The Good, the Bad and the Ugly at Global Affairs Canada

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly at Global Affairs Canada

Justin Trudeau’s government starts its second mandate with a new look:  slightly more subdued;  more engaged on pressing national issues;  seemingly less prone to putting communications ahead of policy, and more inclined to political realism rather than the naïve sloganeering that marked its first term. 


The government also seems committed to letting ministers do their jobs, although the instinctive urge for Prime Minister’s Office to exercise control will prove hard to shed.  The implications of these changes for Global Affairs Canada (GAC) come in a package that is good, bad and ugly at the same time.

The good news is that GAC has a new, dynamic, talented Foreign Minister, committed to the job.  François-Philippe Champagne will not be a name known to most Canadians, certainly not to Anglophones.  His emergence from the business world to the front bench of Liberal ranks has been quick.  In two months the fluently trilingual (English, French and Italian) member from Shawinigan has made a notable impact as an able communicator of Canadian views, from the Huawei challenge to global health issues.

Within GAC, in which Champagne shifted ministerial portfolios, from International Trade to Foreign Affairs, he has already reinforced a strong reputation for policy work and as a “quick study” on new issues.  In contrast to a predecessor that was rarely in her office and not inclined to policy discussions, Champagne is present, visible and active.  He also seems to relish foreign policy challenges, at a time when Canadian views are long on platitudes but short of strategic sense, from Russia to the Middle East, to the challenge of China.      


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This dollop of good news has to be balanced against the bad news, which comes in a pair of core conundrums.  The first is a mandate letter that touches the rhetorical bases but lacks a real appreciation of Canada’s current standing in the world and is virtually silent on the dangers of a global leadership vacuum in the age of Trump.  Presumably, a classified version of the mandate letter is franker, filling in the blank spaces.  If not, it’s Champagne’s job to put some analytical muscle on these issues over the next few years and develop strategies that will safeguard Canadian interests at a time of doubt and dangerous drift.

Mismanagement of human resources for two decades has destroyed much of the Canadian foreign service

The second part of the bad news conundrum is GAC’s continuing weakness in its ability to deliver on its core mandate. The problem isn’t funding; it’s the Department’s byzantine structure and management incompetence, which defy almost any modern precepts of public administration.  Mismanagement of human resources for two decades has destroyed much of the Canadian foreign service, and GAC now finds itself weak on analytical capacity, woefully lacking in linguistic and regional expertise, and virtually incapacitated by a propensity for endless meetings, consultations and discussions, where issues are talked to death without decisions. 

François-Philippe Champagne (Open Canada: Fair Use)

It’s difficult to task Champagne to place Canada at the forefront of global governance when GAC can’t even govern itself.  The Minister needs to act on this public service disaster, possibly with the help of the relevant House of Commons and Senate committees, possibly with outside assistance.  In all fairness, GAC shares many of the problems of Canada’s current public service.  But that’s also the most important reason for not relying on public service to sort this out itself.

It’s difficult to task Champagne to place Canada at the forefront of global governance when GAC can’t even govern itself. 

The ugly part of Canadian foreign policy is the component in the mandate letter giving the Foreign Minister leadership of “Canada’s United Nations Security Council campaign.”  The authors of the mandate letter knew by mid-2019 that the Canadian bid for a Council seat, at an election in a few months’ time, was in serious trouble, largely as a consequence of inactivity and inattention during the Government’s first mandate. Canada now finds itself a long way back, third place in a three-country race for two seats (with Norway and Ireland as our opponents). 

The most sensible option in November 2019, was to pull Canada out of the race. A plausible explanation was then available:  given its minority situation, the Government would focus its energies on domestic issues, leaving its Council bid for the future. With that option discarded, the Government has essentially rolled the dice, hoping either that it can pull a rabbit out of the hat, or that a defeat will not damage its standing among Canadians.


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Champagne has responded by doing the right things, seizing the Security Council candidacy with an energy lacking in the Government’s first term.  The Prime Minister has also rolled up his sleeves, somewhat belatedly. Yet a real question is whether GAC or the Government is armed with the right tools to win an election.  These campaigns aren’t popularity contests, and issues like aid programs, voting records, or an embassy presence were precisely where the Harper Government stumbled in 2010.  Does GAC have the dexterity to repair our reputation in Africa or among Middle East states?  Does the Government have the will to back this campaign with action?  And can any of this be done in three to four months?

For the first time since the Second World War, Canada can’t count on many friends abroad. 

If Canada loses the election, Champagne will be stuck with the communications fall-out.  But he has inherited an albatross bought by someone else.

The new Foreign Minister already knows that Canada’s real foreign policy challenges aren’t to be found in his mandate letter nor the Security Council campaign, win or lose.  For the first time since the Second World War, Canada can’t count on many friends abroad.  We have poor relations with Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, Iran and Venezuela, at a time when the United States has vacated its global leadership role, Britain is searching for a new international vocation, and key countries of the European Union are absorbed with their own regional problems.  These are challenges of a magnitude never seen before, and they won’t be addressed by the bland words and minor institution-building suggested in the mandate letter, nor by the calls for a foreign policy review now hitting the media.  What is required is steady, determined and imaginative stewardship at a time when there are lots of pot-holes dotting the Canadian foreign policy landscape.  Champagne can make, or break, his name on his success in addressing these challenges.

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