This article is an excerpt of a communication to be presented at the CIRRICQ’s conference on Canada’s foreign and defence policy on December 5-6, 2017 in Gatineau.
Dissatisfaction about Canada’s international policy was high at the end of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s tenure, with a plurality of Canadians thinking that the country’s international reputation declined under the Conservative’s leadership. Is Canadian public opinion supportive of the Trudeau government’s foreign policy at midterm?
A compilation of surveys – 39 in total, from different poling firms – conducted on foreign policy decisions or actions taken by the Liberal government provides an initial element of answer. The Trudeau’s government barely clears the 50% mark with Canadians expressing support for governmental international decisions or actions in 20 polls while discontent is observed in 18 (1 was a perfect draw).
Overall, some policy areas clearly register in the positive column. Environmental and international trade issues represented clear successes, even on decisions that had the potential of generating strong opposition (for example, the approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline).
However, expectations of Canadians were not fully met even when they expressed support for specific initiatives. For example, 50% of Canadians thought, in October 2015, that the Trudeau government would have a positive impact on the environment in general and climate change, more specifically. At midterm, this percentage is down to 30%.
Of all policy areas, security or defence issues is definitely the one that represents the toughest challenge for the Liberal government. All in all, 60% of the polls unfavourable to governmental decisions were on security of defence issues. The arms contract with Saudi Arabia and the end of the bombing campaign against the so-called Islamic State (IS) were perceived negatively by Canadians.
Compromises struck by the Trudeau government generated high levels of social acceptability. For example, the reorientation of the anti-IS operation towards a training mission was supported more broadly than the continuation of the bombing campaign.
A similar middle-ground approach also worked in the case of the Syrian refugee crisis. The initial plan projected accepting 25 000 Syrian refugees by January 1, 2016; such a timeline was opposed by a majority of Canadians. However, Canadians were not opposed to play a role in the crisis; an extended timeframe helped drove supportupward.
The recent plan to reengage in peace operations seem promising on this regard. With a focus on women, child soldiering, as well as training and logistical support, the government prioritized consensual issues that are not likely to receive significant negative coverage. At the same time, it did not reengage in a specific mission, avoiding the possibility of mission fatigue in the Canadian populace.
Furthermore, Prime Minister Trudeau’s foreign policy gathered more support during the second year, with 8 polls showing support against 5 going in the opposite direction. In comparison, the first year ended up with more negative polls than positive ones. This pattern is in line with similar tendencies observed during Stephen Harper’s tenure.
The first few years of a mandate is often rocky as the new government inherited decisions adopted by the previous government. The implementation of electoral promises also means a reorientation or break from past practices, which typically leads to some turbulences.
Ultimately, notwithstanding policy decisions, the tone given to one’s international agenda also matters. Overall, Canadians have a positive appreciation of the current government’s foreign policy, with 54% of Canadians thinking that the Trudeau government had so far a positive impact on Canada’s reputation on the world stage.
Crucial commercial talks might decide which way the pendulum will swing. NAFTA renegotiation and a possible free trade agreement with China will represent the two most serious tests, internationally, for the second half of the current government’s mandate. These two decisions have the potential of affecting Canadians in their daily lives and their future. Positive results, therefore, will be crucial to keep public support.
Mathieu Landriault is an associate researcher at the Centre interuniversitaire de recherche sur les relations internationales du Canada et du Québec (CIRRICQ).