POLITICS

Southeast-Asia trip highlights Harper's trade-focused international agenda

10/08/2013 11:25 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST
BALI, Indonesia - Negotiations on a new trade pact involving 12 Pacific Rim countries won't likely be completed by their year-end target date, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Tuesday, while lauding what he called "rapid progress" on "the most ambitious free trade negotiations ever undertaken."

Harper wrapped up a two-day summit of Asia-Pacific leaders — and a week-long Southeast Asia trade junket — with a number of incremental agreements designed to facilitate Canadian commerce in these emerging economies.

The prime minister returns to Canada and the resumption of Parliament having cleared his schedule of yet another summit, next month's biennial Commonwealth leaders meeting in Sri Lanka, which he is boycotting.

The snub of Sri Lanka over human rights abuses highlights the new reality of Harper's international agenda.

The stern moralist who once chided Communist China by saying Canada wouldn't "sell out to the almighty dollar" is now fully prepared to talk turkey with less-than-savoury governments if it furthers Canadian economic interests.

"The priority we have at APEC — as we do in virtually all of our activities and travels — is obviously the economy," Harper told reporters after the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum concluded.

He made it clear that his decision to reject Sri Lanka's chairmanship of the 64-member Commonwealth grouping revolves around an entirely different set of priorities.

Trade is not the Commonwealth's focus, but rather it "has as its core mission the promotion of values of good governance, human rights and respect for people and their cultures and diversity," Harper said.

"That's the essence of what the Commonwealth is supposed to be all about."

Sri Lanka, which is still reeling from a decades-long civil war involving its Tamil minority, is not living up to that ideal.

It is all well and good to honour history and tradition, said the prime minister, but "honouring the traditions of British history is not ... a sufficient role for the Commonwealth."

Canada's boycott has come in for criticism even from within Harper's own Conservative ranks.

Former cabinet minister Steven Fletcher responded to the announcement this week by noting that Harper went to the Congo last year for the Francophonie meeting.

"If you're going to attend one you should probably attend the other, even if they're terrible countries, because the bigger picture is helping people in those countries," Fletcher told CTV.

Other Commonwealth leaders here at the APEC summit also suggested constructive engagement with Sri Lanka is the way to affect change.

Harper is betting that Canadians are more focused on economic results.

Indonesia, which has been repressing its Christian minority, was the host of this year's Asia-Pacific meeting and China will host the 2014 summit in Beijing, which Harper said he looks forward to attending.

"The close collaboration will result in a win-win situation, especially at a time when the world economy has yet to fully recover," Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said in his closing remarks here Tuesday.

The 21-country APEC group is not actually the forum for the ongoing Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks, but all 12 countries in that fledgling trade pact are APEC members.

As a result, they used the Bali summit to stage side talks on the ongoing negotiations, including a full leaders' meeting hosted by the United States on Tuesday afternoon.

No deal appears imminent, Harper reported.

"There are still very important issues yet to really thoroughly be negotiated. I think in all fairness it would be premature at the moment to really start categorizing what we expect to see as outcomes."

Nonetheless, Canada remains committed to the process, he said.

It all fits with the Conservative government's mantra of economics above all.

A throne speech on Oct. 16 will reset the government's agenda as it heads into the second half of its four-year mandate and the push to a 2015 election date.

Harper isn't tipping his hand on the new legislative agenda, saying only that the government's existing blueprint is largely complete.

"I'm not suggesting to you that the broad priorities of the government will change, of course," he said.