CJA’s Vice-President Chris Cobb writes from Canada:
From Canada looking out, newly minted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was something of a hit at the Malta CHOGM in late November 2015. As often-repeated TV coverage showed, he was certainly a hit with Queen Elizabeth who also adored the company of Trudeau’s late father, Pierre, a Commonwealth sceptic, turned enthusiastic supporter. Justin Trudeau’s Malta performance was predictably refreshing and positive but it was only a beginning. How deeply and enthusiastically the youthful Canadian leader embraces the Commonwealth during the next few years will depend greatly on how he and new Secretary-General Baroness Patricia Scotland get along.
Mr Trudeau is untested on the foreign affairs front but if his statements of intent are any indication, he will not be content to embrace a Commonwealth that turns a blind eye to member nations who abuse their own people and the organisation’s own values. It is incontrovertible that the relationship between Canada and the Commonwealth had nowhere to go but up. Relations between the government of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma soured over Sri Lanka’s hosting of the 2013 CHOGM and never recovered. Prime Minister Harper refused to attend the Sri Lankan summit, saying doing so would effectively be an en-dorsement of the country’s appalling human rights record but denying it had anything to do with a politically influential Canadian Tamil lobby. Mr Harper sent a low-level delegation and pulled $20 million in discretionary funding from its Commonwealth contributions. (After the UK, Canada is the second highest contributor to the Commonwealth Secretariat and its voluntary funds).
Former Canadian Senator Hugh Segal, who was Harper’s special Commonwealth envoy and had witnessed the breakdown of Harper-Sharma relations first hand, says Trudeau and the Commonwealth should be an ideal fit. “We have a government now that is interested in soft power – development, education, human rights, education and all those important priorities,” said Mr Segal.” “The Commonwealth is a non-military, soft power organization with tremendous potential,” he added. “It is an important instrument for development and reflective of a kinder, gentler approach to foreign policy, which appears to be where this (Canadian) government is headed.”
A brief reminder of Canada-Commonwealth history is a good indication as any of how the future might unfold. The first Commonwealth Secretary General, Arnold Smith, was Canadian and a succession of federal govern-ments in Ottawa have used the organization – or, better put, affiliation – with significant success. Most notable in modern Canadian-Commonwealth history was the Brian Mulroney-Joe Clark campaign that spearheaded the push to successfully rid South Africa of apartheid, in the face of aggressive opposition from the late British PM Margaret Thatcher. Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives were following a Commonwealth trail blazed by Pierre Trudeau who hosted the second Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in 1973 and succeeded, ever so diplomatically, in taking a fusty, overly bureaucratic group by the scruff of the neck and shaking off the dust.
During the Ottawa summit, he whisked all his fellow leaders to Mt. Tremblant where they met informally in what became known as The Retreat and has been a fixture at CHOGMs ever since. It is at the retreats, without delegations, that Commonwealth leaders have made some of their more important decisions. Aside from introducing a more informal atmosphere to the summits, Trudeau also helped design what is now the Commonwealth flag but in 1973 was simply decals flying from official CHOGM cars. Commonwealth critics have not been shy in saying that the organisation needs significant reform if it is going to survive. If Baroness Scotland shows herself to be the determined reformer, she will have no greater supporter than Justin Trudeau.