Ambassadors around Ottawa are looking for clues to decipher the Conservative Party’s foreign policy, as leader Pierre Poilievre offers few hints of how he’d approach the world stage as prime minister.
In Ottawa, diplomats at several embassies describe feeling uncertain about whether Conservatives would stick to global climate commitments and continue staunchly supporting Ukraine.
They would only speak about the matter if they were not directly identified, citing the risk of compromising diplomatic relations.
Poilievre “is trying to establish his domestic economic narrative, and leaving heavy lifting on the foreign-policy side to others,” said Garry Keller, vice-president of lobby firm StrategyCorp.
Keller, who was chief of staff to former Conservative foreign minister John Baird, said it’s common for embassies to seek out party leaders of all stripes, and for opposition leaders to be harder to reach until an election is imminent.
Canadians don’t tend to vote for foreign-policy issues, he noted, saying Poilievre is focused on issues Canadians rank as top of mind in polling, such as housing and health care.
But Chris Alexander, an immigration minister under former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, argued Poilievre could be more forthcoming, given the impact of global forces like conflict and climate change.
“People have a right to hear more from the leader of the opposition,” he said.
Since becoming leader nearly a year ago, Poilievre has tailored some foreign-policy planks to diaspora communities in Canada, such as pledging to have an airline establish a direct flight from Canada to Amritsar, an Indian city that is the centre of the Sikh faith.
He has also sought to draw a contrast with the Liberal government by promising to be tougher on some foreign actors, such as listing Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terror group — a move cheered by Iranian-Canadian groups — and proposing a legislative update that would add more teeth to Canadian sanctions law.
But he has left some of the biggest foreign-policy topics to key MPs on his front bench.
Conservative foreign-affairs critic Michael Chong has called the Liberals weak on combating interference by adversaries, both before and after media reported on intelligence that his own family members in Hong Kong were targeted by a Chinese diplomat in Toronto.
Chong has called on Ottawa to expel diplomats from countries such as China and Russia in response to their alleged meddling in democratic processes and diaspora communities.
Tory foreign-aid critic Garnett Genuis has led the charge on the Conservatives’ support for weeding out slave labour from supply chains, singling out allegations of Uyghur mistreatment in China.
Genuis has argued the proposals fall in line with a Conservative vision of foreign policy based on Canadian principles, even if they could result in more expensive goods or diplomatic pushback.
And at a panel in March, deputy leader Melissa Lantsman hinted at broader Tory priorities.
“I want to see a foreign policy that actually is based on a Conservative vision. One of democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law, focused on our own security, and what we can give the world — because we’ve got a lot of it to give, and it’s all in the ground.”
She said during a conference held by the Canada Strong and Free Network that Canada should prioritize exporting oil and gas to help countries lower their use of more polluting fuels that enrich dictatorships. “We haven’t taken our own energy security seriously, and we haven’t used it as a tool of foreign policy.”
Lantsman suggested Canada could be a member of fewer international groups while ramping up its involvement in a select few, though she did not specify which: “You’ve got to pick the tables that you that you sit at more carefully.”
She also said Canada should focus on meeting the NATO military alliance target of spending two per cent of the country’s GDP on defence by boosting assets in the Arctic.
Meanwhile, the Tories have convinced the House to pass a bill that would let the CRTC more easily ban television channels from sanctioned countries.
If passed by the Senate, Bill C-281 would also compel the federal bureaucracy to regularly report on certain prisoners of conscience abroad, and allow for more human-rights violators to be sanctioned.
Keller said those bits and pieces of policy put Poilievre’s team into alignment with previous leader Erin O’Toole, who vowed in the 2021 election campaign to “replace virtue-signalling with a real international agenda” that takes a harder line at the United Nations against dictatorships. O’Toole’s platform also suggested bolstering trade with Africa and bettering Arctic collaboration with the U.S.
Keller noted that O’Toole’s foreign policy was heavily influenced by Harper-era foreign-policy adviser Shuvaloy Majumdar, who was elected last month as a Calgary MP. He said he expects Majumdar and Calgary MP Stephanie Kusie, who worked as a Canadian diplomat in Latin America and Texas, to help shape Poilievre’s approach.
In a statement, Poilievre’s office said he aims to restore Canada’s reputation through common sense, arguing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has weakened Canada’s global standing.
“Despite eight years of jet-setting around the world to meet celebrities and elites, Trudeau has only managed to leave a trail of embarrassment at taxpayer expense,” spokesman Sebastian Skamski wrote. “This Liberal government has failed our allies time and again, meaning they can’t trust us to be able to do our part.”
But on issues that matter to European ambassadors in Ottawa, Poilievre himself has said little — and that’s causing some anxiety. The lack of a clear commitment to Canada’s existing climate agreements has particularly concerned European allies, even if the Liberals have fallen short of their own pledges.
Diplomats also raised concerns about whether a Conservative government would maintain the current Liberals’ policy of unwavering support for Ukraine, despite signs that Republicans in the U.S. are turning away.
Harper was criticized in July for saying right-leaning political parties around the world should seek closer ties with the Hungarian government, which has become increasingly authoritarian over the past decade and says Ukraine should begin negotiations with Russia rather than continuing to fight back.
A search of parliamentary records suggests Poilievre has never spoken directly about the Ukraine invasion in the House of Commons — although he has called out Russia’s “unprovoked attack and brutal atrocities” in news releases and at a February rally.
Poilievre also riled up European allies in the first weeks of Russia’s full-scale invasion, chastising “weak” European governments for having “cowered” to Moscow and relied on Russian fuels.
Alexander said Poilievre is leaving too much of the talking to defence critic James Bezan.
“I have been worried that I didn’t see more visible, more proactive statements from him on Ukraine,” he said of the leader. “We could be fighting back against Canadian parochialism in politics, in the approach the opposition is taking across the board.”
To that end, Alexander said the Tories should release their own Indo-Pacific strategy to rival the Liberals’ existing plan, with more detail on how a Poilievre government would partner with specific countries to limit China’s influence.
“It’s just not enough to talk about Chinese interference in Canada; we need to talk about what China is doing in the world,” he said.
And the Conservatives could lay out a better narrative on how Canadian energy and climate policy can meet the future, he said, rather than “just hammering home a couple of talking points about a carbon tax.”
Alexander argued that overall, the Liberal government is leaving “a huge number of openings” for Tories to shine on foreign-policy topics — if Poilievre would only seize the moment.
“There’s an opening for us to finally get serious about our diplomacy, our military commitment, our leadership on trade and human rights in the Pacific. … That should be a major plank of a Tory platform going into the next election.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 7, 2023.
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