Foreign policy has defined Harper's first months in office

Canada's role in the world was not even discussed during debates

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The Gazette, Wednesday, August 2, 2006

During eight hours of leaders' debates before the January federal election, there wasn't a single question or exchange on foreign policy and Canada's role in the world.

There wasn't one question about Canada's mission in Afghanistan, or any constructive role it might play in the Middle East. No one asked how to restore strained relations with the United States, without being perceived as Bush's poodle.

Yet these big-picture issues, not domestic policy, have been the defining moments of the Harper government's first six months in office.

Stephen Harper ran on a checklist of five domestic priorities, but it is his foreign and defence policies, as well as his management of the Canada-U.S. file, that have been the dominant themes of his first six months.

The prime minister's unambiguous positions on these issues have created a strong leadership profile for him, while at the same time alienating voters accustomed to more nuanced, not to say wishy-washy, declarations from our leaders.

It began with Harper's visit to Canadian troops in Kandahar in March. Harper had decided, even before the election, that his first trip abroad wouldn't be to Washington, but to Afghanistan. The centrepiece of the trip, other than the photo-ops with the troops, was the speech in which he declared Canada wasn't a cut- and-run country.

Then in May, Harper called for a one-day debate and vote on extending the mission in Afghanistan by two years. Three-fourths of the Liberal caucus, whose government had authorized the deployment from Kabul to Kandahar, joined the NDP and Bloc Quebecois in opposing it.

The opposition to the mission in the House is reflected in the country and in the polls. While the casualties have been light relative to the dangers of the mission to root out the Taliban insurgency, the return of flag-draped coffins to Canada has been highly publicized and support for the mission is wobbly. One poll last month found 56 per cent of Canadian now oppose it, up 15 points from Harper's visit in March.

Harper's strong support for Israel in its war with Hezbollah has also left the country sharply divided. A Decima poll last week found Conservative voting intention was 36 per cent nationally and 27 per cent in Quebec, with the leaderless Liberals moving out to a 10-point lead in Ontario. An Ipsos-Reid poll on Monday saw the Conservatives at 39 per cent with the Liberals at 27 per cent, a more comfortable point-spread for the Tories but still not majority territory that begins at 40 per cent.

And yesterday's Strategic Counsel poll for the Globe and Mail, putting up attitudinal data on the Middle East crisis, is quite startling.

Only 32 per cent of respondents agree with Harper's support for Israel, while 45 per cent disagree. In Quebec, home to an important Lebanese community, only 17 per cent agree with Harper's support of Israel, while 61 per cent disagree.

Only 19 per cent thought Harper was acting on principle, while an astonishing 53 per cent agreed with the suggestion he was falling into line behind George W. Bush (and in Quebec that Bush number rose to 72 per cent).

Asked what Canada's position in the conflict should be, fully 77 per cent thought Canada should remain neutral, and 51 per cent thought Harper's support for Israel was inconsistent with the position of previous governments.

But interestingly, 53 per cent thought international peacekeepers should be sent in to enforce a ceasefire. The traditional Canadian notion of peacekeeping dies hard. We'll just show up with blue helmets and candy bars and people will throw flowers at us. In truth, a stabilization force in southern Lebanon could be forced into seeking out Hezbollah where they hide, among civilians. This is not a role Canada should be in any hurry to take on. We're already doing enough, and stretched quite thin, in Afghanistan.

Judging by his early performance as prime minister, Harper is not likely to go wobbly because of some negative poll numbers.

Only one Canadian election in modern times has turned on foreign and defence policy, in 1963, when the Diefenbaker government fell for reneging on its agreement to station nuclear weapons on Canadian soil.

Canadians generally vote on the economy, their satisfaction with the government and whether it's time for a change.

But as current events remind us, perhaps foreign and defence policy deserve a larger role in our campaigns. At the very least, they deserve a segment in the leaders' debates.

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