Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Canada votes to reclaim its foreign-policy identity

Canada votes to reclaim its foreign-policy identity
Published 22 Oct 2015   Follow @BrendanTN_

To my Australian friends who have not, like myself, been blessed with dual Australian-Canadian citizenship, I describe yesterday's Canadian election result this way: it's a little like when John Howard lost the 2007 election to Kevin Rudd. But unlike John Howard, no one's going to miss Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

After nine years in power, Harper has lost his majority government and the Conservative Party will revert to opposition. The Liberal Party, under Justin Trudeau, has made Canadian electoral history with one of the biggest swings in any federal election. Trudeau will have enough seats to form a majority government, a rare thing among Canada's three major political parties.

It's hard to overstate the personal animosity Harper generated in his last years in office. Even the Rupert Murdoch of Canada, Conrad Black, turned against him. Writing in The National Post three days before the election, Black compared Harper to a 'sadistic Victorian schoolmaster' and said in the end the Harper Government 'has not renewed its personnel or its program and has become frightening in its disregard for democratic institutions and the rights of the citizens to whom it must answer and is sworn to serve.'

Such comments reflect the fact that the election largely revolved around the candidates' personalities, rather than policy. Harper was portrayed as a centralising, authoritarian egotist (and by most accounts, he was). The line the Conservatives ran against Trudeau was that he was inexperienced and that he 'just isn't ready', likely with the hope that he would trip up at some point during the 78-day campaign.

Perhaps the most novel aspect of the election was that foreign policy turned out to be an issue. There was even an entire televised debate dedicated to it, a first for a Canadian election.

Referencing allies and partners, Trudeau made Canada's foreign image a big theme of his post-election speech, saying 'Many of you have worried that Canada has lost its compassionate and constructive voice in the world over the past 10 years...Well, I have a simple message for you: on behalf of 35 million Canadians, we're back.' [fold]

All this focus on Canada's diplomatic efforts in a federal election is for one simple reason: the ideals most Canadians think are imbued in Canada's foreign policy are one of the few unifying aspects of Canadian identity. Across a huge, largely regional and decentralised country, Canada's special sense of foreign policy ranks up there with universal healthcare and Wayne Gretzky as identity markers. There is a reason why the foreign policy election debate descended into one about Canadian values.

The narrative that still to some degree stands, and the one I was taught in school, is this: Canada is a liberal internationalist power with an open and welcoming immigration policy. It provides peacekeeping forces all over the world, it is an entrepreneur in foreign policy ideas and initiatives, engages in multilateral forums and is a significant provider of aid. Oh, and everyone likes us because of it.

But since the early 1990s, Canada's engagement with the world has dropped. A report from the Canadian International Council released earlier this month, Assessing Canada's Global Engagement Gap, illustrates the point. The authors measured 'global engagement' by looking at Canadian federal government spending on aid and defence. They found that in 2001, Canada's combined spending on global engagement was 1.4% of GDP. In 2015, it was 1.2%, a reduction of 14%. For combined spending on defence and aid, this is extremely low; it is the least among the G7 countries. And when comparing the years of previous Liberal governments to that of Conservatives, there is not a discernible difference.

It's clear that the Canadian public saw the Harper Government as straying too far from many of the foreign policy ideals embedded in Canadian identity. This is true in the shift to bilateralism and away from multilateral institutions like the UN, the disregard for consensus in international forums, the underemployment  of Canada's foreign service and continual underfunding of Canada's development aid. Over the last 10 years, Canada has also lost the entrepreneurial international policy spirit that saw it champion landmine disarmament and human rights. One of the last straws was the Government's tough immigration stance on Syrian refugees and its ban on wearing niqabs at citizenship ceremonies (a policy that was overturned through a lawsuit).

The election of Justin Trudeau presents a chance to reinvigorate Canada's traditional stances in foreign policy. There is also a chance to move away from old props that Canada has leaned on, such as peacekeeping. What was once a significant part of Canada's foreign policy and is still held up as a part of Canadian identity is no longer a reality — Canada is now the 66th largest contributor of peacekeeping forces, in between Mali and Paraguay.

But what Canada's role in the history of peacekeeping does reflect is a tradition of proposing innovative ideas in international affairs. There are opportunities in disarmament, the global environment and conflict monitoring and resolution. The tradition of foreign-policy innovation is one Canadians should be proud of, and something the new government could turn its attention to. 

Image courtesy of Flickr user Canada 2020.

You may also be interested in