Canada Foreign Policy
Sunday, February 25, 2007
  Stephen Harper, Green and "Domesticating" China

"I don’t believe there is a green bone in Stephen Harper’s body–he has never, ever indicated he cares about the environment." That’s what activist and scholar David Suzuki said recently when speaking to Calgary elementary school students and parents [remarks cited in Bill Kaufmann’s "Suzuki Slams Harper, Alberta," The Edmonton Sun, 24 February 2007. Story posted at].

Some might believe Suzuki makes a strong point. Prime Minister Harper didn’t win the last election promising to focus on the environment. He may have even underscored his lack of commitment when appointing Rona Ambrose to the portfolio. And then there’s the fact that he only recently found religion, sometime within the past eight weeks or so, when polls started showing that environmental issues were important to Canadians. Harper also got the message when Liberal leader Stephane Dion attempted to walk away with the issue.

But does Harper really not care at all about the environment? The media, sometime in the past month or so, and for whatever reasons, decided to devote an extraordinary amount of time and energy to covering the issue. Perhaps Harper simply took note of this, and reacted. On the other hand, the environment may have strategic value for the Tories. It may not be the environment itself that interests them, but the environment as an issue may come into play, with critical consequences. If it can be framed as a purely domestic matter, then Harper may feel comfortable talking up "green" in the context of launching a reelection bid. Almost certainly the Conservatives will devote time to the economy, to crime, regional development, immigration... But if they can’t find the means of steering the debate away from social conservatism, Harper’s Tories may be limited to another minority. And so the environment becomes important. Pointing out the Liberals’ abysmal record may put Dion on the defensive. Talking about the environment as a domestic issue may also play well with a rather large (or large enough) segment of the voting public so as to not cost the Conservatives any votes. If Harper takes up the environment, but abandons the link with Kyoto, he may be able to create a uniquely Canadian, domestic policy discussion. And if this happens, the Liberals may find themselves in a corner, unable to raise fears or concerns about regressive social agendas.

But it isn’t just the environment that finds itself being turned into a domestic issue. All of foreign policy is being transformed. Those matters that cannot be managed or controlled are quietly and conveniently not being addressed. Afghanistan is not talked about, and media are devoting less and less attention to Central Asia in a trend likely to continue for the foreseeable future. It was only some weeks ago that signs suggested the Tories might work hard to revive public diplomacy. Minister David Emerson went to China for trade discussions, seemingly aware that relations with Beijing had been strained. But rather abruptly there was an about-face, and presenting a message for a domestic Canadian audience again consumed the Harper Tories. On 9 February 2007 Harper himself said: "There are those in the opposition who will say, ‘You know, China is an important country, so we shouldn’t really protest these things … so maybe someday we’ll be able to sell more goods there’...I think that’s irresponsible. I think the government of Canada, when a Canadian citizen is ill-treated and when the rights of a Canadian citizen need to be defended, I think it’s always the obligation of the government of Canada to vocally and publicly stand up for that Canadian citizen. That is what we will continue to do" [PM quoted in "Harper Chides China over Economic Threats," CBC News, 9 February 2007. Story posted at].The PM’s words came in response to statements from Beijing officials that raising human rights and the specific case of Huseyin Celil, a Canadian citizen held by the Chinese on charges of terrorism, may aggravate ties.

There’s little doubt the Tories are in the process of redefining particular issues for their impact on domestic public opinion. The environment and foreign policy are in the process of being "domesticated." The questions–why exactly now and for what precise purposes?

Posted by Stan Markotich
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