Bigger national security ideas enter the Conservative leadership debate

As Matthew Bondy argues, this weekend’s debate included foreign policy proposals that moved the conversation from sensational to substantial.

By: /
February 27, 2017
Erin O'Toole
Canada's Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O'Toole speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa January 27, 2015. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Between the 14 candidates in the federal Tory leadership race, there’s something for every type of conservative voter. Libertarians have their candidate in Maxime Bernier, for example, and progressives in Michael Chong. And now, in Erin O’Toole, national security conservatives have a top option, too.

The candidates didn't linger long on foreign policy issues during this weekend’s leadership debate at the annual Manning Centre Conference in Ottawa — moderator Tom Clark stuck to questions around how to deal with U.S. President Donald Trump and rebuild the “big tent” coalition.

But in the few moments when national security was front and centre, O’Toole, member of parliament for the Ontario riding of Durham and former minister of veterans affairs, led the way, and now stands out as the top option for defence hawks.

During Saturday’s debate, the twice-elected MP went out of his way to promise solidarity with Israel and with occupied Ukraine, signalling a values-based approach to foreign policy and paying homage to Stephen Harper’s ideological legacy. 

More boldly, he argued that Canada should work with the so-called “Canzuk” nations — Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK — to establish a deeper trade and security partnership. His support for stronger ties among these Commonwealth countries, which already share exceptional “five-eyes” security arrangements, recently earned him a mention in a new piece published by the Council on Foreign Relations that focused on an upsurge in the idea's appeal.

While the concept isn't new — the appeal of imperial preference, and its more modern Anglosphere formulation, has been around since the days of empire — until now the idea has been seen as primarily sentimental. No more. In a geopolitical era defined by suspicion and protectionism, some kind of an Anglosphere alliance is a potential vehicle to advance openness, trade and the international flow of people, goods, ideas and capital. Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand are four remarkably open and dynamic societies with compatible democratic and economic systems, and their globe-spanning alliance would have proximity to all major global power centres — the U.S., Europe and East Asia.

 O'Toole also wants to double defence spending in Canada, to achieve the target of two percent of GDP (which all NATO member states have committed to but most fall short of.) And it's not just an academic matter for O'Toole — he's a veteran himself and knows what it means when Canadian troops are asked to do too much with too little.

Both policies — strengthening Anglosphere ties and boosting defence spending — would bode well with Canada's major allies.

On the heels of Brexit, Canada has a strong opportunity to develop a free trade relationship with a stand-alone UK. Leading Brexiteer and British Member of European Parliament Daniel Hannan told me over Twitter the Brexit message to Canada was to establish "deeper bonds among kindred nations" such as Britain and Canada.

And the Trump administration is both embracing Brexit and hounding NATO allies for more defence spending, making O’Toole’s policies well matched to major currents in U.S. foreign policy.

Of course, neither of these policies — establishing a Canzuk partnership and boosting defence spending — would be certain to succeed even if O’Toole achieves his goal of becoming prime minister.

Canada wouldn’t have the leverage to forge a Canzuk alliance unless the other participants were equally interested — though early signs are that they might be — and proponents would need to execute the idea as a common sense security and trade deal, not as an insular cultural policy.

And, as the pro-military government under Harper found out, promising defence spending is one thing, but actually investing those defence dollars is another. Canada's engagement gap, as a recent OpenCanada report revealed, remains more of a chasm than a crack, and neither the pro-military Stephen Harper nor the multilateralist Justin Trudeau have managed to close it. There's no guarantee O'Toole could deliver.

But at this point, O'Toole's candidacy as a national security conservative is important nonetheless. While it’s true that several of the other leadership candidates have also staked out turf on global affairs issues — former Ambassador to Afghanistan Chris Alexander brings a wealth of foreign experience to the table and Kellie Leitch has staked her bid and the party’s future on a troubling plan to tighten up Canadian immigration standards —so far in the race, only O’Toole is giving national security first-tier importance and taking intellectual leadership on it.

With the wild race for Conservative leadership ending in May and the next federal election scheduled for late 2019, it’s a long road to foreign policy formation for O’Toole. But he’s shaking up the race with bold foreign and defence policy proposals, and prioritizing those issues is both good for the conservative movement and for Canada.