OTTAWA – In a turbulent world with new troubles at every turn, the moderator of Monday night’s foreign policy debate has a simple message for the three main federal leaders: forget the talking points, and go deep.
Rudyard Griffiths, the chair of the Munk Debates, knows politicians like to keep things tightly scripted, but he says the world is at a pivotal moment – from new challenges posed by a more assertive China and Russia, to the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War with the Middle East exodus.
So it’s time, says Griffiths, for Stephen Harper, Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau to explain their rationale for how Canada can navigate all of that turmoil and make a concrete – and practical – contribution, especially at a time when the country has limited resources.
The Conservative, NDP and Liberal campaigns were recently given a wide range of topics, but with the debate divided into six segments, Griffiths is offering few clues about what he’s likely to end up asking.
“These debates are also a pressure test for who will be our next prime minister,” he said, so holding back on the topics will “maintain the pressure test function.”
The format is designed to force the leaders to go deep, said Griffiths, who has had the input of an advisory board of leading Canadian foreign policy experts.
The debate will be divided into six segments in which two of the three leaders will go toe-to-toe for seven minutes. The third leader will be added for five more minutes.
Forcing the leaders into a series of long exchanges – including a series of one-on-one bouts – will hopefully exhaust the talking points after four or five minutes, if not sooner, he said. Staying on point may be an effective skill for a politician giving a stump speech or a press conference.
“But frankly, in a debate, it makes for a pretty insubstantial and unsatisfying conversation,” said Griffiths.
There’s never been a debate devoted to foreign policy in a Canadian election, but Griffiths said now is a very good time to have one, given the shifting geopolitical ground.
International issues have reared their head in this campaign – notably the debate over the global refugee crisis after a Canadian connection emerged to the image of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach.
And on Friday, Harper was forced to defend the $14.8-billion contract by an Ontario firm to sell light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, which has a questionable human rights record, after it came up in the French debate the previous night.
But Griffiths says the leaders will be pushed to consider some bigger picture issues.
“Everything is changing so fast, so quickly, the big assumptions that we’ve lived with, in terms of foreign policy and the international order since World War Two, have been profoundly unsettled,” he said.
“We’re in a totally new context and reality, and we need a creative foreign policy vision to go with this new era we’re entering into, which I characterize as an era of profound uncertainty.”
The three leaders have laid down a few markers on how they see the world during the long campaign so far.
Harper has repeated the theme that his track record will bring security to Canada in an uncertain world, especially during the fight against Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria, where Canada special forces trainers and fighter jets have been deployed.
Trudeau has said he wants to return Canada to its multilateral tradition, such as working more closely with the United Nations, while Mulcair has pledged to immediately end all of Canada’s military involvement in Iraq and Syria.
Mulcair and Trudeau have also criticized Harper for giving the environment short shrift, and have pledged to do more to rehabilitate what they see as Canada’s damaged international reputation on the issue at the December climate change meetings in Paris.
Griffiths said he expects both those topics will likely feature in the debate.
“Security issues are definitely going to be part of the debate, just given the fact that Canada right now is involved in a military mission,” he says.
The Paris climate negotiations will have major implications for Canada’s economy and trade relations, says Griffiths, because countries will be pushed to craft a binding greenhouse gas emissions agreement that could have penalties.
“We hope that for the portion of our debate that we can dedicate to an issue like that, we’re going to draw these leaders out. I’m going to see not just what the differences are . . . but where do they see Canada?”