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COMMENTARY: MPs return to Ottawa, but with little interest in foreign affairs

Canada’s foreign minister says repatriation of Iran plane crash victims taking place
WATCH: Canada's foreign minister says repatriation of Iran plane crash victims taking place

The federal caucuses meet behind closed doors in Ottawa next week to discuss the coming session of Parliament, which is to resume on Jan. 27.

It can be expected that Iran’s shootdown of a Ukrainian airliner, with the loss of many Canadian citizens and Iranians with Canadian connections, will be discussed. Other than that, the growing chaos in the outside world is unlikely to intrude much into caucus deliberations.

READ MORE: Families of Canadian victims in Iran plane crash to receive $25,000, Trudeau says

It is my hunch that Canadians are more concerned about the state of the world and their country’s place in it than those whom they elect. Parliamentarians and their leaders prefer to obsess over parochial concerns rather than consider a rapidly changing world that seems to have largely passed Canada by.

The reverse of this is equally true. Canada and Canadians seldom figure in foreigners’ calculations unless we count the blessing bestowed on us by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, or global interest in what socks our happy-go-lucky prime minister has chosen to wear.

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Old certainties have vanished. China is ascendant. Everywhere. Russia has serious limitations but is mostly free to cause what mischief it feels like. The Middle East and Europe can no longer be sure of American protection. Nor can Canada.

Russian PM and government resign after Putin calls for constitution changes
Russian PM and government resign after Putin calls for constitution changes

Unchanged, though, is Canada’s most important foreign relationship — with Washington. Yet few Canadian politicians of any political stripe want to publicly talk much about it.

The Conservatives, for example, have had curiously little to say about whether Canada’s interests have been harmed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau figuratively poking U.S. President Donald Trump in the eye. Trudeau’s latest gratuitous insult was his indirect but clear accusation that Trump was responsible for creating the situation leading to Iran’s firing of 22 ballistic missiles into Iraq.

The prime minister had nothing to say about what had made Iranian missile crews so nervous. It was plainly fear of a U.S. counter-attack that led them to mistakenly kill 57 Canadians and more than 100 others when they launched missiles at the Ukrainian jetliner departing Tehran, apparently thinking that it was a U.S. cruise missile.

Trudeau on Flight 752’s victims: They would be “home with their families”
Trudeau on Flight 752’s victims: They would be “home with their families”

Trudeau’s blaming Trump has played well at home, where many Canadians are prepared to believe the worst about the leader of Canada’s largest trading partner and guarantor of its security. Many Canadians also liked Trudeau’s mocking of Trump at last month’s NATO leaders’ summit.

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But such gaffes harm Canada’s already fragile relationship with a president who is notoriously hypersensitive to criticism. Never to be forgotten is that there is still every chance Trump will win the presidential election again this fall.

It is time to move on to other serious irritants in the U.S.-Canada relationship, but there is no sense that this will be high on any caucus’s agenda. Who among them will press Trudeau to seriously discuss, let alone increase, Canada’s still pitiful defence spending to the agreed-upon NATO figure of two per cent. Another area of concern is Ottawa’s reluctance to construct part of a ballistic missile screen for modernized continental defence against lethal long-range threats being developed by Russia, North Korea and China. There has also been foot-dragging on a replacement for badly outdated North Warning System radars.

Moreover, Canada needs icebreakers and to consider new submarines and surveillance aircraft. There is no sign that any political party will give any of these topics serious consideration at their quasi-secret conclaves this week.

READ MORE: Liberal government faces challenges to climate, economic policies early in 2020

The Liberals are to reveal a new climate change strategy early this year to replace one that was going to take forever to hit fairly modest targets that the Harper and Trudeau governments had signed on to. It is said that for the first time this policy will have real teeth. But nothing Canada does to promote strong climate change policies will work unless somebody leads and the world pulls together.

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Another issue of urgent concern that is unlikely to be raised this week is what Canada will do to assert its sovereignty or even have a say in how the Far North is to be developed at a time when Arctic pack ice is crumbling because of global warming. At the very least, Canada and the U.S., as well as Denmark (Greenland), should be working closely together on a joint Arctic security strategy to urgently address Russian and now Chinese ambitions on the edge of Canada’s northern extremities.

Yet another issue to be avoided as much as possible, because it is contrary to how Canadians regard themselves as great global citizens, is to frankly discuss how to increase Canada’s meagre foreign aid spending. During the recent federal election campaign, the Tories announced they wanted to cut it. The Liberals had already been chopping away at it for some time.

Finally, there is China. Will the caucuses develop positions on whether to defy stark U.S. warnings of repercussions and allow Huawei, the Chinese government-sponsored telecommunications colossus, to establish its hugely controversial 5G cellular system in Canada? A pertinent aside is that a hearing to decide whether Meng Wangzhou, the daughter of the Huawei founder, should be extradited to the U.S. to face serious criminal charges including fraud and money laundering, is to finally begin this week in Vancouver.

That may get the attention of the caucuses for a moment, but there is so much more that must be examined. Who, for example, is prepared to consider the threats posed by electronic warfare or terrorism, the trouble brewing in the Indo-Pacific, relations with a Europe that is becoming as divided and unpredictable as the U.S., and ways to avoid getting entangled in the Middle East?

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So much to talk about. So little that will be talked about.

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