The Munk Leaders’ Debate was supposed to be about foreign policy, but at many times it was really about a three-man horse race. That race was about which progressive horse could finish first, or whether the conservative horse would end up winning by solidifying his base with the fear of terrorists and Putin.
Only in a few precious moments that one of the three rose above the party position to talk about values, even when it was risky for him to do so.
Canada’s place in the world and its ability to show what a middle power can do to meet the challenges of the 21st Century were not really a focus of the debate. While the moderator tried to get deeper ideas and positions on the challenges of Canada’s effective participation in multilateralism, refugees, climate change, security and terrorism, all three men focused on defending their parties’ positions, aimed at specific constituencies. Even the issue that will probably touch the majority of Canadians — the impact of international trade agreements such the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) or the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) — seemed to either be given short shrift or the key issues seemed to be avoided. The fact that the imminent signing of the TPP could have huge impacts on the automotive sector and the dairy industry in Canada seemed secondary to scoring points in the horse race.
It was only in a few precious moments that one of the three rose above the party position to talk about values, even when it was risky for him to do so. Justin Trudeau did so in defending his party’s position against Bill C-24, which would differentiate between Canadian citizens and deprive dual-nationals of their citizenship on conviction of certain terrorist and other offences. The risky and passionate defence of equal citizenship as a fundamental Canadian value seemed linked to Trudeau’s strong positions for receiving more refugees from the troubled Middle East while balancing security concerns, and for returning Canada to the traditional peacekeeping and non-combat training roles for our armed forces in the Middle East and elsewhere. While limited resources may stymie these ambitions in a Trudeau government, at least it was a call for a return to the “honest and compassionate broker/helper role” in global affairs.
While Tom Mulcair tried to emulate the progressive agenda stated with flair by Trudeau, often there was an attempt to diminish his progressive rival by ungracious retorts such as “If you can’t stand up to Harper on C-51 how can you stand up to Putin?” Ungracious, because even President Obama is having difficulty standing up to Putin over Syria and Ukraine. Indeed, the growing threat of Russia’s Putin teaming up with China’s President Xi along with Iran on several fronts from the Ukraine, to the Middle East to the South and East China Seas — an alliance that would threaten the post-WWII global peace and security order on several fronts vital to Canada — was totally absent from the debate. The global rule of law is severely under threat on multiple fronts and needs a little more leadership from formerly well-regarded middle powers like Canada.
The expected role of the Conservative horse, in the form of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, was predictable. His focus was on tying almost all parts of the debate to his emphasis on security, fighting terrorism, using the combat forces of Canada while also not engaging in “headline-grabbing” positions on refugees or climate change. It is a strategy that does not hope to win the hearts of the majority of Canadians, just enough of them to slide into a minority government if a majority is beyond his grasp.
While it was one of the better debates of this election period, it did little to prepare Canadians and the future government of whichever political stripe for the huge challenges facing Canada and the rest of the world in an increasingly disorderly global stage.