Activists have high hopes for foreign affairs
it’s not every day that the fed-eral Liberals in Ottawa do something that makes activists and lefties — even Svend Robinson — erupt in happiness and joy. But so it was when downtown Toronto MP Bill Graham got the surprise nod to become Canada’s minister of foreign affairs.The former chair of the House of Commons all-party committee on foreign affairs is carrying some big expectations to his new job, mostly as a consequence of his close relations with international solidarity activists.
Robinson, the NDP’s critic for foreign affairs, credits Graham, for example, with steering the committee to make progressive recommendations on matters like refining the sanctions against Iraq to reduce their impact on the general population.
“I’ve attended international conferences with him as well,” says Robinson, “and we’ve spoken out on a number of issues together, from the same perspective. I think his track record overall has been good, within the constraints of being a Liberal MP.”
But can the new minister with the nice-guy reputation deliver the goods — or has Graham just been installed as a figurehead to answer fears that the feds have sold out to the Americans? No one knows, though many fear he lacks the stature to overcome the conservatizing Chretien influence.
It’s not that Graham was ever a flaming radical or that NGOs always got their way at his committee. But he did run meetings in a civilized way, almost as if he were conducting a graduate seminar back at U of T law school, where he once taught. He’s so darned polite, you can have a disagreement with him and still feel he’s heard you. Maybe it’s that politesse that allowed Graham to support Paul Martin’s leadership aspirations and still get a key portfolio in Chretien’s cabinet.
And perhaps it explains how Graham — a staunch free trade supporter — can be so well liked by those who hold the opposite view, including Gerry Barr, president of the Canadian Council for International Cooperation.
“When Bill was in the chair, you were pretty assured of a fair hearing,” Barr says “There was no attempt to brush aside positions that were critical or alternative to the government’s.”
Barr is already making a mental list of the things he’d like to get some action on from the new minister, one of which is the amount of money the rich countries are spending on development in poor countries.
“It’s an area of catastrophic under- performance by the developed world,” says Barr, recalling that two years ago industrialized countries committed to universal access to basic education and advances in health and women’s rights.
But it’s an open question whether Graham will have the clout to get his colleagues at the cabinet table to move on such issues. Warren Allman, now president of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, knows from being a Liberal minister himself back in the 70s that you don’t always come out of cabinet meetings with what you want. The new minister, he says, will have more luck if he, like former minister Lloyd Axworthy, learns to work with NGOs and not against them.
As NGOs become ever more sophisticated and part of international networks, they can be the source of independent information if a minister wants an alternative view to what’s coming from his own bureaucracy. And they can be a source of pressure when the minister can’t get what he wants around the cabinet table.
“On several issues,” Allmand says, “Axworthy achieved success because he worked with NGOs and civil society, for example on land mines and the International Criminal Court. He appreciated that, and Bill does, too.”
But there is one area, Allmand says, where Graham will be at a disadvantage compared to Axworthy, who had had extensive cabinet experience under two PMs before he found himself in the foreign affairs job. It’s a point also made by Tory leader Joe Clark, who finds neither rhyme nor reason in current Canadian foreign policy. Too many ministers, too many trial balloons, says Joe.
Most seriously, Clark tells NOW, Canuck policy seems to be made these days in response to what the Americans want, rather than what’s good for Canada, and Graham is not the guy to change that.
“He has a lot of knowledge and skill and probably personal respect,” Clark says. “But I’ve been concerned from the moment of his appointment that he won’t have the weight of experience and standing you sometimes need to prevail on foreign policy.”
When you look around the cabinet table and see Paul Martin, you know there’s one strong minister in charge of economic policy, Clark says. But ex-foreign minister John Manley still controls a chunk of policy that deals with border security. And Pierre Pettigrew’s in charge of trade. “Who’s on first?” Clark asks.
Of course, Graham has heard the talk, and in an interview with NOW he discounts some of the dismissiveness.
“I’m responsible for foreign affairs, and it’s me who’s going to be talking to Colin Powell (U.S. secretary of state, the Yanks’ foreign minister equivalent), not John Manley, so I will be the voice of Canada on foreign affairs.”
But, he continues, “it’s going to have to be a cooperative effort between myself, the prime minister and to some extent Mr. Manley. I’m not worried about being a junior partner to John Manley, that’s not a problem.”
One thing on the new minister’s mind is Canada’s relationship with future trading partners if the controversial Free Trade Area of the Americas is implemented. “If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen in a way that deals with the environment and human rights and labour standards and all those issues we discussed around the Quebec summit.”
It’s that kind of talk that fuels great expectations for his tenure, I tell him.
“That’s a bit scary,” he says, “because there’s a limited amount you can deliver.” Best to keep those NGO phone numbers handy. With a file from Scott Anderson