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COMMENTARY: Canadian party leaders agree on one thing — how little they have to say on foreign policy

There has been little discussion of foreign policy initiatives during the federal election campaign so far.
There has been little discussion of foreign policy initiatives during the federal election campaign so far. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Fred Dufour, Pool Photo

The federal election campaign has been polarizing, with the party leaders sometimes offering starkly different visions of Canada’s future.

Nevertheless, it is clear that there has been unanimity among the leaders on one issue: none of them has much interest in foreign policy.

This might have been obvious if Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau had deigned to take part in the Munk Debate on Canada and the world, which was to have taken place on Tuesday, Oct. 1. The cancellation of that event, caused by Trudeau’s absence, underscored how little interest there has been in talking about foreign policy since at least the Pearson years.

READ MORE: Munk Debates axe foreign-policy election event since Trudeau won’t attend

An example of this is the list of announcements in the Global News promise tracker. Foreign policy features in only one of the 85 announcements that have been made by the five main parties as of Sept. 30.

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What criticism there has been about Trudeau skipping the debate was mostly about just that, rather than about how this was a missed chance to discuss the serious challenges Canada faces from the strongmen who run China, Russia and the U.S. or what has become an unpredictable multi-polar world in which foreign hackers and foreign bots have become an ominous blight on the landscape.

As Trudeau is prime minister — and because he declared four years ago that it was his intention to make Canada a much bigger international player — it is easier to examine his government’s foreign achievements and disappointments than it is to critique the positions of his rivals.

The formal Liberal Party platform on foreign affairs consists of a few sentences. The passage includes banal words about how “Canada has earned its place in the world … by defending democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. We find ways to work with others while staying true to our own values.”

Without a shred of supporting evidence, it triumphantly concludes that “the world is better for it.”

WATCH: Andrew Scheer comments on Trudeau not taking part in Munk Debate

Federal Election 2019: Scheer comments on Trudeau not taking part in Munk Debate
Federal Election 2019: Scheer comments on Trudeau not taking part in Munk Debate

The biggest international questions for all the Canadian leaders should be about China, China and China. Among the questions that Trudeau might have been asked if the foreign debate had taken place was whether it was prudent at this time — given the Huawei debacle, the subsequent kidnapping of two Canadians by China and much else — for Ottawa to appoint as its next ambassador an ardent evangelist for much closer ties with the Middle Kingdom?

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If the debate had gone ahead, Trudeau might have been asked to explain how it had been in Canada’s interest to allow hydrographers aboard a Chinese icebreaker to map the seabed in the Northwest Passage and adjacent northern waters claimed by Canada.

Something might also have been made of Trudeau’s reluctance to state what he thinks of the roundup of hundreds of thousands of Chinese Muslims who are now in re-education camps.

On the other hand, Trudeau could have used the Munk debate to explain that his government had stood up to China by sending Royal Canadian Navy warships through the Chinese-claimed international waters of the Taiwan Strait twice this year and on five different occasions over the past two years.

READ MORE: Canadian warship sails through controversial Taiwan Strait

Trudeau could have also used the debate to impress upon voters that after complicated talks, his government had achieved a revised trade deal with the Trump administration.

Topics on which Trudeau might have been vulnerable to attack by his rivals include his decision to spend less on foreign aid than the Harper government had. This is particularly odd as Trudeau covets a UN Security Council seat that is heavily dependent on Third World votes.

Another potential point of contention was that Trudeau had made noise about Canada’s intention to return to peacekeeping in a big way but, in the end, only dispatched a small force to Mali and then, over protests from the UN, yanked it out after only 13 months.

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Elizabeth May of the Green Party might have had a go at Trudeau over his promise to do more to tackle climate change only to end up achieving about the same emission targets as the Harper government had.

However, it is two other issues that would have inevitably dominated the debate. There was the prime minister’s Mr. Dressup routine in India, which led to international derision, and the recent revelation that the prime minister has put on blackface/brownface at least three times in the past, which triggered astonishment and further ridicule overseas.

The leaders who did agree to participate in the Munk Debate have their own weaknesses. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has promised a tougher stance on China. Yet he has not said much about how this might be achieved beyond possibly slapping tariffs on Chinese products in retaliation to its ban on Canadian pork and beef imports and a steep reduction in canola imports.

READ MORE: Scheer calls for stricter inspections, possible tariffs on Chinese imports

Scheer might have tangled with Trudeau over the Conservatives’ condemnation of the government for giving Beijing’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank $256 million and Scheer’s promise to cancel the deal with the Communist-led bank.

The Tory leader’s signature foreign policy initiative has been his vow to move Canada’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Such a decision would be well received by Scheer’s political base, but this is not an issue that has grabbed the attention of Canadians and there are few votes in it.

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READ MORE: Scheer says he will move Canadian Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem

Scheer could also have been pressed on why he once said that Brexit was a good idea, though he has gone silent on the subject recently.

As scant as the Liberals’ and Conservatives’ foreign policy platforms are, the NDP has even less to say. The NDP has stated it would cancel a $4-billion contract to supply Canadian-built armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. It also does not want Canada to sell weapons anywhere they might be used to commit violence.

Predictably, Elizabeth May’s foreign priority is climate change. She has said her goal is to ensure that “Canada re-establishes itself as world leader in protecting our environment for our children and generations to come.” She also wants the government to re-establish the Canadian International Development Agency, increase foreign aid spending, ban oil imports from Saudi Arabia and train the military to deal with the consequences of climate change in Canada.

May recently declared that Canada should only deploy troops overseas on UN-sanctioned missions. The debate would have given her a chance to explain how this might work as it would effectively give China, Russia and the U.S. each a veto over where Canada’s military could go and what it could do.

Most Canadians, like their political leaders, will not be terribly upset that the Munk Debate on foreign policy was called off. As the world’s 10th-largest economy — and a nation heavily dependent on foreign trade and greatly growing trade with China — Canadians should be much more engaged in the world and how it could affect their lives. Beyond following the Trump saga closely, they are not.

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Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas.