Canada Election 2015: Foreign Policy Is a Four-Letter Word

Mulcair, 2014, cc Flickr Alex Guibord

Nearly a week into the Canadian election campaign and there’s very little to go on in terms of the foreign policy platforms of opposition parties. “Keep it vague,” seems to be the overriding dictum so far, as if the parties fear that they stand to lose if they reveal too much to the electorate.

The Conservatives are by far the most known entity owing to their nine years in power. Over that time the Harper government has come to be known for its strong support for Israel, opposition to international environmental treaties that might inhibit the development of Canada’s oil sands, strong stance against Russian actions in Ukraine, and most recently its contribution of Canadian CF-18s to the US-led military campaign against Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria. The Harper government has also defined itself as being tough on terrorism, passing the controversial C51 Anti-Terrorism Act, and just this week announcing a plan to institute travel bans on areas deemed to be hotbeds of terrorist activity.

Both the Liberals (currently third in the polls) and the New Democrat Party (first) disagree on the matter of Canada’s active military involvement against ISIS, and this would be the one policy swing of substance that we could expect should the Harper government lose its mandate on October 19.

Beyond that things get murky. Justin Trudeau, the leader of the Liberal Party, has been non-committal on his foreign policy vision and the brief glimpses he affords us tend to look a lot like Harper’s own take on international affairs. Trudeau’s staunch support of Israel mirrors Harper, as does his view on Russian aggression in Ukraine; he also recently came out in support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In fact, it’s difficult to find one foreign policy plank that is unique to Trudeau’s Liberals. There may be more policy announcements yet given there’s two months to go before elections, but going by the piecemeal assortment of information already available, it seems unlikely that there will be any foreign policy bombshells coming from the Trudeau camp.

Trudeau’s style has been called “deliberately nebulous” by Western professor Erika Simpson, and rightly so. Yet the ambivalence is likely by design. The Liberals are banking that there’s more to be gained from a focus on the domestic, where the Harper government has been rendered vulnerable by five consecutive months of economic contraction, than by rocking the boat with any major changes to Canadian foreign policy. This tendency to play it safe was also apparent in Trudeau’s reluctant acceptance of Bill C-51 because he didn’t want the Conservatives to make “political hay” out of the issue.

The New Democratic Party’s Thomas Mulcair represents the more radical departure from Prime Minister Harper’s foreign policy. Though solid policy pronouncements have also been scant from the NDP so far, Mulcair has been vocal as the mouthpiece of the official opposition: He wants to make Canada a “world leader” on climate cooperation and laments Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol under Harper, he has spoken out against the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program and the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ship (AOPS) program, and he has pledged to repeal Bill C-51 if elected. On Israel he has continued the movement towards a more centrist position from the NDP over the past decade. Notably, he supported Israel’s right to defend itself during the Gaza conflict, a stance that NDP MP Sana Hassainia cited as the reason for quitting the party caucus in August of 2014.

And herein lies the major obstacle on Mulcair’s path to power. Some valuable middle ground has been ceded by the Liberals and the Conservatives, and if the NDP seize it they can win the election. Doing so however means watering down past NDP policies in order to court the centrist voters who are now in play, which in turn carries the risk of generating a backlash in some of the more puritanical corners of the party. Thus we can expect Mulcair to be just as vague as his Liberal counterpart in terms of foreign policy, and in doing so attempt to glide on past NDP policy stances without necessarily having to state them anew. On the other side, the Conservatives will jump at every opportunity to reverse this subtle rebranding process by shining a spotlight on any hint of the NDP’s leftist credentials. Case in point is the swift response to NDP candidate Linda McQuaig’s comments on having to leave oil sands oil in the ground, which came right from the prime minister himself.

The unfortunate result to all this is we’re unlikely to see a real debate on Canadian foreign policy in the lead-up to October 19.

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