family photo.” While the international press had a short-lived field day, both men made it and the photo was taken.
But some sticking points about Trudeau’s disappearance remain.
First, if Abe did cancel this meeting between the TPP countries due to Canada’s concerns, as some have suggested, why wasn’t this information immediately released? The press and public remained in the dark for hours over an issue that could have been swatted away in mere minutes.
Second, why didn’t Trudeau go to the large-scale TPP meeting to formally express any concerns he had mentioned in the bilateral meeting with Abe? This is an important issue and the PM should have made a brief appearance instead of not showing up at all.
Third, why did Champagne have to explain Trudeau’s absence? It should have been up to the national leader and not the international trade minister to provide a blow-by-blow account of this weird event.
So, was Trudeau’s absence a “nothing-burger,” as the cool kids like to say, or did the burger contain plenty of bacon and cheese? I’m still chewing on it, alas.
Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and Washington Times contributor, was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics.