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What should the Conservative Party’s foreign policy platform look like?

A former Tory staffer on why Conservative leader Erin O’Toole has a chance to flip the script on the Liberals by showing some compassion.

By: /
21 August, 2021
Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole. David Kawai/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Foreign Policy platforms are often described as irrelevant to Canadian elections. There is probably some truth to this, but foreign policy can tell you a lot about the qualities and priorities that makes a candidate fit or unfit to be prime minister. 

The Conservative campaign platform, presented by leader Erin O’Toole in the opening days of the campaign, dedicates 10 pages to foreign policy priorities. These frame a foreign policy platform in stark contrast to that of the incumbent Liberals and tries to take advantage of some of their government’s stumbles over the past six years.  

On managing a complex relationship with China in the face of the unjust detention of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, O’Toole lays out a new course for Canada. The Tories say they would decouple critical parts of Canada’s supply chain from China. They have also promised to withdraw Canada from the Asian Infrastructure Bank and ban Huawei from competing on Canada’s 5G network because of its close ties to the communist regime and accusations of surveilling ethnic minorities in the country.

O’Toole would put greater emphasis on Indo-Pacific relations, contrasting Trudeau’s fumbles with the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations where Trudeau’s stubborn approach to trade negotiations angered Japan and Australia, as well as resetting a fractious relationship with India following an embarrassing bilateral visit in 2018.

Unsurprisingly, the Conservatives present a different vision in the Middle East, one that seeks to isolate a dangerous regime in Iran, while unabashedly supporting Israel by recognizing Jerusalem as its capital. 

O’Toole’s foreign policy priorities hit all the right notes for Conservatives, from a re-invigorated Arctic strategy to a more cautious and critical approach in dealing with multilateral bodies, to strengthened measures to confront Russian aggression and support Ukraine. 

These promises define a strong Conservative brand. They have also been crafted to support the party’s efforts to make inroads in multicultural and diaspora communities across the country. Certainly, O’Toole’s campaign team has weighed and vetted most of these measures against the political appetite of their intended voting bases.  

* * *

Foreign policy has a way of suddenly and unexpectedly becoming important to election campaigns. Evocative videos of Afghans desperately attempting to flee the Taliban as American troops completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan are a case in point.

That’s why a solid Conservative party foreign policy platform should be nimble, outline broad principles that will guide how a Conservative government would respond to unexpected events and, most importantly, reflect the mood of the country. 

We don’t need to look too far in the past to see how international events can bring both challenges and opportunities to candidates, depending on whether they are able to discern and respond to public sentiment.

In 2015, fresh-faced Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau dedicated a scant few pages of his election manifesto to foreign policy. When he finally agreed to a leaders’ debate on foreign policy, most onlookers thought Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper had Trudeau right where he wanted him. 

Harper, prime minister since 2006, had a strong reputation on the world stage. He was one of the more senior and generally respected statesmen in the G7, someone who had stood face-to-face with Russian president (and prime minister) Vladimir Putin and had navigated tricky diplomatic waters in Beijing. He had toured the Middle East and deployed Canadians troops and military assets to missions in Eastern Europe, Syria, Iraq, Libya and Mali. Diplomatic spats with the United Arab Emirates and Turkey were in the past, as was an unsuccessful bid for a United Nations Security Council seat. Harper and his government had matured into their role. They seemed comfortable.

I don’t actually recall many details of that debate, but I think that’s largely the point. Foreign policy won’t win you elections, but it can contribute to you losing one. Harper at that time knew it would be a strength to contrast his reputation as an experienced statesman with the new inexperienced leader of the Liberal Party.  

But something happened before the debate that affected the mood of the country, and the tone of the foreign policy debate and possibly even the results of the election. On September 2, 2015, haunting photos surfaced of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on a Turkish shoreline. They became a heartbreaking symbol of the refugee crisis unfolding in Syria and the desperate circumstances facing those fleeing violence there.

Harper response was emotional, but he also cautioned those quick to point to Canada as the lone solution to the refugee crisis. 

“I don’t need to tell you what we saw yesterday was a tragedy,” Harper said in a press conference. “What I need to tell you is that it is far, far worse than that, far worse. As prime minister I have been to refugee camps in Jordan and in Iraq. I can tell you that I have seen tens of thousands of people in these desperate circumstances. There are millions more in exactly the same situation.”

Shortly after, Chris Alexander, immigration minister and Conservative candidate in Ajax, Ontario, suspended his campaign to return to Ottawa to manage the fall-out. Trudeau delivered a devastating blow to the Conservatives, hammering on a theme he would return to in the debate.

“You don’t get to suddenly discover compassion in the middle of an election campaign,” said Trudeau in front of sombre-looking Liberal candidates. “You either have it or you don’t. This government has ignored the pleas of Canadian NGOs, opposition parties and the international community that all believe Canada could be doing more, should have been doing more.”

For Trudeau, doing more meant committing to quickly settle 25,000 government-sponsored Syrian refugees and agreeing to work with private sponsors to accept more. The NDP also promised to settle thousands more government-sponsored Syrian refugees, promising to bring in 10,000 within months and then 9,000 a year for four years. 

Harper fired back at his opponents for making commitments that could put the country in danger if not accompanied by proper security measures. He proposed a multi-faceted approach to managing the deteriorating situation in Syria, including a military component. But his opponents had tapped the compassion and generosity that Canadians wanted to see reflected in their political leaders and were rewarded for it on voting day. 

The Conservatives lost in 2015, but they now have a chance to turn the script around on the Liberals. 

Afghanistan is absent from the Tories’ election platform, which was released the day after Kabul fell to the same Taliban Canada lost 158 soldiers fighting during a long and costly war. But it’s against this backdrop that O’Toole should aim to accomplish three key objectives. 

1. Distinguish yourself as a leader

2. Show the ability to be compassionate

3. Present a vision & differentiate yourself from your predecessor

On the first, in the opening day of the campaign, O’Toole rightly chided Liberal leader Justin Trudeau for selfishly calling an election while a far more urgent situation was unfolding in Kabul. This pressure needs to be sustained and should be accompanied by the proposal of tangible steps to support the evacuation of personnel and those who have supported the Canadian mission. O’Toole should also articulate what role, if any, Canada should play in Afghanistan, and what it should do in response to changes there, in the future. 

“Whether intentionally or not, Trudeau and his government have shown the same lack of compassion they once so sanctimoniously condemned.”

Secondly, the photos, videos and stories coming out of Afghanistan are heart wrenching — the airport flooded with people seeking refuge and taking unimaginable risks to escape, some paying with their lives. Afghans who worked with Canadian soldiers and diplomats and are desperate to get out of the country say they get little help from Canadian officials and face impossible demands from them for documentation. This situation will only deteriorate further, especially in the absence of American leadership. Whether intentionally or not, Trudeau and his government have shown the same lack of compassion they once so sanctimoniously condemned, appearing to look out for their own electoral self-interest over that of those suffering. If there was ever an opportunity for O’Toole to convey that missing compassion, it’s now.  

Lastly, Liberals have been seeing Stephen Harper’s shadow for six years now, taking every occasion to draw comparisons to new conservative leaders. The Conservatives and Erin O’Toole have a chance to break with Harper, who, along with Liberal prime ministers Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin and Trudeau himself, will have political legacies forever tied to the current chaos and failure in Afghanistan. 

O’Toole brings a new and unique perspective. As a former member of the Canadian Forces, he understands and can communicate the real cost of conflict when considering foreign intervention. He can offer a fresh vision of what our country’s foreign policy should look like.

As the campaign grinds on, there will be moments that will call for candidates to reflect the mood of the country. Unfortunately, I’m not sure we in the Conservative Party accomplished that in 2015. The Tories must do things differently if they hope to succeed this time around. The expansive platform drafted by O’Toole and his team is a good start. 

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Journalism in Canada has suffered a devastating decline over the last two decades. Dozens of newspapers and outlets have shuttered. Remaining newsrooms are smaller. Nowhere is this erosion more acute than in the coverage of foreign policy and international news. It’s expensive, and Canadians, oceans away from most international upheavals, pay the outside world comparatively little attention.

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