Trade and foreign policy discussion 'lacklustre' in leaders' debate: experts
OTTAWA - Experts say Monday night's debate lacked discussion on major trade and foreign policy issues that have significantly affected the last four years of the Liberals’ mandate, and will continue to impact the government formed after the election.
"You don’t expect foreign policy to be a major part in the conversation, but you do expect it to be there," said Maxwell Cameron, acting director of the University of British Columbia’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs.
The first official English-language leaders’ debate focused on five themes: affordability and economic security, environment and energy, Indigenous issues, national and global leadership, and polarization, human rights and immigration.
It also featured all six party leaders – a first in the campaign.
"We’re living through a time in history when the entire rules-based international order is coming apart," said Cameron. "It’s an incredibly fraught moment for the world and our debate was remarkably insular and parochial."
While discussions on issues like China-Canada relations, a potential expansion of free trade with Ukraine, Saudi Arabia and the Liberals’ stalled review of a multibillion-dollar arms deal, or the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership are important and would be welcomed by political junkies and trade experts alike, few Canadians direct their vote based on international issues, said Etienne Rainville, a senior consultant at Earnscliffe strategy group.
"The overall theme of this election has been affordability and it’s been affordability because that’s what people have identified that that’s what voters care about," said Rainville. "This election we don’t have an overriding foreign policy question except for maybe how the future prime minister deals with [Donald] Trump."
But even at that, discussions about the U.S. president and his policies were minimal. Rainville said that’s partly because no party leader has a clear answer for how to better navigate the U.S.-Canada relationship.
During the first English-language debate hosted by Maclean’s and CityTV, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May took aim at Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, accusing him of bending over backwards to appeal to Trump, or as she put it, play the role of "Charlie McCarthy" to Trump’s "ventriloquist."
At that debate and on Monday, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh made only brief references to Trump when suggesting he’d do a better job of standing up to the U.S. leader when defending Canadian values abroad.
"Leadership is about who you’re fighting for, the choices you make, and whether you’re doing what’s right for the people, and when it comes to international affairs, standing up to Trump, making sure we fight to build a better trade agreement that actually puts Canadians first," Singh said on Monday night.
Cameron said he was surprised that the Liberals didn’t more aggressively tout their track record on the global stage.
"Justin Trudeau’s reputation has been somewhat tarnished in Canada recently by the SNC-Lavalin case and the blackface issue, but he could really be trying to drive benefit from the perception that he’s one of the few sane international leaders today."
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, for his part, doubled down on his party’s campaign promise to slash foreign aid by 25 per cent to focus on homegrown spending.