Cannon’s chance

On Thursday after the cabinet shuffle I was served up as the speaker at a lunch for a dozen foreign diplomats stationed in Ottawa. I spoke disjointedly for 10 minutes and then they asked questions. Many were about the new foreign-policy team of Lawrence Cannon and Stockwell Day (who’s at Trade).

I said a few things. First, David Emerson sure is gone. In cabinet-table disputes about how to deal with China, it’s hard to imagine Emerson and Day landed very often on the same side of the question. With the Beijing Olympics and Emerson’s pro-China instincts both in the past, it’s hard to see who would object to a return to a more confrontational relationship with China.

Second, it’s damned near impossible to imagine Lawrence Cannon leading that conversation in any direction. Or indeed any other conversation on any topic. He’s been in politics forever and has never impressed anyone with the force of his thinking on topics of high statecraft. If he is an heir to Pearson or Axworthy or Joe Clark or whoever your favourite foreign minister is, here’s his chance to prove it. Exceeding expectations shouldn’t be too hard.

Again: Canada has had eight foreign ministers in just over eight years. There is no reason for Canada’s foreign minister to be taken seriously if he is Random Guy Who Won’t Be At Next Year’s Meeting. At this point in the conversation somebody can usually be found to say, “but the PM runs foreign policy so it doesn’t matter who has the title.” This is one of those things that sound sophisticated but aren’t. The PM is physically trapped in Ottawa for most of the parliamentary year, has domestic imperatives when he does travel outside Ottawa, and misses most of the big meetings where global players coordinate their responses to assorted crises. A good foreign minister acts for Canada when the PM can’t be there to do so. Stephen Harper’s consistent refusal to hire impressive foreign ministers reflects only his own insecurity.

Finally I told the diplomats that, since Stockwell Day is Stockwell Day and Lawrence Cannon isn’t even interesting enough to be Stockwell Day, the most important interlocutor in Harper’s Ottawa for any foreign goverment is Jason Kenney, the new minister for multiculturalism and immigration. Obviously he has new responsibilities and will be less free to attend every reception on the embassy circuit. But Kenney still has special responsibility for ensuring his party is well-regarded by immigrant communities. That means he’ll need to be aware of, and sensitive to, dozens of countries’ interests on dozens of files. And unlike many others, Kenney has the PM’s ear and a demonstrated history of modest but real success in carrying out his assignments.

If the foreign and trade ministers have no particular clout and the immigration minister has more, this is only partially a by-product of the Harper cabinet-making style. It’s also a reflection of the kind of country Canada is. Unlike, say, Norway or France, countries whose interaction with the world mostly takes place out in the world, Canada’s interactions with the world take place largely on Canadian soil. It’s an accident of the personalities involved that Harper’s new cabinet will reflect that division of labour.

There’s one more file that will lead Canada’s foreign policy in the next several months: the environment.

I keep running into Conservatives who are convinced Jim Prentice’s assignment to Environment is a punishment. It’s a difficult file, the Conservatives can never get credit for managing it, and any action Prentice does take will be felt in the oil patch — where he hopes to finance any future run for the leadership. Plus apparently the distribution of cabinet-committee assignments clips Prentice’s wings considerably. I think there’s probably something to all that. It fits with previous Harper cabinet assignments — MacKay and Bernier to Foreign Affairs.

But Prentice will have an important assignment for all that. Harper’s comments after the cabinet shuffle hinted at what it is when he talked about balancing the economy and the environment. The new U.S. administration will be crucial to both. My suspicion, confirmed by Conservatives I’ve chatted with, is that Prentice’s mandate letter tells him to keep Canada’s policy on greenhouse gases closely harmonized with that of a new Obama administration.

Probably this will be easy work. It wasn’t widely noted, but Obama spent almost no time talking about global warming or about serious attempts to slow or remedy it. So if he doesn’t do much on the file, he provides cover for Harper. If he does, then matching his moves — getting Canada into what would otherwise be a U.S.-only carbon market, for instance — protects Canada from a competitive disadvantage. As a really nice bonus, it also makes Harper hard to touch politically. “I built a 21st-century green economy with Barack Obama. What did the Liberals ever accomplish?”

So there’s your foreign policy team: Lawrence Cannon, Stockwell Day, Jason Kenney and Jim Prentice. In reverse order of importance.

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