PM Stephen Harper has a serious problem. And that’s not necessarily all bad. In fact, it may be something that helps him at the polls, when Canadians go to vote in just over a year. It may also be the thing that keeps the opposition so divided that it is made incapable of challenging the Tories in the next election.
Harper’s problem is foreign affairs. Without a doubt, he now controls the agenda so firmly that he can confuse the opposition whenever he decides to bring global issues to the forefront. Only days ago the Tories announced there would be a Commons vote to extend the Afghan mission into 2009. While some suggest this move came as a total surprise, it did follow an earlier secret trip by Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay to Afghanistan where local officials urged MacKay to promise Canadians would remain for at least two more years [See ‘MacKay in Afghanistan for Surprise Two-day Visit,’ The Globe and Mail
, 9 May 2006. Story posted at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20060509.wafghan0509/BNStory/Afghanistan/home
]. The opposition parties, the very same parties that only months ago demanded clarity and votes, now said the time wasn’t right for such a move. Harper, completely unflustered, then added that no matter the outcome, Canada would complete its current mission and stay for at least another year. Then, if needed, the question of extending the Canadian mission yet again could be taken to the public, presumably at election time. The New Democrats and Bloc, clearly stunned by what was happening, resolved to vote against the Harper initiative. The Liberals, the same party while in government that had made commitments to Afghanistan, freed up its MPs so members could vote their conscience. In the end, Harper won, narrowly, with 149 endorsing his motion to 145 against [For coverage of the vote see Michael Den Tandt’s ‘Death Clouds Afghan Debate: Harper’s Motion to Extend Mission Squeaks Through with Liberal Help,’ The Globe and Mail
, 18 May 2006. Story posted at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20060517.w2afghan05171/BNStory/National/
]. The Liberals seemed the most injured by this process, as many of their current crop of leadership hopefuls voted against, signaling the Liberal brain trust understands little about foreign affairs, saw the latest vote as only an exercise in making an appeal to the electorate, or is somehow controlled by the spirit of Carolyn Parrish.
The Bloc is mostly quiet about foreign policy, especially on matters of war. Jack Layton and the NDP seem to be groping for something to say on the issue, concluding that statements about rotating out of Afghanistan and into Darfur will trigger some wave of public sympathy. So far, the NDP is lost. In fact, most members of all three opposition parties seem to want the issue of foreign affairs to just disappear, so that valuable political capital can be redirected back to social issues debates.
So is Stephen Harper making a dangerous gamble? At least twice in our history, debates about war have nearly torn this country apart. By bringing up Afghanistan, and perhaps being brazen in doing so, is Harper risking another national malaise? Hardly. While some perhaps would like to make the case that his behaviour is likely to trigger a crisis, there is a big difference. In times past, the public was engaged in the whole issue of war, conflict, and foreign affairs. It was rather easy to mobilize masses and opinion when key issues bubbled to the surface. Today, most if not all the public (and press and pressure groups) worries about social issues, and find having to discuss foreign affairs an inconvenience. In this climate, Harper is not only alone, but is at liberty to shape foreign policy any way he sees fit.
And so Stephen Harper’s real problem may be that when he dwells on foreign affairs, he has so few people in this country who will engage. He’s finding things lonely at the top. Certainly there are a few groups and institutions looking at policy; there are vested interests that include officials in the military, and there are those groups that see linkages between terrorism, immigration, and foreign affairs. But the public? The masses?
Over the past month or so Canadian media have written about monumental developments in foreign affairs; however, no ink has been devoted in this context to Afghanistan, Iraq, or indeed the frictions within the Western alliance, or tensions between the West and former Cold War rival Russia. Instead, it is “historic” that Quebec is getting a broader international profile. During the first week of this month, reports surfaced explaining that “Quebec will get a greater role on the international stage with a semi-formal presence at a United Nations agency [UNESCO], Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Quebec Premier Jean Charest announced Friday.” Charest was quoted saying “Today, we are writing a page of history…For Quebecers, this agreement on the promotion of cultural diversity is the most beautiful victory in the history of Quebec diplomacy and is also one of the best examples of federalism in the history of the country” [cited in CP, 5 May 2006].
Almost surely Harper was aware that during the first week of this month global diplomatic relations had reached a very low point. Almost certainly the matter of how to deal with Iran was the cause, but how the affair found public expression came about with Washington finding fault with Moscow’s ability to advance human rights issues. This enraged the Russians, forcing them to make noises about a renewed cold war and prompting President Vladimir Putin to say in a speech: “Where is all this pathos about protecting human rights and democracy when it comes to the need to pursue their own interests?… We are aware what is going on in the world. Comrade wolf knows whom to eat, it eats without listening, and it's clearly not going to listen to anyone” [Putin cited in Steve Gutterman’s ‘Putin Zings U.S. Back After Criticism,’ AP, 10 May 2006]. But precisely these kinds of diplomatic developments went either unnoticed or just briefly mentioned by the Canadian media.
So while Harper can, has, and will throw the opposition into disarray with foreign policy, he likely has to wait until visitors show up before he can discuss and have a meeting of the minds on global affairs. Perhaps he had just such an occasion when Australian PM John Howard arrived days ago. Harper and Howard spoke about several issues, from energy and environmental concerns, to terrorism to foreign policy. Howard stressed that our two countries shared much in common, had historical ties, and were forces for good in the world. Yet he noted cooperation needs to be strengthened. And then, on 18 May 2006, speaking to the Commons, Howard said, “The United States has been a remarkable power for good in the world. And the decency and hope that the power and purpose that the United States represent in the world is something we should deeply appreciate” [Howard cited in CTV, 19 May 2006. Story posted at http://www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/story/CTVNews/20060518/howard_canada_060518/20060518?hub=TopStories
And indeed over the past week Harper and Howard came across as being the same, as identical twins, on crucial geopolitical issues. Howard expressed his concern that a new Teheran law forcing non-Muslims to wear specific colours in public was transforming Iran into something like Nazi Germany. Harper did the very same, using language that might have come from the Australian’s speech. In his comments, Howard, from Ottawa, said “If that (the report) is true, I would find it totally repugnant…It obviously echoes the most horrible period of genocide in the world's history and the marking of Jewish people with a mark on their clothing by the Nazis, and anything of that kind, would be totally repugnant to civilised countries. If it is the case, it's something that would just further indicate to me the nature of this regime. It's a calculated insult, if it's true, not only to Christians but most particularly to Jews” [Howard cited in The Sydney Morning Herald
, 20 May 2006. Story posted at http://www.smh.com.au/news/world/howard-compares-iran-to-nazis/2006/05/20/1147545561673.html
Perhaps some day Harper will have to translate his foreign policy posturing into some kind of greater commitment. When he does that, he will have to find a way of engaging a broader segment of the Canadian population, and that part that is either capable or willing to see that the social issues that defined the political landscape of the 1990s can be placed aside. When and if that happens, Harper will have a different set of problems. For now, the problem he has means good things for him, as he can manipulate the opposition using foreign affairs. But what happens when he needs to involve the public, has to find public relations advice, and needs a foreign minister who actually understands something about geopolitics and can make contributions in debates that involve questions of balance of power? Will those problems, should they materialize, help or harm the Tories?
Posted by Stan Markotich
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