Canadian diplomacy has traditionally been carried out by diplomats and governments. Engaging, particularly in Asia, is about building strong and secure friendships. Business is secondary to ensuring that you have the confidence and support of others.
Nothing illustrates this better than parliamentary diplomacy. This is a relatively new dimension to the field of international engagement, but it is one that I believe is critical to advancing key public policy issues — from free trade agreements to human rights.
The interdependence of states has created the global environment for greater interaction and communication among parliamentarians. It is essential that in an age when events around the globe have an immediate impact on Canada — debt crisis in Europe, tsunamis in the Indian Ocean or political tensions in the Middle East — parliamentarians need to be more engaged and more politically savvy than ever before.
There is a historic tradition in Canada concerning parliamentary diplomacy dating back to 1911 and the founding of the Empire Parliamentary Association. Canada along with four other countries met to exchange ideas and this body has evolved into the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.
These parliamentary organizations are considered to be independent of government.
They are all-party organizations and reflect both Houses of Parliament. To ensure that these organizations conduct their business according to established principles of good governance, the Joint Interparliamentary Council (JIC) was established. It operates under the authority of the two Speakers and is responsible for determining all budgetary and administrative matters relating to the associations. The JIC establishes the general policies within which the groups must operate. Allotted annual funds to support association activities, the JIC reviews the work plans and budgets submitted by each group and determines the level of funding each will receive.
Nowhere can the need and success of parliamentary associations be shown more clearly than in our dealing with the Asia Pacific Region. The relationship between Canada and the region has historically been one of cooperation, and we continue to hold this relationship in very high regard. Economic and trade cooperation is clearly a vital part of the relationship, and the recognition that increased Canadian investment is a critical component is important for Canadian companies, consumers and workers. In order to invest, companies need to be able to count on sound investment rules that provide transparency, predictability, stability and protection of Canadian companies. For that reason, Canada has consistently supported a strong rules-based system.
Canada is known for its belief in the dignity of the individual, human rights and a value system that is admired for the fact that we are honest and, thoughtful in our assessments of how other countries operate. Canadian parliamentarians do not like to preach about values and beliefs but prefer to concentrate their attention on discussions of the technical and practical. This is based on the view that “top down democracy” does not work, and that only with a solid foundation will it take root. This was true of our support of the post-Cambodia Khmer Rouge period, when Canada invested heavily in the 1993 Commune Elections, to help Cambodia develop its fledgling democracy.
Having done parliamentary workshops with Cambodian MPs, I know the value of peer teaching and providing practical answers to individuals who are struggling to establish parliamentary oversight as well as to respond to basic needs of constituents.
Canadian parliamentarians recognize that in an area of global integration, security problems have a ripple effect, affecting the lives of those in the country where they occur, but also influencing policy and behaviour in other parts of the world. Regional conflicts, energy security, health pandemics, drug trafficking — all these issues can have an impact on Canada’s security, as well as that of our partners. Consequently, we recognize that there is a need to work closely with our partners to address situations that might lead to problems either here or elsewhere.
There is no question that Canadian parliamentarians have much to offer the international community, and this was certainly reflected in the 2007 report of the Standing Committee of Foreign Affairs of the House of Commons, “Advancing Canada’s Role in International Support for Democratic Development,” of which I was a member.
Canadian parliamentarians recognize that in an area of global integration, security problems have a ripple effect, affecting the lives of those in the country where they occur, but also influencing policy and behaviour in other parts of the world.
The first recommendation in the report was this:
Canada should continue to provide assistance to democratic development abroad, based on a broad conception of democracy that includes attention to the system of governance as a whole, the full range of international human rights — including socio-economic and cultural rights — and the full participation of citizens, including the most disadvantaged, in the processes of democracy. Over the long term, Canadian policy on support for democratic development should also aim to improve the quality and sustainability of democracy in the recipient countries.
These are critical areas where Canadian parliamentarians have stressed governance and human rights issues, and channelling specific support in this regard was essential if democratic capacity-building was to take place.
In November of 2007, the Harper government issued its response entitled A New Focus on Democracy Support. Essentially, the government endorsed the overall findings of the committee that democracy support should become a key international priority and, to that end, that policy and programs should be strengthened with respect to improved knowledge, better coordination among organizations, improved evaluation and communication of results and strengthened institutional capacity.
As far as new institutions were concerned, Ottawa announced that a panel of experts would be commissioned to assess the capacity of existing Canadian organizations to “deliver effective, high quality and responsive democracy support.”
Unfortunately, we are no closer today than we were in 2007. Nothing substantive has happened and the issue of democracy and institutional building seems as elusive as ever. It would appear that there is no political will or political appetite for it.
However, constituents will increasingly demand of their parliamentarians that they be engaged The Asia Pacific region will continue to be a critical and speak out on issues on the international stage. This will continue as immigration increases and people seek positions from their elected MPs on issues such as human rights in China and the Syrian crisis. There will, therefore, be even more of a necessity for MPs and parliamentary associations to play a greater role and to assert this role both in debates in the House of Commons and in helping to influence “good public policy” options for Canada internationally.
The Asia Pacific region will continue to be a critical source of many new immigrants, and it will be imperative that we not only do our homework in positioning Canada to take advantage of this excellent resource — language, business customs and strategic knowledge — but provide the necessary resources for parliamentarians to be able to engage in promoting our national interests in a coherent and thoughtful manner.
The challenge for the Canadian parliamentarians and parliamentary associations is that in a world of increasing globalization and integration, where security issues in the Asia Pacific region continue to play out, there is a ripple effect which goes beyond the borders of states in the region. Recently we have seen debris wash up on the shores of Alaska from the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The impact of that devastation is no longer confined to television but is found on the shores of the United States and Canada.
Strengthening the roles of MPs and their associations will be imperative if we are to have an effective and clear voice on the international stage as a nation.