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Munk Debate on Foreign Policy: The best debate of all?

Trade infrastructure, gender issues, China — important topics were left out of Monday’s debate. Still, it might have been the best discussion this election.

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29 September, 2015
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau (L), Conservative leader and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Thomas Mulcair (R) take part in the Munk leaders' debate on Canada's foreign policy in Toronto, Canada September 28, 2015. Canadians go to the polls in a federal election on October 19, 2015. REUTERS/Fred Thornhill

Monday night, the Munk Debate forum hosted this election’s only debate focusing on foreign policy. Party leaders Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair went head-to-head over Canada’s record on refugees, Bill C51 and the Arctic. Was it a success? We rounded up reviews from a handful of experts that delve into who won, who lost, and what was missed.

Leaders mum on their grander vision for Canada

Canadians were treated Monday to another excellent debate. Americans? Eat your heart out!

While I had expected the debate to largely turn to domestic issues, it remained focused on international issues and had substance. And those times it started to drift to child daycare programs moderator Rudyard Griffiths did a good job of intervening and bringing things back on track.

Of course leaders could not talk about everything. There was the briefest of mentions on the Arms Trade Treaty. There was not much on Assad, although it is largely accepted that he is the main cause of the refugee crisis. No questions on Iran and whether the Liberals or the NDP would re-open the embassy there.

A missed opportunity for the Liberals and the NDP was addressing cuts to the civil and foreign service and how they almost certainly affected Canada’s ability to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis in a timely manner. Would they reverse Harper’s cuts? Or perhaps they calculated that the average Canadian does not care about what happens in the Pearson Building.

As for Harper, when pressed on Canada-U.S. relations, he did not point to the 2011 Beyond the Border agreement. Instead, he opted to discuss his (failed) attempts to “push” the KeystoneXL pipeline through. It may be that the Beyond the Border agreement is behind schedule, or that it was established just before the May 2011 election, but certainly it was an important accomplishment he could point to.

But, the biggest disappointment was the lack of a question on “grand strategy.” What is Canada’s place in the world and what are the policies that will get us there? In a campaign where basically none of the political parties have included foreign policy as a key platform item, this would have been an interesting question to see answered. Admittedly, this is a large question for a debate that focused on a lot of specific issues. However, a properly structured question could have provided some interesting perspectives on how the parties see the big picture, and provided a framework for their specific ideas.

Ultimately, it is not clear that foreign policy will change minds, but the Munk Debate was another opportunity for leaders to look Prime Ministerial. Harper kept his cool and stuck to his security lines, Trudeau was the strongest on Bill #C51 that he has ever been and Mulcair did well to highlight Harper’s diplomatic failures with the U.S.

Essentially, the Munk Debate highlighted the differences between the parties in this election and underlined the choice that Canadians have on October 19. Everyone benefits from that.

— Stephanie Carvin, Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

Discussing the Syrian refugee crisis: Just the top of a melting iceberg

The format of the Munk debate on Foreign policy allowed for much longer and more in-depth debate about the different issues put forward to the three party leaders. One has to wonder then why the three aspiring Prime ministers stayed so much on the surface of the most pressing issue of the moment — the refugee crisis.

Both Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau sang the same tune: Canada needs to do more about Syrian refugees and should stop using security as a scare tactic. Their critique could have gone much further. Under the Conservative government, the number of asylum seekers getting status in Canada has gone down by almost half while the number of refugees around the world has reached a record high.

Both the Liberal and NDP leaders also failed to question the current Prime minister about the overreliance on private sponsorship to meet Canadian refugee targets. It is not entirely clear how the three parties are planning to address the wider refugee issues after the elections. More than 60 million people are looking for asylum around the world but only about 20,000 make it through the Canadian door every year. Monday’s debate did not offer much of an answer.

— Laura-Julie Perreault, international affairs reporter at Montreal’s La Presse

Noticeably absent? May’s voice, Harper critique and development issues

This was a well-organized debate although it was unfortunate Elizabeth May was excluded. But the other ghost in the room was our absence from the real world stage, not the imagined world stage of Mr. Harper, who got off lightly.

Prime Minister Harper was, well, prime ministerial, but viewers less aware of the issues would not know that he was guilty of gross exaggeration (confusing immigration figures with refugees) or worse. That includes his mentions of the Ukraine, where Canada has zero influence and on which Harper has been all talk; relations with the U.S. which are at an all-time low (for Harper to state he has a good relationship with President Obama belies the fact that when Obama lists his close contacts, Harper does not get a mention); on the environment, where Canada is an international pariah; and on the Arctic, where Mr. Trudeau said his policies were a sled with no dogs.

For the McLeod Group, a major missing piece was any real understanding of the role which development plays in the world and in Canada’s Foreign Policy. Global cooperation with developing countries is fundamental to global security and global human rights. We need to renew cooperation on environment and sustainable development, where the current government has cut contributions to enable developing countries to meet their targets, to address root causes of alienation which can be the fertile ground for conflict. References to the much vaunted Maternal health care initiative did not mention that it comes at the expense of deep ODA cuts.

Monday was a big day for President Obama at the United Nations. His handshake with Mr Putin and his meeting with world leaders on peacekeeping highlighted Canada’s continued missing-in-action status. We had a slot booked, but not taken up, in the General Assembly debate for Prime Minister Harper, so we will now speak after everyone has gone home. Mr. Mulcair’s solid call for Canada to work for peace stood out, as did his call for Canada to engage with the new peacekeeping. Our absence was not only a snub to the United Nations, and another missed opportunity, it was a snub to our most important relationship — the United States — and highlighted how far Canada has drifted from the game of global governance for world peace.

— Carolyn McAskie, McLeod Group. Formerly Assistant Deputy Minister in CIDA, UN SRSG in Burundi, and UN ASG Humanitarian Affairs and Peacebuilding

On the best debate of all

This was a spirited, substantive, elevated debate. The best of them all. It was superbly narrated by the practiced and restrained Rudyard Griffiths, in contrast to the economic debate in Calgary, which slid into a game of one-upmanships. Not only was the Munk Debate well-conceived and well-executed, governed by a basic civility, it was important: the first to discuss Canada’s role in the world.

Listening to the leaders, you might think that Canada counted in the world. It does not, particularly in 2015, which does not mean that we should pretend otherwise in an election campaign. However worthy, thinking we are important is a Canadian conceit today. Unsurprisingly, amid the clamour, none of the leaders offered a comprehensive vision of Canada beyond its shores, and how the arms of our internationalism — defence, diplomacy, and development — could be used to that end. Instead, we got only flashes and images of Canada abroad. Some references to us as peacekeeper, warrior, mediator and humanitarian, yes, but nothing that suggested that any of the leaders had done much thinking about what this country could be. Indeed, the leaders did not talk about China or India, and little on our relationship with Iran, and the nuclear pact. That the most important great power agreement in a generation did not crack a two-hour debate on Canada’s foreign policy reflects how diminished we are.

Stephen Harper was most effective in making his points, defending his record, appearing diplomat-in-chief. Of course, with 10 years of practice, that is no surprise. He could utter the greatest of falsehoods with the greatest of authority, as he did in suggesting that Canada matters in Ukraine. Or presenting his sunny relationship with Barack Obama. (We’ll have to wait for Obama’s memoir to know how estranged they are — if he bothers to mention Harper). When you are prime minister, you can drop names, and that gives you a gravitas. Justin Trudeau does not have that (as Harper did not when he became PM), which is why the audience guffawed when Trudeau was asked how he would stand up to Vladimir Putin.

Still, Trudeau handled himself well in this, the area of his greatest vulnerability. In his two years as party leader, mysteriously, he has not travelled abroad and he has largely avoided foreign policy. Still, he got off his lines in the debate, however scripted, and evoked his father, which was authentic. He referred to Canada and refugees with a real sense of the past, and he bemoaned Harper’s record on Keystone. He was sharp and aggressive. Harper smirked, but Trudeau drew blood there and on Canada’s failure to establish a serious presence in the Arctic, where, as Trudeau noted, we have neither dog nor sled. Mulcair was feisty, too, particularly in skewering Trudeau on his failure to oppose the anti-terrorism legislation. Once again, he was also condescending toward “Justin.”

It is said there are no votes in Canada in foreign policy, and that might be so. But in focusing attention on what Canada is doing in the world, for better or for worse, Monday’s debate enriched our national conversation. It made us bigger, if only for a moment.

— Andrew Cohen, professor, author and columnist with The Ottawa Citizen. His latest book is Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours that Made History.

Forget who won — women lost the Munk Debate. Here’s why.

The Munk debate on Canada’s foreign policy was rife with mythical images of Canada past and present, rhetorical turns-of-phrase and partisan one-liners and few will be surprised by the dominant images of Canada crafted by our political leaders.

Prime Minister Harper’s penchant for securitizing everything from the Arctic to the Keystone pipeline is consistent with the orientation of his government to the world, which is focused on Canada’s national interest. Trudeau sang from the old tired internationalist songbook embracing the myth of Canada as a peacekeeper, a good international citizen, and as open and friendly. Lamenting Canada’s decline in the world, Trudeau stated more than once, “we must be the Canada we’ve always been.” Mulcair consistently invoked Canadian values and claimed that Canada needed an independent foreign policy.

As pundits now debate ‘who won,’ what I want to ask is: who lost? As a feminist scholar, the answer comes all too easily to me — women lost. Feminists lost. Those who seek to highlight the place of gender in Canadian foreign policy theory and practice lost. Women were buried under a conversation about maternal, newborn and child health. Discursively, this conflates all women with mothers and motherhood thus making women only matter in foreign policy as wombs (See Krystel Carrier and Rebecca Tiessen’s 2013 article in Canada and the World).

Practically, we had three men debating women’s rights. Trudeau and Mulcair did rightly raise the question of reproductive rights but Harper, unable to even say the word abortion, stated that he would not “get into that kind of debate.” Women’s rights become framed as “that kind of debate”? Apparently, that kind of debate is one on which there is no consensus. Oddly, the Prime Minister will engage in all kinds of other debates on which there is no consensus, but won’t engage in a debate about abortion rights. Finally, while the domestic and the international merged in discussions on the Arctic, terrorism and trade, none of the leaders erased the distinction between domestic and international in the context of women’s rights. As they defended our values or national interest or lamented our lost reputation none of our political leaders saw fit to raise the issue of the gross women’s rights violations taking place at home. No one mentioned the shameful truth of Canada’s 1,200 missing and murdered indigenous women. No one. So rather than talking about which of the men won, let’s ask: who lost?

— Heather A. Smith, Professor, International Studies, University of Northern British Columbia

View from the West: Trade infrastructure should be key

The trip is long from Toronto, where Monday’s Munk Debate was set, across the time zones to where Canada’s commodity producing heartland is.

But the foreign policy debate took an even longer time to hit any issues of immediate interest and importance to Western Canada. The debate seemed to have defaulted into two halves; the first was aspirational, or what do we want our country to be, the second hit the tougher issues around hard interests and what do we need for our country to succeed, and that’s where things got real.

There were three critical issues raised: our relations with the U.S., what we export and how we export it, and North America.

The debate around relations with the U.S. should have been an opportunity for Trudeau as he has been the most advanced on thinking about North America as opposed to just the U.S. This seemed to have come from an understanding in his camp that talking about Canada-U.S. relations without mentioning the broader North American context into which we now fall is outdated, out of touch with reality and counterproductive, Yet, Trudeau didn’t go there and missed a huge opportunity to distance himself from his stage mates.

On trade, Mulcair seems to have done the best managing to deflect questions about the NDP’s commitment to trade agreements with a “well, actually we also supported the Korea trade deal,” but he got away with a striking statement about the NDP only supporting agreements with countries that share our values, defined as countries not like Colombia. If that’s the case then Mulcair has effectively ruled out the NDP supporting any deal involving Brunei and Vietnam, in other words the TPP. If his statements on supply management didn’t ring the death knell on the NDP and the TPP loud enough, that statement sure did.

Watching the debate from Calgary, I was left confused about where my provincial government stands on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as I think I heard three different opinions as to where the Alberta NDP stands on the issue. Someone needs to call Premier Notley’s office for a fact check.

Finally, the issue of whether we should be exporting raw commodities is going to strike many Western ears badly. There is a huge market for what we are now exporting. Value-added adds — pardon the pun — a whole new element of complexity and it misses the point entirely. The issue we face isn’t what to export, it’s our inability to export much or enough of what we already have. No one touched on getting the products that we, again, already export to market. Which is strange as this seemed to be the biggest area of disagreement. Whether grain or oil or gas or timber or coal or canola, we’re having trouble simply getting what we already produce to market. The Conservatives through the Building Canada Fund have managed to put some money into infrastructure, with a fighting chance that some of that money will be used for trade-related infrastructure. Justin Trudeau for all his talk about trade has an infrastructure plan that focuses exclusively on social infrastructure and urban transit, which may help with trade in services but not in the broader context of Canadian trade. The PM missed an opportunity to call him out on this. And Mulcair and the NDP have talked about value added without seeming to realize that this means building refineries on the Pacific coast (oil + value added = refinery and you don’t build that inland, especially for a market as small as Canada, you build it on a deep water port, which means the Pacific coast.)

Looked like Mulcair managed to not lose the debate. He managed to have it both ways on the trade file. His closing framing of “Who do you want at the table in Paris negotiating on global climate change?” shifted the debate from what is of immediate importance to Canada to tug at the heartstrings of what is most important for the globe. It took the focus off of the NDP record on trade, which he also deflected with the Korea comment and introduced enough doubt to counter the pro-trade stance of his stage mates.

Harper missed a huge opportunity to bring up his stronger focus on trade infrastructure, by comparison to the NDP and Liberals. For those who make the link between Canadian prosperity and getting product to market, this was a key message. It is also something that should have resonated with voters looking for something beyond rhetoric, looking for something concrete.

— Carlo Dade, director of the Centre for Trade & Investment Policy, Canada West Foundation

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