G8 Attack Reflects Poorly on Canada: Experts
by Jeff Davis
Embassy / Hill Times
Published July 15, 2009
Minutes before Mr. Harper was to address reporters for a final time at the end of this year's G8 summit in Italy, an assistant to the prime minister told reporters Liberal Leader Micael Ignatieff had suggested the G8 may soon be replaced by a new forum from which Canada would be excluded. When he appeared, Mr. Harper pounced on the comments, slamming Mr. Ignatieff for daring to imply Canada wouldn't be worthy of membership in influential fora.
"Mr. Ignatieff is supposed to be a Canadian," Mr. Harper told the media on Friday. "I don't think you go out and throw out ideas like this that are so obviously contrary to a country's interest and nobody else is advocating them.
"I think it's an irresponsible suggestion.... I would suggest he look carefully at these comments and withdraw those. Frankly, they'd be irresponsible coming from anybody, but they're particularly irresponsible coming from a senior Canadian parliamentarian."
As it turned out, the comments had actually been made by former deputy foreign minister Gordon Smith, now a professor at the University of Victoria. Mr. Harper, as has now been widely documented, was forced to apologize.
Although the misstep by the prime minister will likely make few waves with Canadians—most of whom are busy enjoying summertime—experts say it adds to a troubling pattern in Mr. Harper's approach to foreign policy. They say he seems content to miss opportunities to contribute to the international dialogue, instead commenting on internal, domestic politics that international journalists will have no interest in.
Last week's attack on Mr. Ignatieff is not the first time the Conservative government has broadcast attacks on their Liberal opponents from the international stage. At a climate change conference in Nairobi in 2006, then-environment minister Rona Ambrose told a room of international dignitaries that her government was appalled with the record of previous Canadian governments.
"When Canada's new government assumed office this year, we found an unacceptable situation," Ms. Ambrose said. "We found that measures to address climate change by previous Canadian governments were insufficient and unaccountable."
Ms. Ambrose's partisan attack surprised most observers and enraged the Liberals. Many criticized Ms. Ambrose for highlighting a negative and divided image of Canada at such a major conference. Attendees at the conference were reportedly surprised at the tone of her comments, and a Greenpeace Canada spokesperson called the speech "embarrassing."
For observers, it's the way Mr. Harper approaches foreign policy.
"Foreign policy is not [Mr. Harper's] main interest," said Errol Mendes, a professor of international law at the University of Ottawa. "It would be interesting to know how many average citizens of the G8 would know who our prime minister is, whereas they certainly knew who Trudeau was, even Mulroney. So the fact that he does not shine on the international stage does impact on us having profile."
Canwest News reporter David Akin said that when he follows the prime minister to such summits, the Canadian leader is so poorly known that photographers are constantly asking who Mr. Harper is.
Mr. Akin recalled that at the prime minister's first G8 Summit in St. Petersburg in 2006, Mr. Harper avoided the press for three entire days, even as every other G8 leader loudly trumpeted their messages to the international press gathered on site.
"He was so uncomfortable he was invisible, he physically looked smaller in that '06 summit...he seemed really out of his element," Mr. Akin said. "When you're travelling with him, there's never enough information about his activities, about who he's speaking to. The read-outs that we get from the PMO communications when he meets with other leaders are frustratingly bland and vague."
Journalist and author Andrew Cohen suggests Mr. Harper's performance and press coverage from the G8 may reflect Canada's diminished role in the world. Mr. Cohen questions what international issue Mr. Harper has associated himself and Canada with, and said it is not clear what it is that Canada is contributing.
"What struck me about this is that he was relentlessly and unnecessarily partisan," Mr. Cohen said. "And you wonder why he did it; it doesn't help him internationally and it doesn't help him at home...so why did he do it? Maybe because he just can't help himself.
"We will probably have to wait...before we ever know what kind of a prime minister he was in those summits, but my sense is if we were doing innovative things and we were as daring as once we were, we would know."
Shortly after Mr. Harper apologized for unfairly criticizing Mr. Ignatieff, saying "I regret the error and I apologize to Mr. Ignatieff for this error," his senior aide Dimitri Soudas also went to the press to apologize. Mr. Soudas, who has advised Mr. Harper since 2006, said he had passed on the erroneous information and advised the prime minister to comment on it in a press conference.
Despite Mr. Soudas taking the blame, a Canadian Press article compared Mr. Harper to a wolverine, whose partisan claws were viciously unleashed, the Toronto Star called the incident "a sour note on which to end the week," and Canwest News Service ran the headline "Harper's G8 performance scuttled by gaffe." Adding fuel to the fire throughout was Liberal Foreign Affairs critic Bob Rae who immediately issued a press release attacking Mr. Harper's leadership, and began fielding questions from reporters.
In the statement, Mr. Rae said the error "is reflective of the character of this Prime Minister who made the choice to continue his pattern of slinging mud at his opponents, this time on an international stage. It is no wonder that with this approach, Mr. Harper was shown to be out of step with his closest G8 partners on everything from climate change to African aid to the strategy in Afghanistan."
Whether or not Mr. Harper's misguided partisan tactics will cost Canada internationally remains to be seen, but for politics watchers in Canada, it reaffirms a negative image he's been trying to shake.
"Most people are paying very little attention," said Frank Graves, president of Ekos Research Associates polling firm, though he said he suspects Mr. Harper regrets the attack on Mr. Ignatieff, and the impression it may leave on the public.
"Why would he have offered up this gratuitous and what turns out to be erroneous critique of his competitor in Canada when he'd just done a reasonably good job otherwise?" Mr. Graves said. "That might reinforce this view that he has difficulty transcending partisan instincts."
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Posted by Fillibluster at 9:13 AM