What can we say? ITQ just can’t resist the opportunity to liveblog a former prime minister even when there aren’t mysterious payments from shadowy arms-dealers-turned-pasta-lobbyists involved.
Greetings from West Block, home of the Foreign Affairs committee, and before today’s meeting gets underway, ITQ would like to send out a big Happy Commonwealth Day to all Her Majesty’s loyal subjects out there. Actually, as it turns out, so would committee chair Kevin Sorenson, who probably wasn’t nearly as oblivious as ITQ and knew what day it was before spotting the Union Jack flapping proudly from a Centre Block flagposts.
Anyway, that’s enough of my rambling, because the first panel of witnesses is up – Donald McCrae, Stephen Clarkson and Carl Grenier.
Professor Clarkson gets things started with his opening statement, which begins, frankly, on a bit of a downer:
when it comes to Canada/US relations, Canada “has lost its signficance” for any number of reasons — the end of the Cold War, the changing priorities of the US administration, the American “paranoia” over terrorism – there have been some “big shifts” in how we deal with the US, and even the dawn of the O-ra won’t necessarily put Canada at the top of the list as far as the American administration goes.
Canada is “in the same boat as Mexico”, to put it bluntly – the Department of Homeland Security is just as fretful over its northern border. We have to get over this happy delusion that we have a “special relationship” with the United States, he suggests.
Mexico may be more trouble than Canada, but it’s also more important, is the upshot of Clarkson’s thesis, although I suspect his reference to the “futile” mission in Afghanistan may have lost him a sizeable chunk of credibility with the government side of the table, at the very least (and maybe a few Liberals as well).
On to Grenier, after the chair reminds the witnesses that they only have an hour before the next round of witnesses; he, too, discusses the “erosion” of the Canada/US relationship, pointing to softwood, in particular, as an example. We did improve our access to the American market, he notes, and also protected the supply management system, but *safer* access — a better way to resolve trade disputes — aye, there’s the rub.
Wow — on a whim — sorry, this witness is a little on the dry side, and so far, he hasn’t said much that Clarkson didn’t say first, although he’s far more obsessed with the softwood lumber saga — anyway, while still listening diligently to Carl Grenier and his thoughts on the difficulty of unscrambling of the omelette, I happened to check out the list of motions up for consideration once the witnesses have left the table, and there are thirteen – six of which will be introduced by Deepak Obhrai, including one on the Arctic, another on Zimbabwe, still others on the Organization of American States, Canadian NGOs and human trafficking. There’s no way they’re going to get through all that work before the summer recess.
Okay, McCrae is up now, and he, too, wants to talk dispute resolution; he seems a very tiny bit keener on NAFTA than the other two witnesses, or at least the mechanisms that it brought into being.
The NDP’s Paul Dewar, unsurprisingly, looks unconvinced by McRae’s descent in NAFTA dispute resolution apologia; at least he’s paying attention. I’m pretty sure most of the rest of the members have tuned out. Also, McRae has what I think may be a British accent, although it could be a mostly genericized Antipodean flavour as well. Still, he can celebrate Commonwealth Day too. I wonder if anyone thought to bring cupcakes?
“You have to be ready to lose if you go before a court or tribunal,” he reminds the room.
It transpires that McRae’s shining moment of fame on the international trade negotiation front came during the heyday of the Pacific salmon fishery; he brings it up as a perfect example of how varied, multifront discussions can work to Canada’s advantage.
And – questions. The chair warns members that they’ll likely only manage one round, and hands the floor over to the Liberals – Bernard Patry and Glen Pearson, to be specific, who are splitting their time. Patry wants to hear more about how to make Obama love us and cherish us and see us as the most important international relationship the US has, and is it just me or are we starting to sound a little stalker-y here? Anyway, Clarkson reminds the committee of how very, very marginalized Canada is, and will likely remain, and Grenier points out that the new president has very little experience in trade relations.
At last, a possible explanation Clarkson’s unexpectedly Mexico-centric view of Canada-US relations: he spends his winters there, as it turns out. I can’t study the issue without doing so, he explains, as everyone in the room silently wonders why he chooses to do in the *winter*. That *is* a puzzler. Anyway, he makes a good case for his recommendation that Canada use it to our advantage, and Don McCrae suggests that Canada “stop being so defensive” about the Arctic, at least as far as what the Americans think of our claims. Just do whatever it is we want to do, and don’t obsess over the US response, he suggests.
Moving to the Bloc Quebecois, Joanne Deschamps *also* wants to know how the new American administration should influence Canadian foreign policy, and Clarkson points out that actually, the government is already reviewing certain elements thereof, such as Afghanistan, where we will be “negotiating with certain elements of the Taliban” — that did not get a very warm response from Conservative rookie Terence Young, who is filling in today.
And now Clarkson is talking about Mexico again; specifically, the notion of Canada and Mexico teaming up to negotiate with the US.
Peter Goldring is up, and — yes! He did it! He managed to work the conversation back around to his longtime dream of bringing Turks and Caicos into Confederation, this time as a means of avoiding the “thickened” US border and ship straight to Mexico. Lois Brown, meanwhile, wonders why not being seen as a troublemaker means that Canada is largely overlooked by the US.
In response, Clarkson tells a convoluted story about Mike Harris – the former premier, that is – and the Great Lakes, and how sometimes, making waves isn’t such a bad thing. Grenier, meanwhile, points out to Goldring that one of the few advantages Canada has is the ability to transport goods within North America by truck, as opposed to shipping it through Atlantic or Pacific ports. “I don’t think it’s a very good idea,” he says. McCrae, meanwhile, reminds the committee that being the bad guys during the Pacific salmon dispute didn’t serve Canada terribly well at all.
Paul Dewar muses that it’s too soon to tell whether the post-9/11 security measures actually *have* resulted in a safer society — here or in the US — and wonders what it would take to get a “win” with the Obama administration; the big stumbling block, Clarkson tells him, is “the environmental catastrophe that is the oilsands”.
Also, Joe Clark is here — he slipped in without fanfare, and is currently sporting a jaunty rose-coloured tie as he sorts through his papers, occasionally pausing to make a note.
The consensus amongst the trio of witnesses – who did their collective best to mollify Paul Dewar over the potential resurrection of the dreaded SPP – is that Canada needs to clean up our act, environmentally speaking, before we have a hope of winning Obama’s heart.
Okay, that’s all for the pre-show – a one minute break, and it’s Joe Time!
After a friendly swarming by opposition and government MPs alike, Joe Clark takes his seat – yes, it says “Rt. Hon” on his nameplate, in the usual teeny tiny font – and begins with his trademark chortle – actually, it’s more of a chough, really; a combination chuckle/cough – before going into classic Joe The Surprisingly Passionate Orator mode. He has handouts – charts, graphs, bullet points – and he has a definite mission, as far as today’s meeting goes. Canada is losing influence – economically, politically, militarily, diplomatically – but we could reverse this trend by renewing our “activist” role on the world stage.
Our standing in DC, he tells the committee, gives us ‘real clout’ abroad; when we seem to have the ear of the American administration — any administration — we’re seen as having influence over the United States.
We also have the ability to build relations with emerging cultures that are becoming a crucial power. Economic power, he notes, represents size; diplomatic power involves creativity and agility. More charts — I don’t actually have a copy of his presentation, so it’s a bit tough for me to follow along. I get the gist, though — we’re spending far more on military activities than development or diplomacy, and that’s bad.
I feel kind of sorry for the guy from the South Carolina “Canada Office” — who I suspect is actually a Canadian, now that I think about it — since I’m not sure how you follow up on this tirade. He looks like he’s enjoying the speech, anyway.
“The challenge for Canada,” he says in a concludingish voice, “is to marry mandate with imagination”. He gives examples – the Kimberley process, South Africa – before handing the floor over to Andre Leblanc, who is now trapped into giving an all too obviously boilerplate booster speech about the mighty economic powerhouse that is South Carolina; even he seems to realize how mismatched this particular panel is, and he hastily draws to a close.
And – questions! Glen Pearson is up for the Liberals, and he wonders how Canada can “best leverage” resources – economic and otherwise. This prompts a general “what have we become” handwringing by Clark, who bemoans the lack of institutionally-targeted idealism, and the “grinding down” of all those hardworking civil servants whose programs have fallen into disrepute (or at the very least, stony disdain) as far as public opinion.
That reply pretty much used up all Glen Pearson’s time, so it’s on to Patry for the second half, and he, too, tosses Clark enough of an open-ended query that the former PM can pick up where he left off, at least as far as the root cause of the current malaise. “You’ll rarely hear me praise Lloyd Axworthy,” he comments somewhat owlishly, but he put Canada at the forefront of the fight against landmines. That’s the kind of thing he’s talking about, really – he wants to see Canada get involved in specific initiatives, whether practical or pie-in-the-skyish.
The Bloc Quebecois’ Paul Crete is intrigued by his view on the growing imbalance between military efforts and those that focus on diplomacy and development — the other two Ds, as they’re known, and why couldn’t *he* have headed up the Afghanistan panel instead of John Manley? Or at least taken Pam Wallin’s spot. Anyway, Crete wonders if there’s a particular area where we could stand out, and Clark downplays the idea of a “grand gesture” — there are, however, any number of initiatives in the Caribbean and other regions in which Canada could take a leadership role.
Crete throws Leblanc a pity question — what could Canada do to improve reputations with the new administration? — and he hems and haws before admitting that he doesn’t know much about what Canada does *at the moment*, but that Canada-US- based groups — partnerships, forums, associations, committees, that sort of thing – seem to be fairly effective.
In response to Joanne Deschamps’ thoughts on Africa, Clark acknowledges that the current state of affairs as far as our policy is disappointing; he “doesn’t understand” why CIDA has decided to shift its focus away from Africa, and isn’t sure why it happened.
Aha, Terence Young – the government-side rookie previously referenced as looking less than delighted by Clarkson’s assessment of the Afghanistan mission as “futile”, and almost as dismissive, if not slightly offended by Clark’s criticism of the balance between military and non-military mission spending.
He reminds the former prime minister that governing is about “tough decisions”, but Clark doesn’t take the bait; he praises the military for displaying its heretofore unrealized skills — building schools for girls and other development -building and other non-defence projects — but notes that there is, in fact, a debate over whether or not military forces should be engaged in non-military activities. Clark does his best to reassure the Conservatives at the table that he supports all sides of the mission, including the defence of those schools and bridges, but I’m not sure how well it worked.
Paul Dewar seems delighted by Clark’s overall approach, particularly when he gives members of Parliament – yes, just like you guys! – the credit for bringing about the Canada-US accord on Acid Rain — they “worked the lines” with congressional counterparts, and made it happen, although the minister was responsible for signing on the dotted line.
Back to Team Government, and Lois Brown, who wants to hear more about non-governmental organizations – the Gates Foundation, the Red Cross, World Vision – that are seemingly so much swifter getting aid on the ground when there is a humanitarian crisis; has the money been shifted from Foreign Affairs to CIDA, and from there to these NGOs? Despite ending her question with a shoutout to Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat, which, she suggests, might back up that theory, the answer, alas, is no – at least, as far as Clark is concerned. It may be happening in some countries, but not here.
Another pity question for poor Leblanc from Patry – something about trade, I think; the answer was “open more consulates” – and a far more all-encompassing one for Clark on building relations with emerging countries. The former PM points to the close ties between Canada and India – the emerging country’s emerging country, really – as well as Brazil, except for those occasional bursts of vicious trade warring – as well as China, of course, which is “less open” to Canada than it once was because it didn’t quite understand the change in policy – that was, I think, an oblique shot at this government, although I suppose he could be talking about Chretien or Martin. That could change, he notes.
Kevin Sorenson has an intriguing suggestion – well, a question about a possible suggestion, I guess – should we merge Foreign Affairs and CIDA? Clark thinks most emphatically not; he believes there *is* a contemporary role for CIDA – we just have to find it.
Paul Heinbecker, it transpires, was asked the very same question last week, and he was unequivocably in favour, according to the chair. Gotcha? I’m not sure who is odd witness out here.
Jim Abbott seems a touch testy over some of Clark’s comments, and as the parliamentary secretary on duty, it falls to him to defend the government’s actions on Africa, and basically making Clark feel guilty for suggesting that this PM was “shortchanging” Africa. Clark, who seems beatifically unbothered by the needling, notes that if *he* were still a parliamentarian, and involved in partisan politics, he’d say that no one would have thought he was suggesting any such thing before Abbott made his intervention. He agrees that it hasn’t affected grants to NGOs and faith groups, but very nearly thumps the table to make his point, which is that Canada can get a lot of bang for a few bucks in Africa.
Sorenson gets to wrap things up – it is, of course, the chair’s prorogative to ask the final question – and wonders if we’re moving towards a personality-based foreign policy, one that changes with the leaders. Clark suggests that the answer may be to restore and refresh the institutional expertise and experience – at Foreign Affairs, or wherever the discussions are centred. Unfortunately, that’s all the time left; I could swear that there was a hint of regret as Sorenson gavelled the meeting to an end.