In The Media

For the next prime minister, international issues will define first 90 days

by George Petrolekas

The Globe and Mail
October 19, 2015

Federal party leaders have outlined actions for their first days in power. Many deal with international trade and defence relationships which will be tested in earnest in the first three months of power.

Any victor in a minority Parliament will be dependent on another party to secure the confidence of the House. To achieve this, accords reached by necessity may very well affect how domestic politics play out on the international stage.

Will parliamentary support be contingent on renegotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, protecting supply management or a promise to withdraw from the military aspects of the anti-Islamic State coalition?

A new government will be negotiating these policies, while trying to form government and being briefed by the civil service.

Unlike the United States, which has a transition period before the inauguration of a new president, in Canada convention is that transfer of power occurs within days or a week or two, meaning a new government may not be sworn in, let alone begin to briefed by the public service, until the first week of November.

All parties have an idea of who would occupy key portfolios but won’t know who survived the election until Oct 20. Ministers will lose, star candidates may not be elected and the cabinet must be balanced by regional and gender representation.

Ministerial policy advisers must be named and an entirely new Prime Minister’s Office staffed, which will have to refine policy while discovering how government works.

Yet the prime minister-designate will have to attend three major international conferences in the first six weeks of power while the government is set.

The week of Nov. 7 is the G20 meeting in Turkey, which will undoubtably be influenced by the recent terror attack in Ankara, and where Islamist financing is on the agenda. Undoubtably, the refugee crisis will also be discussed. It will be the first major international conference since the Russian incursion in Syria – what is discussed off the agenda will be as important as what is on the agenda.

Key allies, and even antagonists, will ask for bilateral meetings to gauge the new Prime Minister’s character, or to divine what policy promises truly mean, e.g., what does quitting the military campaign against IS truly mean – certainly the U.S. would want to discuss this.

The APEC conference in Manila follows a week later on Pacific economic and energy issues. Many of the TPP partner nations are members and would wish to know if the accord is threatened and where initiatives like the Northern Gateway pipeline stand. Chinese actions in the South China Sea will form a backdrop, especially as the U.S. and China have been exchanging pointed barbs on freedom of navigation lately, and the TPP is seen by some as an economic containment of China. Subjects that the Prime Minister will have little time to prepare for. If Canadian hostages are still being held by terrorists in the Philippines, this would introduce another dimension for the PM.

A week after APEC is the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta on Nov. 27-29. With the Queen attending this meeting, Canada would be hard-pressed to pass, having skipped the last one in Sri Lanka. Commonwealth meetings are generally not weighty, but commitments to increasing foreign aid and reverting to peacekeeping will certainly be tested, given the number of African nations present.

Immediately thereafter will be the COP 21 conference in Paris (the UN conference on climate change). Climate change, greenhouse-gas emissions, the proposed transformation from a carbon economy have been key issues for both opposition parties – to change what they’ve called “Canada’s perception as a laggard.” The public service will have had little time to convert promises to potential policy, so COP 21 promises to be a platform of Canadian intent as opposed to binding commitments.

This bring us to the second week of December. It might be possible for a Speech from the Throne to occur before the traditional parliamentary break in mid-December, but in all likelihood Canadians won’t see the specifics of what any new government will wish to accomplish, and a budget date, until mid-January, only then knowing whether we’ll have a winter election or not.

Such is the reality of governing.

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