Will Foreign Policy Frame the Ballot in 2015?

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Canada’s next federal election is less than a year away. The platforms of the national parties are already taking shape, with the ruling Conservatives touting a budget surplus, family income splitting, and richer child tax benefits and credits. The Official Opposition NDP has rolled out a national daycare plan, while the poll-leading Liberals are promising job creation and infrastructure investments. It has all the makings of a very conventional Canadian federal election, with all the contenders seeking to bribe voters with their own money.

Of course, any number of wild cards could pop up between now and next October. The trial of Senator Mike Duffy, for example, could go very badly for the Tories. Plunging oil prices could take Canada’s petro-dollar to depths it hasn’t seen in years, causing traumatic economic shocks. There’s even speculation that Prime Minister Stephen Harper will announce he’s leaving early in the New Year, setting the stage for a Conservative leadership contest and throwing all the current political calculations up in the air.

Don’t bet on this last one though, because there’s another issue bidding to dominate the 2015 ballot frame, and it plays to Harper’s longest, strongest suit – foreign policy.

A little-travelled man who showed scant interest in foreign policy during his early political career, Harper cut an unlikely figure as future global statesman. But as Prime Minister, he immediately vowed to “restore Canada’s status and influence on the world stage,” and seized every opportunity to position himself as a bold, principled and rather bellicose international leader whose middle-power country was determined to “punch above its weight.”

To that end, he presided over Canada’s outsized role in the Afghanistan War during its bloodiest phase, staked out a pro-Israel position far beyond that of any of his Canadian predecessors (and most of his international contemporaries), played a big role in scuppering the Kyoto climate change Accord (while promoting Canada as a “global energy superpower”), hectored Beijing on human rights more than once, , lectured the world on how to properly manage the Great Recession, metaphorically challenged Russian President Vladimir Putin to an Inuit leg-wrestling match over control of the Arctic, routinely snubbed the “despots and dictators” at the UN, and roamed the earth with pen in hand, signing free trade deals with any country that would bite.

Nearly ten years into his reign, far more Canadians loathe Harper than love him, but it’s fair to say a majority respects him, however grudgingly, as the second-longest serving leader in the G8 (trailing only Germany’s Angela Merkel by a few months), and a pretty tough hombre in a thug-infested world.

Serendipitously for Harper, the pre-writ world of 2014-15 is an unusually volatile, scary place, inhabited by Islamic State terrorists and beheaders in the Middle East and their deranged, drug-addled acolytes at home, a Russian Anschluss of Eastern Ukraine, a minor plague in Africa, precarious economic conditions almost everywhere but North America, and an extremely lame-duck president in Washington who makes Harper look like Harry Truman.

All that said, however, history and conventional wisdom hold that foreign policy almost never plays a role in Canadian federal elections. The great Free Trade election of 1988 was a notable exception (as was the 1911 free trade election), and Lester Pearson beat John Diefenbaker in 1963 partly over the issue of basing U.S. nuclear missiles in Canada. Other than that, foreign policy only dominated elections during the world wars.

“Canadians don’t ordinarily think about foreign and defence policy at election times,” says Jack Granatstein, the prolific author, military historian and Fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI). “Daycare or tax cuts seem more important than soldiers or fighter jets…Will the coming election be different? Likely not, despite events. Voters will weigh the party’s economic promises more than positions on foreign affairs.”

Other veteran political soothsayers aren’t so sure. University of Calgary Professor Barry Cooper, a Fellow at CDFAI as well as the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, thinks Canadians may well go into the voting booth next fall asking themselves which party and leader will keep the country safe from all the international bogeymen. “I agree that for the first time in living memory, foreign policy may play an important role in the next general election,” says Cooper. “Apart from the remarkably theatrical violence in the world, foreign policy has come to prominence in Canada in part because of the feckless leadership, or rather, lack of leadership, provided by the Americans over the past 6 years.”

Cooper believes an election fought over foreign affairs would benefit Harper and the Conservatives because they have a track record of actions that largely aligned with public opinion on the Afghanistan and Libyan missions, the more recent air campaign against Islamic State in northern Iraq, and Putin’s neo-imperialism. Plus the PM has never missed an opportunity to publicly celebrate the history and heroism of “our brave men and women in the Canadian Forces.” It’s good policy and good politics, says Cooper: “The interesting thing is, for Canadians, that Prime Minister Harper has restored a degree of pride in the country by stepping up and actually committing troops and equipment.”

Get used to foreign policy in federal elections, suggests Janice Gross Stein, Director of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. “The separation between the domestic and the international is fading as globalization deepens. Almost every big foreign issue has domestic consequences and important domestic policies are linked to what happens in the world.

“The world has come crashing in on Canada,” adds Stein, “as new kinds of threats to security and new opportunities to diversify trade and investment emerge as the global balance of power shifts. Walling ourselves off from the world is not an option.”

Politicians have understood since Machiavelli the power of fear to move votes. The Liberals under Jean Chretien and Paul Martin used fear-mongering successfully as part of their “hidden agenda” campaigns against the Conservative, Alliance and Reform parties during their reign from 1993 to 2006. The Tories, in turn, used widespread insecurities about the economy to win over voters in 2008 and 2011.

Will fear of terrorists and Putin and Ebola and other things that go bump on the nightly news help the Conservatives in 2015? In September, an Ipsos Reid poll for Global News had the Liberals leading the Tories nationally by seven percent (38 percent – 31 percent). This had been roughly the spread in most opinion polls for months. But when respondents were asked which political party would be the best choice to manage Canada’s foreign policy, the Tories jumped to 42 percent, followed by the Liberals at 32 percent and the NDP at 26 percent. In the weeks that followed, amid an unrelenting barrage of frightful news from abroad capped by October’s IS-inspired attacks in Quebec and Ottawa, other polls indicated that the gap between the Liberals and Conservatives in national voting intentions had narrowed.

Abacus Data’s September 22 poll about Harper’s approach to foreign policy also showed a preponderance of Canadians onside with it. 49 percent supported his stance on Canada-US relations, while 27 percent were opposed. 45 percent supported his position to use the military to combat Islamic terrorism, while 32 percent were against. 52 percent supported the decision to send CF-18s to pound IS in northern Iraq. Even on the bitterly divisive Israel-Palestine file, 36 percent agreed with the PM’s point of view versus 33 percent who disagreed.

Taube and Bunner - Harper's winning conditions - Canada's support for the government on key foreign policy issues

As Abacus’ Bruce Anderson and David Coletto pointed out, “The number of voters that agree with [Harper] on current international issues is substantially higher than the number of people who say they are planning on voting Conservative.” In their opinion, the data “indicates that this has potential to be of political value, if foreign policy turns out to matter more in the next election than it usually does.” Which gives a lot of incentive to Tory election strategists to make it so.

Their main objective, as always, will be to create a clear, stark choice between Harper and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, based on the simple calculation that they can win another majority with 40-45 percent of the vote as long as the two left-of-centre parties more-or-less equally split the rest. They will certainly highlight real and invented contrasts on tax cuts vs tax hikes, direct child benefits vs national day care, and experience and competence vs inexperience and incompetence.

But depending on what their polling, focus groups, and political instincts are telling them, the Tories may also decide to highlight contrasts on foreign policy, the military and terrorism. And those contrasts will be stark indeed. Both the New Democrats and the Liberals voted against sending CF-18s to Iraq, and both favoured political and humanitarian interventions instead. Trudeau also ventured that Canada should not be “whipping out our CF-18s to show how big they are,” a comment that is likely to figure prominently in Conservative ads questioning the Liberal leader’s credibility.

Responding to the killings of Canadian soldiers in Quebec and Ottawa by unstable young Canadian men who aspired to jihadism, Harper was quick to proclaim the perpetrators as terrorists. Mulcair demurred, saying “the information that is now available to the public comforts me in my choice not to use the word terrorism in describing the act that took place here.” Much to the disappointment of Tory character assassins, no doubt, Trudeau agreed these were acts of terrorism, because the RCMP said they were. Deferred responsibility for his position aside, it was a clearer denunciation of terrorism than his initial response to last year’s terrorist bombings during the Boston Marathon, when Trudeau said, “We have to look at the root causes…we don’t know now if it was terrorism or a single crazy or a domestic issue or a foreign issue.”

The polling data from Ipsos and Abacus suggests that Harper’s direct, confrontational messaging on foreign policy resonates more positively with Canadians than the more pacific, nuanced approaches favoured by Trudeau and Mulcair. Conservative spin doctors certainly seem to think so, for they worked very hard to make sure the media reported the PM’s stern words to Putin at the November G20 conference in Australia: “I guess I’ll shake your hand but I have only one thing to say to you: You need to get out of Ukraine.”

In 1965 Prime Minister Lester Pearson said as much to President Lyndon Johnson about U.S. bombing in Vietnam and the story that got out was that the big Texan grabbed the smaller Canadian by the lapels and told him to “stop pissing on my rug.” It didn’t seem to hurt Pearson or the Liberals politically at the time, perhaps because most Canadians opposed the war in Vietnam and subscribed to Pearsonian foreign policy ideals that positioned Canada as the world’s pre-eminent peacekeeper.

But that was a half century ago. How Canadians see the world and our place in it seems to have changed, and the 2015 election may speak volumes about both.

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