A Tory Bounce?
The Conservative party is about to head into a caucus retreat. Most observers and reporters acknowledge the governing Tories have had a rough time in office, thanks to public opinion if not because of anything any opposition parties or members could muster in the Commons. Almost certainly the Conservatives will be talking about policies and programs they feel will give them that much needed public opinion bounce, and perhaps give them at least a fighting chance at forming another government when the next vote is called.
There is a possibility that foreign affairs might get addressed. But in reality that’s only the slimmest of chances. Insofar as the Tories are likely concerned, only Afghanistan is to get serious attention, and policy for and in that country will get talked about only because of how serious a domestic Canadian issue the war in that country has become. Some observers suggest fixing the public relations nightmare caused by Afghanistan may be the main if not the only problem PM Harper will have to fix if he expects to salvage his regime. Even respected academician and author on military affairs, the Calgary-based David Bercuson, is now on record stressing: “Afghanistan has got to be very high on the list of problems he [Mr. Harper] has to fix...The public is getting the perception that Ottawa is all over the map on this issue, and this isn't the way to manage a war...He has to improve the unity of the message of his people, find someone who will be the chief spokesperson or change out the Minister of Defence” [Dr. Bercuson cited in Alan Freeman and Jane Taber, ‘Minister’s Rift with General Erodes Support, PM Warned,’ Globe and Mail
, 31 July 2007. Story posted at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20070731.wHillier31/BNStory/Afghanistan/home
But will this Tory caucus really exist to address the fundamentals of foreign policy, or of any kind of policy? One reporter observes: “With the Tories stalled in the polls and licking their wounds from a rough spring in Parliament, the party needs to come up with a fresh approach at the meeting that begins tomorrow in Charlottetown. Shaping this strategy will no doubt be the main topic when 149 Tory MPs and senators gather... But whatever the rank-and-file propose in Charlottetown, all evidence indicates that their ideas will qualify as little more than suggestions...Despite years of championing accountability and the importance of MPs' independent voices, Harper has established an unprecedented one-man hold on Ottawa” [Les Whittington, ‘Harper Maintains Firm Grip on Agenda,’ The Toronto Star
, 31 July 2007. Story posted at http://www.thestar.com/News/article/241535
]. One has to wonder just how much policy the Conservatives really even had when they blundered themselves into office.
Posted by Stan Markotich
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True North, Strong and Freudian
July, summer, is traditionally a time when little foreign policy work, when little policy work in general, takes place. This year is no exception. Yet because of what did happen, some invaluable insights were served up that let observers know exactly how behind-the-scenes policy work gets done.
In short, Harper and his team of advisors and confidantes meet, agree on a course of action, and begin implementation of agendas entirely oblivious to what may crop up to drive everything or anything off course. Now it is clear Harper operated this way all along, and very early suspicions are confirmed beyond any doubt.
Almost as soon as he was elected, the PM traveled to Afghanistan for a photo op with troops. The thinking seemed to be that the mere appearance with Canadian forces would elevate the Afghan mission to such a status that immediate, undying and eternal public support for Canadians’ presence in Central Asia would be offered up. No more would be needed than going to Afghanistan to ensure the mission would be embraced. Yet over the course of the past several months, almost every single major public opinion survey has shown evaporating public support, especially in Quebec where opposition is overwhelming, for troops being abroad in a combat role. Without any sense of how to turn things around, or how to do something to add to the modest momentum provided by that trip early in his tenure, the PM seemed to lapse into a quiet, calm, almost catatonic state of barely detectable panic. In the past year, what has become an excuse for policy is an ad hoc series of directives that seek to divert public attention from Afghanistan. There is now an even greater reluctance to deal with the hardships with the mission. Instead, public angst and opposition is being diverted with arguments that Canada’s role in Afghanistan is important because it has a major reconstruction and rebuilding component. Hints are also dropped that troops may be evacuated from danger areas in early 2009. And even more recently there are reassurances that things in the Central Asian state are going very well because local troops are being trained for those dangerous combat missions, and will be ready, in almost no time, to replace Canadians.
The PM, in other words, has been running from Afghanistan, both figuratively and literally. Most recently, that dash has meant attention has been turned to Latin America, where the belief is a positive foreign policy agenda may be unrolled for the public while at the same time serving as a way of not having to spend so much time on Afghanistan. Most especially, dish up Latin America for the media and they won’t have so much time to devote to the negatives of Afghanistan. And what could possibly go wrong? This is precisely the question Harper and his team failed to even raise, repeating what they did so early on when dealing with and attempting to handle Kandahar.
Academicians and reporters have already dubbed it the “Third Way,” Harper’s recent trip to Latin America, where the PM met with both national leaders and Canadians, especially investors, living abroad [For coverage and analysis, see, for example, Thomas Walkom’s ‘PM’s Interest in Latin America Easily Explained,’ The Toronto Star
, 26 July 2007. Story posted at http://www.thestar.com/News/article/240003
]. The aim was to promote Canadian values, defined by capitalism and investing and trade with a human face– a path neither embracing the rugged capitalism of the American way nor tolerant of the dying, decaying breed of Castro-Chavez hyped communism. Harper went first to Colombia, then on 17-18 July on to Chile. On 20 July it was on to Haiti, but before that, from 18-19 July there was a stop in Barbados for meetings with various Caribbean leaders. And so what could possibly go wrong?
On 21 July 2007 news broke that Toronto police officers brawled with young Chilean soccer players. The event, perhaps luckily for the PM that he had only days earlier managed to part company with his Chilean hosts, played itself out as a major diplomatic incident. As one source notes: “A heated match between two rival South American soccer nations that degenerated into chaos after the final whistle has turned into an international incident...The Chilean government is accusing Toronto police of unjustified aggression after officers allegedly beat, tasered and pepper-sprayed members of the Chilean under-20 squad.” Chile’s foreign ministry became involved, and even President Michelle Bachelet was drawn into the affair, commenting: “The incident is especially serious because, in our opinion, the Chilean delegation suffered unjustified aggression” [comments cited here quoted in Natalie Alcoba’s ‘Soccer Melee Strains Canada-Chile Relations,’ CanWest News Service, 21 July 2007. Story carried by the Montreal Gazette
and posted at http://www.canada.com/montrealgazette/news/story.html?id=6a21cea1-ba9c-4b81-ba5b-dd89d10cc4ee&k=25212
]. After a few days, the whole affair simply faded away, at least insofar as media were concerned. And for his part, Harper did eventually make a public comment, observing Ontario local police had procedures for investigating charges such as those leveled by the Chileans.
But who could have thought that an international soccer game played in Ontario, involving South America, might have generated alarm just as the PM wraps up a Latin American junket? But the real, substantive questions remain: will the incident make a lasting impact on Latin American relations? Might the event somehow resurface, derailing Canadian-Latin American relations down the road, where Chileans at some point in the perhaps not too distant future might refer to the notorious day of soccer and question Ottawa’s sincerity? And what about the PM’s response to the affair? While Harper’s words may have been appropriate, did his demeanor, appearing on television and seeming to be agitated and inconvenienced by the fact that he really needed go public to remind the world that police had procedures for dealing with such incidents, guarantee that relations with Latin America may yet suffer? In other words, did the PM really diffuse the affair as effectively as he might or should have?
Harper’s predecessor, the Liberal Paul Martin, fretted and twitched when it came to implementing foreign policy. This behaviour led to ineffectiveness through paralysis. Harper, on the other hand, acts without regard for potential or actual consequences. There is much busy work where Harper is in action, but ultimately the actual outcome may yield little or no effect, suggesting Harper and Martin may differ where means are concerned, but ultimately they may be the same when and where results are weighed.
Perhaps the regard Harper has for foreign affairs came out when he talked about the Arctic back in early July. The region is once again making headlines. Some reports suggest the PM may head to the Far North in early August. It may be the case that such a trip is vital, necessary, given Russian submarines even now are mapping out and imprinting Moscow’s claim to the Arctic seabed. But it was back on 10 July 2007 that Harper was quoted as saying, “Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty in the Arctic; either we use it or we lose it...And make no mistake this government intends to use it. Because Canada’s Arctic is central to our identity as a northern nation. It is part of our history and it represents the tremendous potential of our future” [Quoted in Robert Shaw and Cindy E. Harnett, ‘Harper on Arctic: ‘Use it or Lose It’,’ Times Colonist
, 10 July 2007. Story posted at http://www.canada.com/topics/news/story.html?id=7ca93d97-3b26-4dd1-8d92-8568f9b7cc2a&k=73323
“Use it or lose it”? Could you really blame Paul Martin if he were to ask: ‘What? You mean I lost an election to this guy?’
Posted bt Stan Markotich
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