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The Big Shift: John Ibbitson at CIGI

On Wednesday, the Centre for International Governance Innovation held the latest in their series of free public events.  Titled “the Harper Doctrine”, the highly engaging talk featured John Ibbitson, and had as its topic the ways in which Conservative foreign policy has changed Canada’s role and reputation in the international community over the past decade.

One of the nice things about attending events organized by savvy institutes in general, and CIGI in particular, is the fact that the talk itself is available to view in its entirety both as a live stream during the event, and after the fact via a link on the CIGI website.

Ibbitson is an excellent speaker (I used to love tuning in to CTV’s political analysis program, Question Period, back when he was one of the co-hosts, as I always enjoyed his comments, insights, observations and quietly verbalized, wry humour–and indeed, I stopped watching after he left the program) and his talk was engaging as well as substantive. He read from a script, which surprised me slightly, in that I recall him being fluent and eloquent in his off the cuff speech.

Still, I was also glad of it, and given that he is a more than accomplished writer, it actually shouldn’t have surprised me that getting just the right diction and syntax would be an important priority. As well, so long as a script is not read mechanically (and this was not), I’m generally heartened when a speaker has taken the time to craft his or her talk by writing it down. It means that there is more likely to be structure, focus and coherence to the talk. As an audience member, this makes it easier for me to follow and to remember after the fact and helps minimize the risk of rambling side-trips that eat up time and are not particularly on point. I appreciate that courtesy.

Ibbitson posits that a Big Break in Canadian foreign policy (and indeed, Canadian domestic policy as well) came in 2006, with the election of the first Harper government, which espouses a value system that is more conservative in approach and sensibility than that which had previously dominated Canadian politics and policy. He also traced the lineage of the pre-existing foreign policy assumptions via Chretien back through Mulroney, Trudeau and Pearson, back to the period when he was Secretary of State for External Affairs under Louis Saint-Laurent, and this policy approach was crafted and put in place–hence “Laurentian”. This paradigm was marked by the value system as espoused by the so-called “Laurentian elites” whose sensibility was, from what I can gather, principled rather than purely functionalist, and arose out of what we generally think of as the Canadian Liberal sensibility, though as Ibbitson rightly points out, the general paradigm and approach existed across party lines until the election of the Harper government, such that the Progressive Conservative party would have been closer to the Liberal party in its policy approach, than to the Conservative party as it stands today. This is my sense as well.

He went on to discuss four eras of Canadian foreign policy, stretching back to the mid-twentieth century or so: Laurentian coherence, Laurentian incoherence, Conservative incoherence and most recently Conservative coherence. The talk is definitely worth listening to in its entirety, and I will refrain from recapping it here. Instead, a few observations.

I note that Ibbitson, in explaining and analysing the shift from Laurentian to Conservative voter sensibility, focuses on the reality of a changing population. With the changes to Immigration policy in the 90s under Chretien, many of the immigrants who have come to Canada are from parts of the world that espouse more conservative values, with the result that the current Conservative party, which is situated much further to the right than was the previous, Progressive Conservative party, has a solid voter base among many of the newer Canadians. This explanation of the shift to the right in Canada, which certainly has a good deal of credibility on the face of it, and which I assume has been backed up by demographic research, is one that Ibbitson believes will mark a long-term shift in voting patterns and outcomes, as a result of a demographic reality. This seems plausible, and it made me wonder whether Ibbitson thinks that the oft-touted “dividing of the voting left” that many cite as being the reason for the shift to the right, is invalid or whether it is another factor that contributed to the shift. Either way, I get the sense that he is positing that even if the left were to unify and successfully elect one of the other parties for the next election or two, the shift in demographic and sensibility is a deep one that will ultimately give rise to a more conservative Canada, and more consistent voting booth results to the right.

I could delve into other talking points and intriguing facets of the talk, but this post is already getting a little long. If this topic intrigues you, I strongly suggest giving the talk a try. Ibbitson has also co-authored a book on the topic, for those who have interest in delving deeper.


2 comments on “The Big Shift: John Ibbitson at CIGI

  1. juliet (@Juliet70Juliet)
    February 1, 2014

    What a great find your blog is! Thank you for bringing my attention to this. I look forward to watching the talk.

    • Susan
      February 2, 2014

      Juliet, thanks for commenting and for your kind words!

      The talk was definitely intriguing. The other highlight of a CIGI talk I went to recently was by Shereen El Feki, about sexual mores in the middle east–she was an engaging, organized and articulate speaker and her talk provided a fascinating glimpse into a world I’d never have access to (she speaks Arabic and was able, over time, to build strong connections with the women she interviewed and spoke with as research for the book/talk). This post: has a link near the start of the post to the CIGI video of the talk, if it’s of interest.

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This entry was posted on February 1, 2014 by in Policy, Politics, The Administrative State.
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