OTTAWA (Reuters) - Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper named a gregarious member of the left-leaning New Democratic Party on Friday to advanced Canada's interests as ambassador in the Democratic-dominated United States.
Harper said ambassador-designate Gary Doer, who has served for 10 years as premier of the Prairie province of Manitoba, had been "a strong advocate of both good and assertive relations with the United States."
Doer said he would go to Washington as a Canadian rather than as a member of a particular party, but his political affiliation will not do him any harm with the Obama administration or the Democratic-controlled Congress.
He replaces Michael Wilson, a former cabinet minister in the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney, who helped negotiate the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and had good ties with the Bush family.
"It's a good fit in the same way that Michael Wilson was a good fit for George Bush's America," University of Toronto foreign relations expert John Kirton commented.
Doer stepped down as Manitoba premier on Thursday, but declined to say what he would do next. His appointment as ambassador the next day came as a surprise.
He has come across as a populist social democrat, heading a Manitoba government that balanced budgets and brought the province a string of credit rating upgrades.
Doer said he was impressed that Harper had reached across party lines, and likened his appointment to President Barack Obama's naming of Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr., a potential Republican presidential candidate, as ambassador to China in May.
"Governor Huntsman is a Republican working for Barack Obama because he's an American representing America's interests in China," said Doer, 61.
"I am a Canadian that believes strongly in our friendship but also believes strongly that you have to articulate mutual interests to negotiate. It's not just being a friend."
Among the diplomatic issues he said he will have to tackle are the U.S. "buy American" provisions, which sometimes exclude Canadian companies.
Though Doer initially opposed the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement in the 1980s, he became a champion of the subsequent North American Free Trade Agreement, which also includes Mexico and which has some labor and environmental safeguards.
Doer said other issues he would focus on included:
- The U.S. country-of-origin labeling requirements for meat products, which have hurt Canadian farmers;
- Border security, which Canada has tried to limit so as not to interfere unduly with trade and travel;
- Clean energy, and working with the Obama administration on fighting climate change.
The United States is Canada's largest trade partner by far, accounting for about three quarters of Canadian exports.
In terms of domestic politics, Harper's gesture in reaching out to Doer may help soften an image seen by many as overly partisan -- especially in the wake of a series of recent Senate appointments.
Editing by Rob Wilson