During the heady days of the late 1970s, Canada and Spain were locked in ferocious competition for a sizable contract with a South American country. In a bid to clinch the deal, the king of Spain telephoned the awestruck president of the republic to chat about the benefits of the Spanish tender. Canadian bureaucrats got wind of the call and scrambled to recover leverage. One intrepid trade official dispatched a hasty memo to the Prime Minister’s Office, pleading for support. The reply was curt and supremely aloof from the fray: “The prime minister is not a salesman.” Enter the grim times of the 1980s. As Pierre Trudeau prepared for the start of his scheduled 18-day voyage through the Far East this week, he had transformed himself into a glorified huckster for everything from Canadian nuclear reactors to telecommunications technology. The prime minister had boned up on specific sales pitches for each of the seven countries on his agenda— Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, the Philippines and Japan—and he planned to update the strategies in on-the-spot meetings with Canadian businessmen abroad. In Thailand, for example, his first official stop, Trudeau was ready to peddle gas com-
pressors and to persuade King Bhumibol’s royal family to buy a Dash-7 aircraft. In Singapore, which Trudeau is scheduled to visit next week, Canadian firms are vying for contracts for the subway system there. And in Malaysia, the next prime ministerial target, Canada and France are locked in a battle for an estimated $200 million in contracts to build a sawmill complex. Trudeau’s presence marks his big chance to outsell a high-powered rival: French Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy visited Malaysia last year, and President François Mitterrand plans a trip to plug the deal in June.
The prime minister’s change of heart is a belated acceptance of the international fact that modern statesmen have to be good salesmen—and, for domestic political consumption, to be seen working hard abroad while Canadians struggle at home. Good salesmen are especially important for Canada, where more than 30 per cent of the gross national product is generated by foreign trade. Since foreign governments play pivotal roles in the economies of developing nations, Canadian companies increasingly are forced to direct their pitch to the leaders—not to other companies. At the same time, all governments are now keenly promoting exports and protecting local industries. With politics and trade now locked
hand in glove, the reluctant and haughty Trudeau has been prodded into the 1980s as the point man on the sales team. “Nearly every sector of our economy is heavily dependent on exports— and we have to find new markets,” says Economic Development Minister Donald Johnston. A senior government official adds bluntly that Trudeau has been deployed in the battle for vital Pacific contracts because “the competition is tough out there, and since we’re a second-level industrial power, we have to hustle harder to get a share.”
Trudeau’s new sales routine does not mean that he is suffering inordinately on the taxpayers’ behalf—or that his performances abroad always merit rave reviews. Notoriously stingy, the prime minister has managed to see the world at public expense during his years in office, through 45 trips and 93 different stops (he has visited some countries more than once). Winter and summer, especially in the wake of the 1980 federal election, Trudeau has trundled through exotic locales on taxpayer-financed missions. In June, 1980, for example, he flew to Venice for an economic summit and then proceeded through England, Norway and Sweden. In January, 1981, it was Austria, Nigeria, Senegal, Brazil and Mexico. During the summer of 1981 he ambled through England and Morocco en route to a United Nations conference in Kenya, followed by a swing through Tanzania. And last summer he left the economic summit at Versailles in France for trips through Germany, Spain and Yugoslavia. Since February, 1980, the prime minister has been out of the country on 15 trips to visit 39 nations.
Nor has Trudeau always covered himself with glory. His first foray abroad as prime minister generated headlines when German divorcée Eva von Rittinghausen announced after a casual luncheon date that she was now “free to marry” him. He has slid down banisters, performed saucy pirouettes behind the Queen, and shouted “Viva Castro” at a time when reaction to Cuban troops in Angola had reached fever pitch. In the Arabian desert he did a dance with Saudi Arabia’s Sheik Yamani while Canadians seethed at home. In January, 1981, stranded by blizzards while skiing
in Lech, Austria, Tru-
deau missed two key diplomatic meetings and then mused playfully that the worst ordeal was the disappearance of avocados and fresh fish from the Austrian hotel menu. The incidents combined have not endeared him to the voters who bought the tickets and possibly have led to careful plans this time to portray Trudeau as more busy than playful. The birth of a salesman began, almost by chance, during Trudeau’s exotic 10-day, five-country procession through the Middle East and Europe in late 1980. He had planned to take the tra-
ditional handful of businessmen along on the specially outfitted armed forces’ Boeing 707. In the old tradition, the industrialists were expected to buttonhole the PM at cocktail parties along the route to talk bottom lines while his eyes glazed and his attention strayed. One Saudi, however, warned Canadian officials that, “If a minister comes by himself, we treat him as a minister. If he comes leading a trade mission, we treat him as a salesman, and salesmen we keep in our waiting rooms.” Accordingly, former Canadian ambassador William Jenkins recommended that Trudeau meet with Canadians actually doing business in Saudi Arabia when he arrived—a practice that has now become standard. The Saudi-based executives spun their tale of commerce, including details of their woes and competitive advantages. Trudeau actually listened. The ensuing subtle and vague
_ diplomatic dialogues
pleased his hosts and delicately fostered Canadian interests. Hugh Stevens, the chairman of Canada Wire and Cable Co. Ltd., says that Trudeau’s Arabian performance facilitated his company’s bid to launch a joint distributorship in Saudi. “He is very charismatic,” says Stevens. “If he is used properly— properly briefed and used sparingly—he can be a very effective trade tool.”
The Saudi trip set a pattern that has been followed on the PM’s subsequent forays abroad. Trudeau continues to concentrate on
his traditional concerns— North-South relations, disarmament and the creation of a francophone commonwealth. But now he also knows how to pitch for a specific trade matter sparingly, instead of making his usual vague “commitment” to greater bilateral trade. In May, 1981, for example, Trudeau tucked promotions for certain Canadian goods into his talks with Algeria on the NorthSouth dialogue. That, in turn, led indirectly to $100 million in contracts for Canadian firms to build technical training centres. Notes a senior trade official: “A visit by the PM has the effect of raising the Canadian profile among decision-makers. Then the word percolates down through a highly centralized bureaucracy—We should do more with Canada.’ ” The facts support the diagnosis. During the first 10 months of 1982, for example, exports to Algeria increased by more than 30 per cent over a comparable period in 1981 (from $314 million to $410 million).
Trudeau’s conversion, to trade causes comes late in a career rarely devoted to business concerns. The last time that he visited Malaysia, in 1970, for example, Trudeau luxuriated in general chats about a wide variety of Pacific issues. Even his all-out diplomatic efforts in the past have produced few significant economic results for Canada. In 1972 the Trudeau government adopted the Third Option—a long-term strategy to strengthen the Canadian economy by reducing reliance on the United States. Armed with this notion, Trudeau undertook a series of transatlantic junkets, determined to forge an elusive contractual link with the European Economic Community (EEC). After two years of taxpayer-financed tours to nine capitals, a unique framework agreement was signed. However, the Europeans have not significantly boosted imports of vital manufactured products— despite Trudeau’s frequent pleas. Some Canadian trade experts feel that Trudeau was an innocent abroad during the framework talks. They say that he was naïvely unprepared for the fact that the Europeans wanted some crucial economic concessions from Canada before they played ball.
Trudeau’s new interest in trade promotion does not mean that he has abandoned his larger pursuits. In many cases his reputation for caring about the Big Causes stands him in good stead when he promotes Canada’s worldly wares. His spate of trade talks in 1981, for example, paralleled his progress across three continents to promote the North-South dialogue between developed and developing nations. Says Bernard Wood, the executive director of Ottawa’s North-South Institute: “There is no question that we will get a far better reception with governments that can heavily influence the way that economic relations develop because of the prime minister’s diplomatic initiatives for North-South.”
Trudeau’s cultivated evolution as a salesman has been both helped and hindered by government policies. Last January the government moved the trade service out of the industry department into External Affairs. “And that means that the feeling now is that the trade concern is becoming more important,” says Charles Garneau, the assistant secretary of the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association. “In the past there has been a certain dissatisfaction with the prime minister’s visits,” he adds. Meanwhile, some Far East experts say that Trudeau might fare better in Asia had his government developed a detailed policy for the region. “It’s difficult for the prime minister to do much selling if there are not specific projects to sell and specific goals and objectives,” says John Bruk, the former president of Cyprus Anvil Mining Corp. and the author of a recent report calling for the creation of an Asia Pacific foundation.
In an attempt to assess the sales pitch, the federal trade department conducted an in-house survey of the tangible results of Trudeau’s foray to South Korea in the fall of 1981. Canada will not know until 1984 whether or not the prime minister managed to sell a second CANDU nuclear reactor to the Koreans. But they believe that he did advance Northern Telecom’s chances for a second major contract. And he launched a long-term project to interest the Koreans in certain Canadian lumber products. The most visible mark of his success, however, also constitutes an earthy footnote to the Trudeau saga. During briefings by Canadian businessmen in Korea, Trudeau was unaccountably fascinated by one man’s lament that he could not get landing rights at a favored airport for the cattle he wanted to import. The prime minister raised the matter in subsequent meetings, and the landing rights were granted. In 1980 Canada had 10 per cent of the Korean livestock market. In 1981, after Trudeau’s pitch, the share rose to 50 per cent. Canada has held that position throughout 1982. “We think his visit was helpful overall,” says a senior trade official. “It’s hard to link cause and effect, but his visits are a key part of our strategy.” Meanwhile, the success of the cattle sale could only prompt Canadians to wonder wistfully what would have happened to trade if the prime minister had paid attention longer—and earlier.
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