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Liberals push rosy economic message at cabinet retreat, but dispute with China looms large

Liberals push rosy economic message at cabinet retreat, but dispute with China looms large
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SHERBROOKE, Que. — Liberal cabinet ministers on Friday wrapped up a three-day retreat in the southeast Quebec city of Sherbrooke — a riding currently held by the NDP in a province key to the Liberal re-election effort.

The retreat, likely the final one before the election scheduled for Oct. 21, gave glimpses of what the Liberals hope to campaign on, but also of the looming threats that could throw everything off track.

Over the three days there was a striking contrast between the comments of Finance Minister Bill Morneau, who emphasized a rosy picture of Canada’s economic outlook, and the comments of Global Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, who said Canada faces the most volatile international environment in nearly a century.

If all goes to plan over the next 10 months, it will be Morneau front and centre as the Liberals promote Canada’s well-performing economy.

“Private-sector economists are all looking towards a period of sustained growth, so we’re not actually looking right now with any expectation of difficult times,” Morneau said on the opening night of the retreat. “With the strongest job numbers we’ve seen in over four decades, we’re in a positive situation. Our goal of course is to figure out how we maintain that growth.”

Yet the retreat was awash in reminders of global instability and threats, and Canada’s escalating diplomatic dispute with China constantly upstaged the message of progress the Liberals would prefer to focus on.

On Wednesday night, six senior Canadian ambassadors briefed the cabinet ministers and then came out to speak to reporters.

John MacCallum, Canada’s ambassador to China, said two Canadians being detained — former diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor — are being questioned up to four hours a day by Chinese authorities. A third Canadian, Robert Schellenberg, is now facing the death penalty after a one-day retrial on drug smuggling charges.

“We have to engage the senior Chinese leaders and persuade them that what they’re doing is not good for China’s image in the world; it’s not good for the image of corporate China in the world,” MacCallum said.

The next day, China’s ambassador to Canada held a combative news conference in Ottawa that accused Canada of “backstabbing” China when it arrested a top Huawei executive for possible extradition to the U.S., and threatened unspecified “repercussions” if Canada bans Huawei from its 5G network.

Freeland, responding a few hours later, put the situation in stark terms.

“We’re living through, I think, the most turbulent moment in terms of the rules-based international order since the Second World War,” she said. “This turbulence is affecting a lot of countries and we should not imagine that we can be immune.”

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale used similar language when asked whether Canada, as a relatively small country, is getting “pushed around” by China.

“This is a tough world,” Goodale said. “There are very turbulent factors that are affecting countries around the globe. Canada is not immune from that … but we will not be deterred from doing what we believe to be right.”

At his news conference to close out the retreat on Friday afternoon, Trudeau was asked how he’ll convince Canadians to vote for him again. He immediately echoed the same message Morneau had given.

“I think one of the things that Canadians have seen over the past three years is strong growth in the economy,” Trudeau said, pointing to low unemployment numbers as a sign their plan is working.

There are very turbulent factors that are affecting countries around the globe. Canada is not immune from that

But Trudeau was also asked about the increasingly frequent incidents of Canada getting pressured on the world stage, and he acknowledged his government will need to prove it can successfully navigate such challenges.

“Elsewhere around the world, we see withdrawing from democratic principles, we see withdrawing from the trade that leads to growth, and we’ve made cases for trade that is more beneficial to everyone,” he said.

“But people are feeling anxious about what’s going on in the world, about what the future might bring for the kids and grandkids, and that’s why our responsibility as a team is to continue to work together and to focus on the real, tangible concrete solutions.”

If Canada successfully weathers the turbulence — the deteriorating relationship with China, kidnappings and terrorist attacks in Africa, the drama around Brexit negotiations, and the ongoing turmoil in U.S. politics — the Liberals will be free to hammer home their messaging on steady economic growth. If not, the election picture could change quickly.

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