Obama campaign mum on NAFTA contact with Canada
Published Friday, February 29, 2008 12:32PM EST
Despite repeated requests, Barack Obama's campaign is still neither verifying nor denying a CTV report that a senior member of the team made contact with the Canadian government -- via the Chicago consulate general -- regarding comments Obama made about NAFTA.
Allegations of double talk on the North American Free Trade Agreement from both the Obama and Clinton campaigns dominated the U.S. political landscape on Thursday.
On Wednesday, CTV reported that a senior member of Obama's campaign called the Canadian government within the last month -- saying that when Senator Obama talks about opting out of the free trade deal, the Canadian government shouldn't worry. The operative said it was just campaign rhetoric not to be taken seriously.
The Obama campaign told CTV late Thursday night that no message was passed to the Canadian government that suggests that Obama does not mean what he says about opting out of NAFTA if it is not renegotiated.
However, the Obama camp did not respond to repeated questions from CTV on reports that a conversation on this matter was held between Obama's senior economic adviser -- Austan Goolsbee -- and the Canadian Consulate General in Chicago.
Earlier Thursday, the Obama campaign insisted that no conversations have taken place with any of its senior ranks and representatives of the Canadian government on the NAFTA issue. On Thursday night, CTV spoke with Goolsbee, but he refused to say whether he had such a conversation with the Canadian government office in Chicago. He also said he has been told to direct any questions to the campaign headquarters.
During a candidates' debate Tuesday, both Democratic party leadership contenders -- Obama and Hillary Clinton -- suggested they would opt out of the North American Free Trade Agreement if core labour and environmental standards weren't renegotiated.
The CTV exclusive also reported that sources said the Clinton campaign has made indirect contact with the Canadian government, trying to reassure Ottawa of their support despite Clinton's words. The Clinton camp denied the claim. The story caught the attention of Republican front-runner John McCain on Thursday.
"I don't think it's appropriate to go to Ohio and tell people one thing while your aide is calling the Canadian ambassador and telling him something else," McCain said, referring to Obama. "I certainly don't think that's straight talk."
On Thursday, the Canadian embassy in Washington issued a complete denial.
"At no time has any member of a presidential campaign called the Canadian ambassador or any official at the embassy to discuss NAFTA," it said in a statement.
But on Wednesday, one of the primary sources of the story, a high-ranking member of the Canadian embassy, gave CTV more details of the call. He even provided a timeline. He has since suggested it was perhaps a miscommunication.
The denial from the embassy was followed by a denial from Senator Obama.
"The Canadian government put out a statement saying that this was just not true, so I don't know who the sources were," said Obama.
Sources at the highest levels of the Canadian government -- who first told CTV that a call was made from the Obama camp -- have reconfirmed their position.
NDP Leader Jack Layton said in question period Thursday that Canada should take advantage of any openings to renegotiate NAFTA.
"Why won't the prime minister take the lead here, exercise some sovereignty and bring about some change here that would be good for workers?" he asked.
However, Harper had a warning to anyone contemplating renegotiation of the trade deal.
"If a future president actually did want to open up NAFTA, which I highly doubt, then Canada would obviously have some things we would want to discuss," Harper said.
But Harper also noted that assertions made in the heat of political campaigns should be taken with a grain of salt. During the federal election in 1993, former prime minister Jean Chretien threatened to back out of NAFTA's precursor -- the Free Trade Agreement, which was signed by the Tories in the 1980s.
With a report from CTV's Washington Bureau Chief Tom Clark and files from The Canadian Press