Matt Gurney: Freeland lays out the terms upon which her government should be judged
The deputy PM's speech proposed a thoughtful, sober proposal for adapting to the new global reality ... and the Liberals aren't doing any of it.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland went to Washington this week, to give a speech at the Brookings Institution. It is a very interesting speech. Truly — it's interesting. You should read it.
Is it a good speech, though?
In some ways, yes. You could even go so far as to say it's a very good speech. Freeland lays out a stark but convincing critique of more than 30 years of Western foreign policy and economic assumptions, and offers some worthwhile Canadian initiatives that seek to address what we got wrong. We were wrong to believe that history had ended, Freeland said, and must now accept that we're going to have to fight for the world we want to live in, and to win hearts and minds. We can't just sit around and wait for the arc of history to bend things our way — we must work consciously and deliberately with our allies to make the Western alliance stronger, richer and safer, better able to withstand the hostility of our enemies and win over the undecideds of the world.
That's the good stuff. There is, however, some bad news.
Reading Freeland's speech provoked a mixture of weird feelings. There were moments where I found myself nodding approvingly and scoffing skeptically at the same time. The point here isn't to quibble about the content of the speech — I do have some quibbles, but for the sake of argument, let's assume that the speech has laid out an absolutely perfect plan, it's just absolutely flawless, and what Freeland said is what we ought to be doing, down to the last detail.
But does anyone think we'll actually do it? And how seriously should we take the views of a party that seem to be rather late to the eureka moment Freeland is sharing with the free world? Hell, in some cases, Freeland is setting out stuff in her speech that Canada is not only failing to do, but of which Canada is currently doing the opposite.
The example of a big promise that a lot of people jumped on was when Freeland talked about exports of Canadian energy and other strategic materials to needy allies. If you'll forgive a long quote, I think it's instructive here to get it directly in Freeland's own words (these are as delivered, not as written, but the written version was pretty close). My emphasis added in bold:
[C]rucially, we must then be prepared to spend some domestic political capital in the name of economic security for our democratic partners. The EU set a powerful example during the COVID pandemic, when European vaccine makers honoured their contracts with non-European allies. Canada remembers. Canada must — and will — show similar generosity in fast-tracking, for example, the energy and mining projects our allies need to heat their homes and to manufacture electric vehicles.
To which my reply is: oh, we will, will we?
Freeland's comments above came in for particular scrutiny, for reasons I suspect are pretty obvious — anything touching on energy gets a lot of attention, for the political risks alone. And much of the reaction has indeed been through the lens of our own fraught domestic politics. Paul Wells, writing about the same speech, cited a government source who mused that Steven Guilbeault, our Climate Change and Environment Minister, probably didn't much like that particular passage.
My own immediate response was similar; a CPC friend of mine expressed my view pretty closely when he quipped that Freeland was just copying and pasting her private text messages to the environment minister directly into her foreign policy speeches. I'm wondering if Freeland had to travel all the way to Washington to deliver that particular line, which may well have been aimed at a very, very limited audience back in Ottawa. Like, maybe a dozen people total, tops.
In any case, there's two huge reasons for automatic skepticism. Canada has not established that it has much interest in building much more infrastructure to expand exports of energy beyond the expansion of the TMX pipeline, as this would run counter to its carbon-reduction goals and environmental posturing. Even if we did want to expand our export capacity, it's far from clear we're capable of it. We aren't exactly a country known for getting it done, and that seems especially true with energy projects.
The Globe's Adam Radwanski, noting my skepticism on Twitter, helpfully pointed me to this article, which he wrote in August. He had interviewed federal Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, and wrote afterward that Germany really is interested in Canadian hydrogen, and Canada really is interested in providing it. Radwanski, though, rightly noted that we haven't been doing a bang-up job on following through on our various visions, and that we are currently reviewing our review processes to see where we can do better.
So we're going to spend some domestic political capital
to help draw the democratic allies together, eh? That sounds great.
But what if they want to sell us some cheese or fancy butter?
Reviewing the reviews, though described literally and factually in Radwanski's piece, unadorned by any scorn or snark, jumped out at me right away as a perfect summation of the problem with Freeland's speech. We aren't really into the doing, so much as the talking and the reviewing. Hell, once we've completed reviewing the reviews, perhaps a supreme court justice can review the review of the reviews? That's how we signal seriousness, right?
Kidding aside, it’s a real problem — the very day this column was being prepared for publication, the Financial Post was reporting on an Australian company walking away from two rare-earth mining projects in Quebec due to regulatory barriers (specifically, over Indigenous consultation). There are other stories like this on a regular basis. Shall we just add it to the pile of things needing a review?
Freeland's speech is full of little examples like this, where the value of her ideas collides bodily with the reality of her government’s competency problems. She is saying the right things. She is also saying the things that her government could already have been doing, but either hasn't wanted to or isn't capable of actually pulling off.
So we're going to spend some domestic political capital to help draw the democratic allies together, eh? That sounds great. But what if they want to sell us some cheese or fancy butter? Are we going to spend some domestic political capital on that, or nah? Freeland says we must "deepen and expand" NATO and our other alliances, which also sounds super, but we're already seeing signs that our allies are increasingly cutting us out of the loop and forming new Canada-free forums because we simply aren't interested in deepening or expanding anything, and don't add anything but an extra meal tab when we show up for the family photo. Freeland says that adapting to our changing world order is "one of our most urgent tasks." Okay! Again, that sounds fantastic, but are we going to do a defence policy review? A foreign policy review? Are we going to spearhead any new initiatives? Are we going to build out our military, expand our diplomatic corps, and invoke that famous convening power in a way that tangibly helps? Or is this one of those things where the urgency is in the saying aloud before a well-heeled crowd, but not so much in the doing?
Indeed, this goes well beyond what I'd call this government's meta-failure: a strong preference for saying the right things in place of doing the right things, but still expecting full credit for said things, as if they'd actually pulled it off. That problem is bad enough, but on top of that is layered the very real concerns I and many others have about our state capacity. Even if we chose to spend political capital to get things done, and then tried really hard to succeed, could we? I know it's a bit of a deep cut now, but I wonder if everything Freeland wants to do will be charitably deemed "underway with challenges" by the time the war in Europe enters its second year, or fifth, or tenth.
There's a line in Freeland's speech that really jumped out at me. Early on, she's talking about the assumptions many of us in the West had about the "end of history" — the proclaimed permanent triumph of democracy and capitalism after the end of the Cold War. "It is easy to mock the hubris and the naiveté which animated that era," she said.
She's right! Here's the thing, though: it's equally easy to mock the hubris and naiveté of a Canadian deputy PM who flies to Washington to lay out a vision of allied solidarity and hard work that her own government has yet to demonstrate the slightest interest in putting into action. Her government's own record undercuts her (truly) very fine words. Canada could be leading by example here. Instead, Freeland is giving a speech about the things we ought to be doing, and could already be doing, but aren't. The D.C. audience may not know enough of her government's record to mock the hubris and naiveté; we Canadians have no such luxury of ignorance.
I'll say this for Freeland: I believe she is sincere. I believe she means what she says, I believe she has thought about these issues long and hard, and despite my previously acknowledged quibbles, it is a damn good speech. The problem, in this case, isn't the message, or even the messenger. The problem is who the messenger works for.
That is the main problem with Freeland's speech. There are others. A lot of what Freeland is pretending has been revelatory since the invasion began was really obvious for a while now. Whether it was the insanity of Europe becoming dependent on Russian energy, the lack of preparedness for a sustained military conflict, or the growing challenge posed by economically powerful autocracies using our own rules against us, it isn't hard to find people warning about these risks long in advance of Freeland’s realization — the only thing that's hard to find is much concern on the part of the Liberals before Russia's tanks surged into Ukraine. Freeland spares a line or two in her speech for China's increasing hostility to Canada and the West, but the government's handling of China doesn’t show much of the strength of purpose Freeland is calling for. We are looking for a stronger, more united allied front while also being one of the most timid, weak members of said alliances. It's just really hard to give Freeland the full credit of her words here, given her government's record in office. At times, it gets a bit embarrassing. She knows she’s the deputy prime minister of Canada, right? You know, that Canada?
It feels churlish to pick on Freeland herself here — this isn't a personal failure on her part, nor is it precisely chutzpah. It's just that this really is a speech that she ought to have delivered to her own colleagues on Parliament Hill, not the fine folks at the Brookings Institution.
And the saddest part of it is, maybe she has. Maybe she's been trying. Maybe the only way she can get noticed here is to go say publicly in Washington what she's been saying privately in Ottawa. If so, given the lack of results so far, maybe this isn’t so much a Canadian proposal as Freeland’s own message to history.
I tried, she might be saying. Don’t blame me for the failures to come.
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