The money and politics behind Andrew Scheer’s foreign policy announcement

Let’s not pretend Andrew Scheer’s foreign-policy announcement was about foreign policy.

This was about money and politics. And it probably makes good politics for Mr. Scheer. Foreign aid isn’t popular. Mr. Scheer is saying he would cut foreign aid, but not only that, he’s saying he would use the money, $1.5-billion, on stuff a lot of people want more, like helping pay for tax breaks.

That’s why the longest explanation in the Conservatives’ foreign-policy backgrounder was about all 10 domestic policies they would fund by lopping a quarter off the aid budget. Or partly fund, to be precise, because slashing aid would pay for only a small fraction.

The foreign-aid cut wasn’t some budget-balancing asterisk in the footnotes. It was the marquee policy in an election-campaign announcement. That means the Tories think cutting foreign aid is a vote-winner.

But foreign policy? That was incidental.

The 18 measures in the party’s foreign-policy backgrounder were, with a few notable exceptions, mostly symbols that tell you what the Conservatives believe about the world rather than how they would affect it.

The aid policy told people the Conservatives would take aid from places that don’t need it or shouldn’t get it, and give it to you, the voter.

More than that: Some of the money, Mr. Scheer said on Tuesday, goes to the baddest of the bad. He said that under Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Canada sent bilateral aid to “prop up foreign dictatorships.” The backgrounder said it went to North Korea, Iran and Russia.

And it would be shocking if Canada actually sent aid cheques to the governments of Kim Jong-un or Vladimir Putin, or to a regime in Tehran with whom Canada doesn’t have diplomatic relations.

But most bilateral aid doesn’t go to governments. It goes to organizations running projects. Canada sent more than $100-million in humanitarian assistance to Syria in 2017-18, but not to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Official statistics say much smaller sums went to aid in North Korea, Iran and Russia. But when asked, Mr. Scheer’s press aides did not offer any example of money going to the governments.

A spokesman for the Global Affairs Department said that Canada provides no bilateral assurance to Iran, North Korea or Russia. The sums in statistical tables are contributions to multilateral humanitarian assistance such as food aid, or combatting diseases, and efforts to monitor Iran’s compliance with a nuclear agreement and to counter North Koreas’s nuclear weapons programs; Canada’s only aid in Russia was $200,000 to the Global Equality program to help LGBTQ people under threat.

Nothing is wrong with another part of the Conservatives’ aid policy – a promise to refocus aid away from middle-income and higher-income countries. But that doesn’t mean such aid is wasted: Relatively well-off countries such as Colombia can have severe problems, such as a large number of people displaced by conflict.

Political parties often promise to refocus aid, but in power, spread money around. Mr. Scheer promised a Conservative government would increase military and other aid to Ukraine – there are a million Ukrainian-Canadians, after all – but that country, which received $51-million in 2017-18, is in the middle- and higher-income category he proposes to cut off.

The rest of the foreign policy is “heavy on symbols, light on details,” in the words of Fen Hampson, the Chancellor’s professor at Carleton University in Ottawa.

This is an election campaign, so it’s not surprising Mr. Scheer is out to paint Mr. Trudeau as weak on the world stage, using the Liberal Leader’s botched trip to India as illustration. But he should then show us substantial ideas on serious questions. How would Canada deal with a bullying China with an economy that can’t be ignored? Or diversify trade? Compensate for the dwindling U.S. interest in supporting old alliances?

Mr. Scheer promised to get tough on China by pulling out of the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Fine, but the Parliamentary Budget Officer points out that would mean withdrawing $9-million a year; China’s GDP is $16-trillion. It would not bring Beijing to its knees. The Conservative Leader promised to renew ties with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the North American Aerospace Defence Command, without saying what that means.

There were some real policies. Mr. Scheer would open talks to enter the U.S. ballistic-missile-defence program and put corporate takeovers by foreign state-owned enterprises through a national-security review.

But really, it was about using foreign policy for symbols, and for domestic politics.

Follow Campbell Clark on Twitter @camrclark

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