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Foreign Policy Should Have Taken Centre Stage at the Munk Debate

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This piece adapted from a shorter post on OpenCanada .

Monday's Munk Debate is probably going to generate a lot chatter about in the small circles in Canada that actually care about foreign policy. That the three candidates themselves had trouble staying on the foreign side of issues and had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, back to foreign policy is only one indication.

On the other hand that the country had any discussion let alone a full debate on foreign affairs was a glass half-full.
 
A bit of harsh assessment, but unless you're an academic, university undergrad or church-affiliated NGO you probably could have skipped the first hour of the debate. It was in the second half when things got interesting and real in terms of hard Canadian interests.
 
There were three critical issues raised in the second half -- relations with the U.S., what we export and how we export it. 
 
The debate around relations with the U.S. should have been an opportunity for Trudeau as, I noted here, 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talking about Canada-U.S. relations without mentioning the broader North American context into which we now fall is outdated, out of touch with reality and counterproductive, Yet, Trudeau didn't "go there" and missed a huge opportunity to distance himself from his stage mates.

This was also a chance for Mulcair and Trudeau to make the point that it's not only Obama with whom Harper can't seem to get along. The universally acknowledged poor state of relations between Canada and Mexico and the strained relations between Harper and Mexican president Pena Nieto would seem an easy and gratuitous cherry to toss on top of the Harper is causing problems for us abroad argument. Or maybe it wouldn't be. One has to wonder if the candidates just missed the opportunity or if they have polling showing that this would not be a good line.
 
On trade, Mulcair seems to have done well for himself managing to deflect questions about the NDP's commitment to trade agreements with a "well, actually, we also supported the Korea trade deal..." For a second you could almost feel at ease with the words "NDP" and "trade" in the same sentence. But then he kept talking and that sense of ease vanished. 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. In other words some sort of purity of heart test for our trade partners. 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 surely did. You can get away with sort of stuff in trade talks with Honduras or even a Colombia (which is still sore about its treatment by the NDP in parliament) but that sort of language isn't going to fly across the Pacific.
 
As an aside, 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. With the global middle class expected to grow from roughly 2 billion today to close to 5 billion in a few decades there is and is going to be a huge market for what we are now exporting. The immediate and present issue we face isn't what we 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. Mulcair and the NDP seem utterly clueless about how any of this works. And here Harper missed an opportunity to call Mulcair out on this. 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 refineries inland, especially for a market as small as Canada where you're going to be exporting. You build them on deep water ports, which means the Pacific coast.) So, if I read between the lines, Mulcair was calling for constructing refineries on the coast of B.C. Great idea, he may get my vote after all!
 
Looked like Mulcair managed to not lose the debate as 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?" was brilliant as he 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 Harper and Mulcair. 
 
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, literally, concrete to give substance to their talk.

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