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What's going on with Stéphane Dion?

by Tasha Kheiriddin (feat. Colin Robertson)

iPolitics
September 26, 2016

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was turning heads at the United Nations last week. His chief diplomat, Stéphane Dion, gets mostly eye-rolls these days.

Late last week, the foreign affairs minister appeared to directly contradict the prime minister on the state of discussions with China on a possible extradition treaty that would see Chinese fugitives returned to the mainland — and to China’s highly politicized justice system.

A day after Trudeau stood beside visiting Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and defended the decision to pursue talks, Dion snapped at a Globe and Mail reporter who had called for comment on the story: “Your paper should check the facts. There is no negotiation. To write like pretending it is, it is wrong. Stop that please.”

Retired diplomat Gar Pardy described the exchange in one word: “Bewildering.”

“I doubt ‘negotiations’ in the narrow sense of the word are on,” he told me. “It’s more like the two governments agreed to sit down and discuss (the parameters). But why we have this confusion doesn’t make any sense.”

Pardy wonders if language is the issue — specifically the word “negotiations”.

“Language is a bit of a problem for Dion … There’s no reason why he needs to speak in English — he can say what he wants to say in French — but I was surprised at the snappiness to the Globe and Mail. I have not seen something like this ever before.

“If you can’t get your act together on something, then you kind of wonder what else is going on.”

Other observers are a bit more charitable. Retired diplomat Colin Robertson, now a senior strategic advisor for McKenna, Long and Aldridge LLP, suggested that Dion’s comments may be a natural side effect of Trudeau’s commitment to a more cabinet-driven approach to government.

“Mr. Trudeau has sought to restore cabinet government and this will mean ministers take the lead in their portfolios. This is always complicated in foreign affairs where there is inevitable overlap between prime ministers and foreign ministers.”

Robertson went on to add that the episode might actually have a silver lining for Canada: “In dealing with the Chinese, who are often opaque, a bit of ambiguity on our part may not be a bad thing in advancing Canadian interests, especially when the game is long, as it usually is with the Chinese.”

But this isn’t the first time Dion has undermined the official government line as foreign affairs minister. When the Trudeau government decided to stick with a controversial arms deal with Saudi Arabia negotiated by the Stephen Harper government, both Dion and the PM said that the deal was done and Canada had no choice but to follow through. “We have said during the campaign — the prime minister has been very clear — that we will not cancel this contract or contracts that have been done under the previous government in general,” Dion told the CBC’s Power and Politics in January 2016.

As it turned out, this assertion was false: The deal had not been finalized, because doing so required the signing of export permits — by none other than the foreign minister. Months later, Dion quietly OK’d these in April 2016 — without Trudeau’s input. Dion saw nothing wrong with this: “It’s not a cabinet decision. It’s a minister’s decision,” he said during an editorial board meeting with The Globe and Mail.

In defence of that choice, Dion cited the example of Sweden, which had reneged on a military contract with the Saudi regime over human rights concerns. “Sweden did a bit the same about a contract and the reaction has been very harsh. Saudi Arabia reacted in a way that cut many things … They cancelled a contract and the reaction has been very harsh.”

That wasn’t entirely accurate, either. When contacted by the Globe, a spokeswoman for the Swedish Foreign Ministry insisted that “we have not experienced any economic effects due to the issue that you mention and our bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia are good.” While it is true that Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador and temporarily suspended business visas for Swedes after the incident, the paper reported that the two countries began normalizing relations just a few weeks later, and that there were no lasting consequences “other than a decline in military trade.”

The minister of foreign affairs is Canada’s chief diplomat. The job requires both the careful use of language and the maintenance of a unified front with the prime minister. Projecting an image of organization and strength is critical, especially on such a sensitive issue as the negotiation of an extradition treaty with China.

“An extradition treaty a fairly complex affair,” Pardy said. “It’s all based on issues of dual criminality — the Chinese cannot ask to extradite persons for a crime that is not a crime in Canada, and vice versa.”

In other words, this is a diplomatic dance of the highest order. The last thing anyone needs is a minister who keeps stepping on his partner’s toes. Dion needs to rein in his pedantic impulse to be uber-correct, and get better in sync with the PMO. If not, Trudeau would be wise to assign him a different dance card in the next cabinet shuffle.


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