There may be a very good reason why Canadian politicians are reluctant to talk about foreign policy, openly or otherwise. Very simply, when they attempt to do so, they often manage to find themselves in trouble with either the public or their party, or with both their party and public.
Earlier this month PM Stephen Harper seemed to be floundering. He made remarks during the 34-day Israeli-Hezbollah conflict that caused his popularity to dwindle and, some suggested, make it next to impossible for him to hope to form a majority government, either now or way off in the future. Very briefly, Harper, in acknowledging that Israel had a right to self-defence, observed that country had taken a “measured” response against Hezbollah. He made the remarks shortly after conflict erupted on 12 July 2006, but as the war dragged on, fewer and fewer Canadians seemed to share this opinion, triggering the slide in Tory fortunes.
But it was until about the 22nd of August that the Liberals had a deputy foreign affairs critic; his name is Borys Wrzesnewskyj. In late August, he was in Vancouver attending a Liberal Party retreat, an event that ought not to have fuelled negative press for the party. But the Ontario MP, who had only a week or so earlier gone to Lebanon on a fact finding mission, bravely, perhaps misguidedly, ventured an opinion on the Middle East which included the foreign policy insight that Canada might wish to consider holding talks with Hezbollah. The trouble, and perhaps Wrzesnewskyj was unaware, is that Hezbollah, under Canadian law, is deemed a terrorist organization.
Reaction to what Wrzesnewskyj said was immediate, scathing, and almost all of it came from fellow Liberals. Interim Liberal leader Bill Graham, referring indirectly to what had happened, simply observed that Liberals support the policy of keeping Hezbollah where it belongs—squarely on the terror list. But at least two contenders for the party leadership, Scott Brison and Carolyn Bennett, demanded the deputy resign, and that he do so at once. Matters were not helped when some media began reporting that Wrzesnewskyj had advocated legal changes which would amount to removing Hezbollah from the list, an allegation and reports that the now former deputy critic flatly denied. The Liberal party image was even further tarnished when Tories noticed their opportunity [for a much more detailed account of the background presented here, see ‘Liberal Caucus Retreat Turns Into Middle East Debate,’ CTV News, 22 August 2006].
And so Tory MP Jason Kenney, parliamentary secretary to the PM, simply said, for the public record, that Liberal blundering showed for all to see just how unqualified to form a government the Liberal Party of Canada had become. “The Liberal Party of Canada cannot claim to be prepared to be ready to govern Canada if they can't establish a coherent position on such a clear cut issue as the terrorist nature of Hezbollah,” said Kenney, who also likened Hezbollah to the Nazi Party [cited in ‘Liberal Caucus Retreat Turns Into Middle East Debate,’ CTV News, 22 August 2006]. What should have been a quiet retreat and low-key strategy session turned into a very public nightmare for Liberals.
With Wrzesnewskyj gone, some of the notoriety has died down. And his departure came just as suddenly as the malaise he triggered within Liberal ranks. Graham, who had asked his MP to explain the meaning of the comments made, said, “He did that and in the course of doing that, he tendered his resignation as associate critic [of foreign affairs], which I accepted in the circumstances… Therefore, I consider that matter closed” [cited in ‘Wrzesnewskyj Out,’ The Globe and Mail
, 24 August 2006. Story posted at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20060824.LIBSBORIS24/TPStory/National].
But what about the Tories? Again, according to some sources Harper’s early position on the Middle East conflict caused support to drain away, especially in Quebec, where “a Léger Marketing poll released July 20 found that… 67 per cent of respondents opposed Prime Minister Harper's (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) decision to support Israel's armed intervention in Lebanon. Thirty-three per cent of the 724 respondents in Quebec supported Mr. Harper's position and 14 per cent did not know” [cited in ‘PM Harper’s Pro-Israel Stance Risks Winning in Quebec,’ by Simon Doyle, in The Hill Times
, 31 July 2006. Story republished by Vancouver Indymedia and posted at http://vancouver.indymedia.org/?q=node/1679
]. In reaction, the Tories sought to moderate their tone, at first by having Harper argue his initial “measured” observation was made long before the conflict began widening [see ‘Israel-Lebanon Conflict’ in PM Stephen Harper’s biography at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Harper
]. Then, for at least a few weeks, Tories attempted to stay mainly clear of the Middle East, and to refocus.
There was, for example, Arctic sovereignty to promote. In early-mid August Harper travelled to Iqaluit, Nunavut to once more make the case that exerting control over Canada’s northern frontier was key now, and destined to become even more critical in future. “This will become more important in the decades to come because northern oil and gas, minerals and other resources of the northern frontier will become ever more valuable,” he said [cited in ‘Harper Says Stronger Presence Needed to Defend Arctic Sovereignty,’ by Dene Moore, CP, 12 August 2006. Story posted at http://www.canada.com/topics/news/national/story.html?id=4bf0dc13-4e35-4830-8410-24df652abcdf&k=53643].
Then, either by design or through good fortune, the Tories blundered onto the windfall served up by social issues. In August Harper failed to attend a six-day International AIDS Conference in Toronto, prompting headline writers to “lambaste” the PM for doing so. Dignitaries and high-profile Canadian public figures joined with those making denunciations, describing the PM’s decision as everything from “inappropriate” to “a slap in the face.” UN envoy Stephen Lewis said, “In a very real way it's a slap in the face to the international community of activists and scientists and researchers and advocates and agencies all gathered to deal with the single greatest problem on the planet… Instead he (Harper) sends a surrogate health minister -- it's just profoundly inappropriate and I think it's a measure of the government's commitment to (fighting) the disease” [cited in ‘Harper Lambasted for Skipping AIDS Conference,’ CTV News, 13 August 2006. Story posted at http://www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/story/CTVNews/20060813/aids_conference_060813/20060813?hub=Politics
]. For about a week the media dwelt on Harper’s decision to avoid the AIDS conference. And if they found themselves preoccupied with that issue, at least the press wouldn’t be focussed on the Tories and the Middle East.
Some observers and interested parties suggest that given the state of the world and the rising importance of international affairs, foreign policy debates may just find themselves pushed to the top of parliamentary agendas [see, for example, http://www.pej.org/html/print.php?sid=5184
]. But one major party has already imploded over foreign affairs, while the other finds itself either incapable or unwilling of making the linkages between foreign policy, advocacy, and public reaction and opinion.
Posted by Stan Markotich
Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org