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In Depth

John Gray

Reality Check

Harper's cautious view of the world – and his new best friend

CBC News Online | April 4, 2006


John Gray John Gray has worked for a number of Canadian newspapers, including most recently more than 20 years with the Globe and Mail, where he served as Ottawa bureau chief, national editor, foreign editor, foreign correspondent and national correspondent.



After his successful visit with Canadian troops in Afghanistan, and then his apparently happy meeting with George W. Bush in Cancun, it seemed reasonable to expect that Stephen Harper would tie the reputation of his new government to Canada's place in the world.

But in the speech from the throne outlining the new government's agenda, the prime minister seems to be as determinedly sketchy about Canada's view of the world as he is about the government's plans at home.

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It was very much in the wishy-washy style of such occasions that the government promised to "work co-operatively with our friends and allies and constructively with the international community to advance common values and interests."

But the speech went beyond wishy-washy with the promise to "build stronger multilateral and bilateral relationships, starting with Canada's relationship with the United States, our best friend and largest trading partner."

An old neighbour, a new best friend

After a dozen years in which first Jean Chrétien and then Paul Martin did their best to be politely indifferent to the United States, Harper's language was a change. There would have been none of that "best friend" talk from the Liberals.

Whether the change in language means that Canadian troops would be dispatched to an Iraq war in the future is another question – the kind of question that throne speeches do not usually tackle, and certainly not this throne speech.

Even when the government seemed to want to say something concrete, the message was muffled in what one distinguished commentator once called Governor Generalities:

"More broadly, this government is committed to supporting Canada's core values of freedom, democracy, the rule of law and human rights around the world. In this regard, the government will support a more robust diplomatic role for Canada, a stronger military and a more effective use of Canadian aid dollars."

The promise of a stronger military

The surprise was that more was not made of the promise of "a stronger military" – surprising in the sense that Harper's Conservatives were the first party in years to make increased military spending a central part of its election campaign.

With a deft use of nationalism, Harper talked of sovereignty in the Arctic and the necessity of guaranteeing Canada's role in the North. There would have to be more troops and a lot more capital spending to ensure that the Canadian writ runs up to and past the Arctic islands.

The explanation of the throne speech's near silence on the military may be that in the election campaign, the Conservatives promised an increase of more than $5 billion over five years for the military, an amount that most critics thought was a low estimate.

Perhaps in the cold light of government, Harper wants to forget his enthusiasm for spending so much money, especially since the military is not as keen as the prime minister on Arctic icebreakers and massively expensive transport planes.

However, Harper moved firmly to remove any hint of hesitation about the role of Canadian troops in Afghanistan. New Democrat Leader Jack Layton wants a parliamentary debate about Afghanistan; Harper wants none of it:

"The dedicated Canadians in Afghanistan deserve all of our support as they risk their lives to defend our national interests, combat global terrorism and help the Afghan people make a new start as a free, democratic and peaceful country."

One of the arts of politics is the capacity to craft principles that even your opponents find difficult to oppose, such as when the throne speech talked of Canada's voice in the world: "Advancing our interests in a complex and sometimes dangerous world requires confidence and the independent capacity to defend our country's sovereignty and the security of our citizens." Even Jack Layton would find it hard to disagree with that.

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John Gray

John Gray has worked for a number of Canadian newspapers, including most recently more than 20 years with the Globe and Mail, where he served as Ottawa bureau chief, national editor, foreign editor, foreign correspondent and national correspondent.

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