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.


Cannon’s chance

  1. Just to note that Obama has mentioned in his speeches the idea of mandating specific goals for alternative energy diversion and non-carbon automobile engines.

    Whether he means it or can actually do it is a whole other discussion.

  2. Hard to disagree with Wells on this one. I think he’s laid out a pretty strong.

    Meanwhile the Conservatives in Quebec continue their elusive search for a Quebec Lieutenant. Verner, Bernier, Fortier, Cannon have all come up short. Christian Paradis is the current aspirant to the throne but we’ll see if he’s up to this difficult task.


    Obama has also promised to lower taxes for the middle class, a reversal of global warming, peace in our time and a chicken in every pot.

    But as you said “whether he means it or can actually do it is a whole other discussion.”

    You may win the prize for understatement of the year my friend.

  3. Second line in my comment above is missing the word ‘case’ at the end.

  4. “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations – entangling alliances with none.” Thomas Jefferson

    I have never understood what the big deal is about Foreign Affairs. As long as we are trading with other Nations, and avoiding alliances, I don’t think it matters who our Foreign Affairs Minister is. The diplomatic circuit is just one massive con job that allows PM/Presidents to give plum jobs to their supporters without giving them much responsibility.

  5. “I have never understood what the big deal is about Foreign Affairs. As long as we are trading with other Nations, and avoiding alliances, I don’t think it matters who our Foreign Affairs Minister is. ”

    Avoiding alliances…so I guess you think we should quit NATO and leave Afghanistan forthwith?

  6. “I have never understood what the big deal is about Foreign Affairs. As long as we are trading with other Nations, and avoiding alliances, I don’t think it matters who our Foreign Affairs Minister is. The diplomatic circuit is just one massive con job that allows PM/Presidents to give plum jobs to their supporters without giving them much responsibility.”

    I prefer Jarrid’s point:

    “Second line in my comment above is missing the word ‘case’ at the end.”

  7. Besides overestimating Kenney’s importance or relevance or success in convincing at least one journalist of both, if EMERSON gets appointed to Washington as Canada’s Ambassador to a new Obama administration, won’t he be the FOREIGN/TRADE minister at least 80% of the time?

    Wells underestimates how important global warming & environment will be in the new Obama admin. Both the Senate and the House will have overwhelming Democratic majorities. The Democratic party base is heavily pro-environment. Just because Obama isn’t mentioning it, doesn’t mean they are not going to have serious legislation after Jan 20.

    There is already a bill in the Senate that seeks to punish countries who are not “pro environment” enough. Expect the anti-trade forces to use the environment to push many of their protectionist policies through.

  8. You left out Jim Flaherty as one of the most important members of the foreign policy team. He will have a key role in steering us through the global financial crisis.

    Moreoever, ever since we joined the G-7 in 1975 (which became the G-8 in 1998 in Denver) our most important foreign policy files have resided in the PCO (except for financial issues which are still dealt with by the G-7 and managed by Finance and the BAnk of Canada).

    The management of G-7/G-8 issues in the PCO is not something new to Harper. It has been so ever since Trudeau. Consequently, the Foreign Minister is left to deal with a lot of files that are not at the top of our priority list. Joe Clark and Lloyd Axworthy were good at it because they concentrated on files that were of secondary importance to Canada.

    Other key players on foreign files of interest to Canada are the Minister of Public Safety, Peter Van Loan and AgriFood Minister Gerry Ritz.

  9. A good opening salvo in the much needed debate on Canada’s foreign and defence policies, a debate that was never engaged during the election.
    PM Harper, despite Paul Well’s disclaimer and his musings about the hierarchy in Cabinet, will be his own Minister of Foreign Affairs. All the rest is virtual reality or as they used to say, window dressing.
    PM Harper will operate in the tradition of Macdonald, Laurier, Borden, and King when it comes to foreign and defence policies. He will consult various members of his Cabinet as well as confidants outside Cabinet, but only when doing so suits his interests and his domestic agenda. He trusts no one but himself.
    Monsieur Cannon is a mere figurehead, a symbolic gesture to les Québécois et Québécoises. His appointment is seen as such by the Québécois media and political and intellectual classes. Read the Quebec media and you will realize that its scribes and pundits are now portraying Quebec as the big looser in the election and, most certainly, in the makeup of Harper’s old/new Cabinet.
    They are right in portraying Cannon in this way but one must also say that Harper was given little or no choice. Disgruntled Québécois voters gave him very little new material to work with.
    The majority of Québécois voters heaped scorn on Harper’s ill-conceived programs to bribe them with billions of Canadian tax dollars. His expensive tax transfer and equalization transfers to Québec – a billion dollars before the last provincial election – make Chrétien’s ill-conceived sponsorship program look like mere chicken feed. I doubt that Harper will try to help his soul-mate Jean Charest out in the coming provincial election.
    As for the US election results, I can assure you that PM Harper will be all sweetness and light once US voters opt for President Obama. He will do everything to ingratiate himself with President Obama and his entourage despite their deep differences over NAFTA and the environment. PM Harper will also be convinced by President Obama to reconsider his ill-conceived decision, made in the heat of the election in the hope of garning Québécois votes, to withdraw the Canadian Armed Forces from Afghanistan in 2011.

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