TORONTO: Ontario’s threat of a trade war with U.S. states that adopt Buy American policies sparked swift criticism Wednesday from the opposition, who called it nothing but a “reckless” political gambit from the governing Liberals as they fight to stay in power.
Premier Kathleen Wynne announced Tuesday night that her cabinet would soon table legislation that would reduce procurement opportunities for states that pass Buy American laws by allowing provincial officials to write regulations targeting individual states.
The opposition parties saw the move as a Liberal attempt to avoid responsibility for domestic problems.
“Initiating a trade war with the United States is a last-ditch election ploy by Kathleen Wynne to deflect the blame for her disastrous economic policies,” said Progressive Conservative interim leader Vic Fedeli.
The Liberals are responsible for the province losing its competitive advantage, he said, and their latest plan is just an attempt to deflect the blame ahead of a spring election.
“The premier using this as a political tool to cling to power is nothing short of reckless, especially during this critical time in the NAFTA negotiations.”
Fedeli said his party would review and consider the Liberal bill when it is put forward after the legislature resumes sitting later this month.
Ontario’s New Democrats also criticized the proposed legislation, saying the premier is simply “grandstanding” before the election.
The Liberals fired back Wednesday, saying the government began working on the issue more than a year ago.
“If the actions that Premier Wynne has taken over the last year are connected to any election at all, it’s the results of the U.S. election in 2016, which demanded elevated attention to the U.S. and to Ontario’s trading relationship with U.S. states,” said Steven Del Duca, the minister of economic development and growth.
Wynne also defended the plan, tweeting “when jobs and opportunities for Ontario workers are threatened, we will always respond.”
Speaking about the upcoming legislation in Washington, she said the size of each punishment will be proportional to the size of the Buy American exclusion to avoid setting off escalating reprisals.
The move, she said, was inspired by a recent infrastructure bill from the state of New York, which passed in December and takes effect in April, just a month before the provincial election campaign begins.
“I don’t want a trade war,” she said Tuesday during an interview with The Canadian Press. “But we have to stand up for Ontario businesses, and Ontario workers, and do that in a proportional way … We are not going to roll over.”
The Liberals’ announcement is unlikely to sway voters, despite what the opposition parties might argue, said Wayne Petrozzi, a political science expert at Toronto’s Ryerson University.
“I think it’s largely symbolic, even should they pass such a bill,” he said. “In the past, we’ve not been terribly successful at getting ourselves any of kind of special dispensation when it comes to Buy American policies and it’s hard to figure how that may be different this time.”
What’s more, he said, “most Canadians don’t concern themselves with that kind of … minutiae of trade discussions, trade negotiations, trade issues.”
New York legislators had initially proposed Buy American provisions in their budget that would restrict Ontario businesses’ ability to bid on public sector procurement projects, but dropped the measures under pressure from Canadian officials. Provisions slated to take effect this spring are part of a less stringent bill that was brought forward later.
More than $1 billion in goods are traded between Ontario and the U.S. each day, according to the province.
The state of New York exported almost US$11 billion in goods to Ontario in 2016, it said. The province is ranked the first or second export destination for 28 states, the government said.