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How Parties Engage on Foreign Policy Can Tell Voters a Lot

09/11/2015 05:04 EDT | Updated 09/11/2016 05:12 EDT
John Julian

By Shannon Kindornay

A longer version of this article was published in the Canadian International Development Platform

On Sept. 28, 2015, The Munk Centre will host Canada's first-ever federal election debate devoted to foreign policy issues. We can expect to see any number of key issues on the table -- Canada's track record on trade and investment, engagement in Syria, our approach to Palestine and Israel, refugee policy, security and climate change, particularly -- with the world set to agree on binding commitments in December this year at COP21. There is a lot of ground to cover.

So, what about international development? For international development, there is really one key question: Will parties commit to increasing Canada's foreign aid budget and, if so, by how much? More specifically, will parties commit to reaching 0.7 per cent of official development assistance (ODA) to GNI, as other countries, like the United Kingdom, have done?

If there is a question asked on international development during the foreign policy debate, this will likely be it. Only the Conservatives, NDP and Liberals will be taking part in the debate. So, where do the parties stand on foreign aid spending?

Conservatives

The Conservative government has consistently maintained that it is not about how much we spend, but how we spend it -- in other words, the effectiveness of Canadian aid. In fact, the government announced it would freeze the aid budget in 2010 for a five-year period, which was scheduled to end in 2015, and we've seen a decline in foreign aid in real terms since 2012 with our latest ODA to GNI ratio for 2014 at 0.24 per cent.

At present, the Conservative Party election platform makes no mention of international development. Nevertheless, on this issue, the Honourable Stephen Harper will no doubt point to his government's leadership on maternal, newborn and child health, as well as the $300 million planned for the Development Finance Initiative, which is not ODA but aims to incentivize private investments in developing countries. We should not expect any promises to increase the aid budget.

NDP

At a conference in May 2015, the NDP released their vision for international development cooperation. With NDP leader Thomas Mulcair leading the launch, the NDP signaled to Canadians that the party is serious -- at the highest level -- about international development.

We can expect Mulcair will highlight his party's commitment to reaching the 0.7 per cent ODA to GNI ratio through a multi-year timetable, as already made public during the launch of the NDP's vision for international development. This will certainly be welcome news to Canada's international development community who has been calling for Canada to step up its generosity for years. But, as my colleague Aniket Bhushan shows, reaching 0.7 per cent will be no easy feat. Indeed, it would mean providing three times current levels of ODA, or around $14 billion per year. In the current economic climate, reaching 0.7 per cent will be a tough sell to voters concerned with domestic priorities like job creation, social services and infrastructure -- a fact that the Conservatives and the Liberals will no doubt use to their advantage. It will be telling to see if Mulcair shies away or walks back from the ambitions of the NDP vision.

Liberals

For their part, the Liberals have spelt out their vision for "Canada and the World" as part of their election platform. Or perhaps more aptly, their vision for Canada and North America, focusing on Canada-U.S.-Mexico relations (heavy emphasis on the U.S.) particularly in terms of diplomatic relations, trade and energy. No mention of international development or foreign aid, though the party has promised to, at the very least, reverse the decline in foreign aid.

There are at least two key messages on international development for the Liberals in the debate. First, it would be surprising if the Liberal leader Justin Trudeau (or Mulcair for that matter) didn't bring up the government's lack of support for a full range of sexual and reproductive health services in an attempt to discredit Conservative leadership on maternal, newborn and child health. Second, the Liberals will highlight their promise to reverse the decline in foreign aid, though without concrete figures.

No Canadian election has ever been won or lost on international development issues. And it may be wishful to think that international development will get fair play in the upcoming foreign policy debate with the breadth of other important issues on the table. Nevertheless, if international development comes up, party leaders will need to be prepared to go beyond spin and articulate and defend their plans for Canadian foreign aid post-election. How parties engage on international development tells a lot about how and what they think about Canada's place in the world. Debate organizers would do well to push the candidates beyond rehearsed platitudes and known knowns.

Shannon Kindornay, Adjunct Research Professor

Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of CCIC or its members

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