Canada’s new team for global affairs

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The past couple of weeks have introduced an unusual dynamic into my life as a Canadian working in international policy circles. Following the election of a new federal government on October 19, won by Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party, many friends and colleagues from around the world have been energetically quizzing and congratulating me on the new government, even though I have no partisan affiliations. It’s as if people feel they are congratulating all of Canada for re-entering the global conversation.

International interest was most palpable when I attended the World Economic Forum’s annual Summit on the Global Agenda in Abu Dhabi in late October. In hallway conversation after hallway conversation, leaders from government, academia, business, and civil society were asking about how to interpret the election and how the Canadian government’s approach to the world might now change. Having reflected a bit on these two questions, the following are some overarching thoughts.

Why Did Trudeau Win?

It will be up to the real political scientists (like my former University of British Columbia professor Richard Johnston) to provide the rigorous analysis of the election. But for now I would argue that anyone who attributes the voting outcome to any single issue is fundamentally missing the point. As in so many countries, Canada’s politics are driven by many factors. A spectrum of dynamics jointly produced a clear Liberal victory, including:

  • Canada’s complex and diverse political geography, driven by a first-past-the-post electoral system and distinct front-line debates in each province and territory;
  • the not-uncommon public desire for change when any party has been in power for nearly a decade;
  • the national crisis of conscience that took shape when the tragic photo of a Syrian refugee boy dead on a beach drew rare election cycle attention to international humanitarian policy;
  • the game-theoretic voter behavior that seemed to take place amid a very tight three-way race, with Stephen Harper’s incumbent Conservatives competing against the historically union-linked New Democratic Party, led by Tom Mulcair, and the center-left Liberal Party led by Trudeau.  The majority of voters showed they wanted a change in government, and many of them were apparently waiting to see which alternative had the best chance of winning;
  • the Conservative party’s unusual attempt to raise ethnicity-related debates during the campaign, in a society that generally prides itself on its multiculturalism;
  • the Trudeau team’s upbeat and nearly mistake-free campaign, which implicitly diffused voter questions over time as to whether they were ready for the nation’s highest offices.

A new team for global affairs

Whatever the precise combination of factors that led to Team Trudeau’s victory, the new government is likely to take a much more proactive and multilateral approach to global affairs than its predecessor did. This is strongly suggested by the composition of the new federal cabinet, announced last week. Considerable attention has rightly focused on the fact that this is Canada’s first federal cabinet with gender parity. But it is also a cabinet with considerable international experience.

For example, out of 30 cabinet members, more than half have obtained academic degrees or considerable professional experience outside of Canada. Three were born in South Asia, including the new defense minister, Harjit Sajjan, a former army Lieutenant Colonel who was deployed three times in Afghanistan. Jane Philpot is the first medical doctor to be named Canada’s minister of health. She has also spent nearly a decade practicing medicine in Niger, a background that can only be helpful for tackling the imperative of strengthened global health systems. The new minister of transport even has extraterrestrial work experience: Marc Garneau was Canada’s first astronaut.

The allocation of portfolios more traditionally linked to international affairs sends strong messages too.  Stéphane Dion, former Liberal party leader and one-time environment minister, has been named minister of foreign affairs. He is a long-time climate policy champion, and will be leading a newly branded ministry of “Global Affairs Canada,” replacing the clunky former label of the amalgamated Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development. In one of his first public statements, Minister Dion said, “We have a role to play to make the world to be able to change the self-destructive development into a sustainable development, and I want to play this role as minister.” He could potentially assume a leading global role on the world’s new sustainable development goals for 2030.

Mr. Dion will certainly not be working alone. He is joined by Chrystia Freeland, the highly respected and internationally hyper-connected former journalist who takes the helm as trade minister in Global Affairs, during a pivotal moment in global trade negotiations. Marie-Claude Bibeau is the new minister for international development and La Francophonie, also based out of Global Affairs. She is a local business leader from Quebec who spent many years during the early part of her career working with the former Canadian International Development Agency.

Down the road in a separate but closely related ministry, Catherine McKenna has been appointed the newly named Minister of the Environment and Climate Change. A former human rights lawyer with experience in Timor-Leste and also in trade policy, McKenna knocked on 100,000 doors in the recent election, reportedly more than any other candidate in the country. As much as anyone, she embodies the new cabinet’s mindset of hard-working local plus high-minded global.

Will the new team bring new policies?

As with any new government, the central challenge is to translate political momentum into policy success. This will not be easy, since many of Canada’s international challenges are structural and extend well beyond simple matters of partisanship. Most poignantly, as Robert Greenhill and Megan McQuillan have recently shown, Canada has cut back its global resource allocations over the course of a generation, independent of political party in power.

The new government’s electoral platform paid little attention to the economic or financing questions that underpin much of global policy, so new international fiscal commitments are unlikely to take shape any time soon. The new ministers will undoubtedly come to find this frustrating. The good news is that many of them bring impressive backgrounds to the task. If they can persuade partners at home and abroad to adopt the scale and mix of investments needed to match the complex nature of the problems at hand, they will duly earn Canada the congratulations that so many people around the world are already showering on the country today.

John McArthur is Senior Fellow of Global Economy and Development at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C.