TORONTO — Stephen Harper set out Monday to beat back charges that his foreign policy has isolated Canada on the world stage, repeatedly framing Canada's global actions as done in concert with its allies.
And while his debate rivals hearkened back to a different era in foreign relations, Harper stubbornly insisted that the steps Canada has taken on terrorism, the environment and trade are manifestations of the new world order.
"We're not living in a different era, we're living in an era that is very difficult," he said during the trade segment of the Munk debate on foreign policy, echoing an earlier line on Canada's response to the Syrian refugee crisis.
That response is in line with what other countries — including the U.S. — are doing, as is Canada's active role in the military campaign against the militants of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, Harper insisted.
The NDP or Liberals would actually make things worse by withdrawing from that mission, Harper said.
"Imagine, first day of office, that we would have a prime minister who would say to the United States, 'We are pulling out of the joint military mission against the Islamic State and why? Because you, Mr. Obama, are continuing the policies of George W. Bush,"' Harper said.
"Seriously, if you really want to poison the relationship, that would be the way to do it."
It was a rare zinger from the prime minister, who barely cracked a smile as his the Liberal and NDP rivals traded well-crafted one-liners in front of an audience of about 3,000 people.
That stoic poise was a calculated move meant to position the Conservative leader as the serious, experienced incumbent in a field of untested challengers.
The facade slipped away briefly during a heated exchange with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau over the government's recent decision to revoke the Canadian citizenship of one of the men convicted of terrorism offences as a member of the so-called Toronto 18.
"You devalue the citizenship of every Canadian in this place and in this country when you break down and make it conditional for anybody ... we have a rule of law in this country and you can't take away citizenship because you don't like what someone does," Trudeau charged.
"A few blocks from here, (this individual) would have detonated bombs that would have been on a scale of 9-11," Harper retorted.
"This country has every right to revoke the citizenship of an individual like that."
One of Harper's key challenges going into the debate was to defend himself against accusations that Canada's global reputation has been tarnished under his watch.
But the Conservatives believe Canadians are onside with many of their foreign policy positions, pointing to repeated polls that suggest support for the mission against ISIL and the response to refugees.
While relationship with allies are important, Harper said, Canada must come first — on trade, on the Keystone XL pipeline, on the Syrian refugee crisis.
Canada's approach to the tide of refugees is "a generous response, it's a responsible response, it is not based on the headlines — it is based on the right thing to do."
Harper said Canada's actions against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, as well as against Russian aggression in Ukraine, are all happening with the support of other countries.
While Harper stuck to many of his well-trod messages on the fight against ISIL and domestic terrorism, he threw out a new line of defence on a subject even his advisers admit is an Achilles heel — climate change.
The Conservative record is better than the past — certainly than the less-than-laudable achievements of the past Liberal government, he argued.
"Under the previous government, they established the toughest standards in the world and then missed them by the most of any single country," he said.
"They were 30 per cent over their targets, and when we got to office they didn't have a single plan to achieve anything."
Harper said his opponents don't have specific measures in place to cut emissions, while his government is working sector by sector on a plan that's becoming more meaningful but still requires other countries like the U.S. and China to pull their weight.
Meanwhile, in what appear to be the final days of landmark negotiations on a massive pan-Asia trade deal, Harper also suggested his opponents lack what it takes to sit at the international negotiating table.
"You don't get those deals by coming up with a million reasons why you're against them before you even get to the table and why you should walk away once you're there."
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