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Visit to Bush poses tricky task for Canada's PM

Written by: Staff

Ottawa, Jul 5: Cozying up to political ally George W. Bush could be a dangerous dance for Canada's fledgling Prime Minister when he visits Washington this week, as he seeks to improve ties with a long-term friend without appearing too close to a leader that many Canadians dislike.

Right-winger Stephen Harper, whose Conservatives won the Jan. 23 election, shares many more of Bush's ideals than the previous Liberal government. But Harper only controls a minority of the seats in the Canadian parliament and the government needs backing from opposition parties to survive.

''It's like what happens to two porcupines when they're cold in winter. They get as close as possible to each other but not too close so they don't hurt each other,'' University of Ottawa politics professor Gilles Paquet told Reuters.

''Bush is the most unpopular person one can think of, so in a sense he (Harper) also has to reassert things. He will have to find a few unimportant irritants that he can raise there and leave pending, as a way to prove he's not a lap dog .'' Opinion polls consistently give Bush a rock-bottom rating among Canadians, reflecting concern about the war in Iraq and dislike of conservative US policies on issues like abortion and gay marriage.

The two leaders meet in Washington on Thursday, Bush's 60th birthday, in Harper's first trip to Washington since the Conservatives took power.

Harper wants to improve bilateral ties dented by a series of trade spats and a refusal by the Liberals to take part in the US-led attack on Iraq, a decision that still rankles some in the US administration.

But being perceived to be too close to Bush could be dangerous politically, and officials play down opposition jibes that the prime minister is too heavily influenced by Bush.

''This isn't going to the United States and saying, 'Tell us to jump' and (then) we'll say, 'How high?''' said Michael Wilson, Canada's ambassador to Washington, adding that Bush had praised Harper's approach when the two met in Mexico in March.

''The president looked right at me and said, 'You know, your prime minister is a very direct man ... I like that because I know what he's saying. I don't like this nuance stuff,''' Wilson told CBC television on Sunday.

Opponents say Harper is already under Bush's sway and worry that he is airing doubts about the Kyoto treaty on climate change, which the United States abandoned. Some oppose Canada's military mission in Afghanistan, arguing that Ottawa should not be involved in what they see as a US conflict.

''We've got a prime minister who goes on bended knee to say 'Happy birthday and please accept our warm wishes and our sell-out of Canadian sovereignty,''' said Alexa McDonough of the New Democrats, the most left-leaning party in Parliament.

There are few major problems between the two nations, especially after they initialed a deal on Saturday to end a long dispute over exports of Canadian softwood lumber.

But Harper will stress Canada's concern about US plans to clamp down on people crossing the border from Jan 1, 2008, from which date travelers will have to carry passports or a secure document that has yet to be developed.

''The objective of the prime minister is to press the president on this to see whether there's more information, either that can be (passed on) at that meeting or ... that can be shared with us as soon as afterwards as possible,'' Wilson told a briefing last Friday.


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