In the customarily cynical way that federal election campaigns are orchestrated, it makes perfectly good political sense, from a Liberal Party point of view, that Justin Trudeau has refused to participate in Thursday’s Maclean’s–Citytv federal leaders’ debate. It isn’t in the public interest to behave this way, of course, but the Liberals aren’t keen on exposing their incumbent prime minister to any campaign milieu, if they don’t have to, that they aren’t effectively stage-managing.
It makes even better sense, cynically speaking, that Trudeau is refusing to subject himself to the rigour of the Munk Leaders Debate on Foreign Policy that the other leaders are attending Oct. 1 at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto. There will be an empty chair in the place where Trudeau should be. This will make him look bad enough, but almost certainly not as bad as Trudeau would make himself look in the attempt to defend his foreign policy record, let alone articulate his plans ahead. Foreign policy is a subject the Liberals would rather we not be thinking about at all.
Foreign policy is a subject the Liberals would rather we not be thinking about at all.
Trudeau will join the other leaders for the government-initiated Canadian Debate Production Partnership events – the English-language debate on Oct. 7, and the French-language debate on Oct. 10. Trudeau has also committed to a second French-language federal leaders’ debate Oct. 2 hosted by the TVA network, to which Elizabeth May, whose Green Party is doing quite well in Quebec, has been left strangely uninvited.
Foreign policy will come up at least tangentially in the three debates that all the leaders will attend, if for no other reason that it would be near to impossible to have Trudeau, May, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, the New Democrats’ Jagmeet Singh and Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet addressing voters’ concerns without the matter looming darkly in the room. You Just can’t hive off foreign policy from the environment, the economy, immigration and refugees, national security and so on.
It’s a peculiar thing, the way “foreign policy” tends to get set apart from other matters of national concern in Canada. It may be partly because Canada didn’t gain full foreign-policy sovereignty from Britain until the Statute of Westminster in 1931. It’s still considered a field “best left to the experts.” Maybe there’s a lingering Upper Canada deference to authority involved, too. It could also be that during all those years when the United States was the world’s preeminent superpower, there wasn’t that much heavy lifting for us to do anyway. We’d just follow along behind the Americans, reaping the economic rewards the Americans won by their enforcement of a global order conducive to our interests. And in those times when we did follow our own course, we’d flatter ourselves for our better judgment, no matter how irrelevant we were in the result.
Whatever the case, we now find ourselves largely alone and ill-prepared for a world that is changing dramatically and rapidly for the worse. Longstanding international institutions, covenants and democratic alliances are collapsing in disarray, and the Liberals, who began their term with the boast that “Canada is back,” and with plans to secure a wholly irrelevant seat on the UN Security Council, are keeping Trudeau safely away from the one leaders’ debate where these global crises will be discussed.
We anointed Trudeau the world’s Vogue magazine heart-throb champion in the struggle over global warming, and here we are, four years later, and there isn’t a hope in hell that Canada will meet its own commitments to the Paris Agreement on greenhouse gas emissions. The multilateral institutions we hold up as our best hope are reduced to tabloid fodder. Last month’s G7 meeting in Biarritz ended up more like a particularly dysfunctional quarterly meeting of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, with G7 leaders scraping up a few million dollars to throw at Brazil to help with the wildfires devouring the Amazon, and Brazil’s creepy president, Jair Bolsonaro, insulting the wife of French President Emmanuel Macron and barking at newspaper reporters about the G7’s colonialism.
Meanwhile, Macron has decided to break with Canada and his fellow European Union member states by advocating a rapprochement with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, along the lines favoured by U.S. President Donald Trump. The idea is to re-admit Russia to the G7, more or less forgiving and forgetting Putin’s annexation of Crimea and his invasion of Eastern Ukraine, to say nothing of the bloody air war he’s been waging on civilians trapped in the few towns and cities in Syria still occupied by forces opposed to Syrian mass murderer Bashar Assad.
Democracy is in retreat everywhere. Among the liberal democracies, even Britain is in the throes of constitutional paralysis. The retreat began in the early years of the Obama administration. It’s become a rout with Trump in the White House, and China is taking every advantage.
Beijing has become a belligerent and expansionist police state determined to displace the United States and re-fashion the entire world order to its own purposes, drawing dozens of developing countries into its militarized debt-trap Belt and Road project. The Hong Kong uprising is fast becoming a full-scale democratic national liberation struggle, and with Canadian hostages Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor still held by Beijing, the Trudeau government has been afraid to choose a side.
The New Democrats and the Greens don’t really have much to show for themselves by way of fleshed-out foreign-policy platforms, at least not with policies that are suitable to the times. Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives have articulated a careful and pragmatic approach that more or less mirrors the few useful policies Global Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has managed to force on the Liberals’ foreign-policy establishment. But the main job of any new government will be the hard work of disentangling Canada from a generation of China trade enthusiasts in the foreign policy establishment that has left Canada uniquely vulnerable among the G7 countries to Beijing’s bullying and influence-peddling and subversion.
There’s more than enough pressing issues to occupy several federal leaders’ debates on foreign policy, with all the leaders in the same room. But whatever the public interest, or the national interest, i t’s not in the Liberals’ interests to participate. So they won’t.
Terry Glavin is an author and journalist.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019