At the time this article was written Allan
MacEachen had been Secretary of State for External Affairs from 1974-1976.
After serving as House Leader and then Minister of Finance he returned to External
Affairs in 1982. This is a revised version of an address to a conference on
Parliament and Foreign Affairs held in Ottawa on April 30, 1984.
As Secretary of State for External Affairs,
I am drawn inevitably toward the debate over the relationship between the
Government and Parliament. Should Parliament and parliamentarians have a larger
role in the making of foreign policy? Should the Government be held more
closely accountable? My basic argument is that in Canada we are not faced with
what the theorist would call a zero-sum game – a situation in which an enlarged
role for Parliament can come only at the expense of the Government's control of
and ultimate responsibility for the conduct of foreign relations. Parliament
and parliamentarians should play an enlarged role; and the Government should
encourage this for the benefit of all concerned.
As a parliamentarian, I attach importance to
a realistic assessment of the pressure on the time and attention of Members of
Parliament. We are politicians; we take most of our cues from the public. If
international questions are not near the top of the public's preoccupations we
cannot expect large amounts of parliamentary time and energy to be directed
toward foreign affairs. We may feel that the level of attention does not
adequately reflect the economic, security, and other interests at stake. And we
may seek to lead not simply follow opinion. But it would be unrealistic to
believe that parliamentary concerns are likely to differ greatly from those Of
the public and the media.
The fundamental role of Parliament is to
hold the Government responsible for its actions. Here I confess; to impatience
with a popular line of reasoning. The example of the U.S. Congress is sometimes
used to support the argument that Parliament would be more effective if there
was some sort of separation of powers along congressional lines. The systems
obviously are quite different, and comparisons are correspondingly difficult.
My view is that we should not allow the congressional example to obscure the
essential fact of government accountability. The Canadian government is
directly and fully responsible to Parliament for its conduct in foreign
affairs. Parliament has a full mandate to take the Government to task, indeed
to do so daily. It may be that the opposition parties will be unable to defeat
a majority Government, but this is
not an excuse for neglect of foreign
affairs. There are many opportunities to scrutinize Government action if
Members of Parliament choose to do so.
In my experience, sustained questioning in
the House of Commons is the exception not the rule. Sometimes it is suggested
that this suits ministers quite well. I have never shared that view, even when
I frequently had occasion to be on my feet for most of the Question Period.
Question Period is an essential vehicle for increasing public awareness. If
there are few questions the government loses both the opportunity to gauge
public and parliamentary interest and the chance to explain Canadian policies.
To take just one example, I point out that even with Lebanon in flames and the
stability of the Middle East at the centre of world attention there has been
only one question about Lebanon since December.
Opposition days allow the Opposition parties
to propose motions on foreign affairs. A fixed number of these may be
designated as motions of non confidence in the Government. Since the opening of
this Parliament in 1980 there have been more than seventy-five opposition days,
five of which have related directly to foreign policy. Out of those five the
N.D.P. accounted for four and the Progressive Conservatives for one. There have
also been two emergency debates – on the destruction of the KAL aircraft, and
on Grenada. Whether this record gives appropriate weight to foreign affairs is
open to debate, and I will return in a moment to the Government's part in
providing for debates. However, it should be absolutely clear that the
opposition can seek a vote of the House on any foreign policy issue and that the
result can be quite important Here I particularly have in mind the question of
cruise missile testing. It is sometimes overlooked that a motion opposing the
testing of the cruise was put to the House on an Opposition Day and defeated
213 to 34.
The Standing Committee on External Affairs
and Defence (SCEAND) has additional opportunities to scrutinize Government
operations. The referral of the estimates and, under the rules in operation
since 1982, various annual reports means that SCEAND now may study virtually
any issue it wishes. Whether these opportunities will be used depends of course
on the committee work load and press of other business on Members' time.
Perhaps I might inject here a comment about
partisanship. I suspect that some will argue that the quality of Parliament's
contribution suffers from, an excess of partisanship – that too much energy is
devoted to ferreting out real or imagined sources of political embarrassment,
while too little is devoted to serious work aimed at improving Canadian policies.
In my view it would be quite wrong to deny
the central role of political struggle among parties. It is one of the most
creative forces at work. To be sure, I attach great importance to broad
consensus on Canada's major international commitments – membership in NATO, our
pledge to assist the developing world, our advocacy of respect for human
rights, and so on. But I place little faith in the view that all reasonable
people must agree on everything or that policy should be formulated on the
basis of the lowest common denominator. The valid criticism of partisanship is
not that it is bad in itself but that it has a tendency to focus attention on
the trivial and to trivialize the important by neglect. In the process, it
discourages thorough discussion, inhibits a more productive relationship
between parliamentarians and Government departments, and generally attracts the
disdain of observers in the foreign policy community and the media. The issue
is the quality of debate.
Partisanship aside, Parliament and
parliamentarians in fact do contribute to the substance of Canadian policies
and to their promotion abroad.
In addition to Question Period, the House of
Commons and Senate contribute through their legislative work and special
resolutions. Fifteen bills related directly to foreign affairs have been
adopted in this Parliament covering a range from trade agreements to Canada's
financial contribution to international development banks. The new Department
of External Affairs was created by one of these bills. The current debate on
the Canadian Institute for Peace and Security is a further illustration.
Parliamentary resolutions on foreign affairs
issues are not an everyday occurrence. They do, however, have important
functions. Traditionally they have been used to signify approval for Canada's
international commitments – whether in the form of treaties or particular
courses of action. They also have been used to send a powerful diplomatic
message from the Canadian people. The most striking recent example was the resolution
condemning the Soviet destruction of KAL Flight 007 with ten Canadians on
Committee work is undoubtedly a major avenue
for detailed parliamentary contribution to foreign policy. In this Parliament,
SCEAND and its subcommittee, often with the able assistance of the
Parliamentary Centre for Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, have reported on
NORAD, the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE), relations
with Latin America and the Caribbean, Canada's role in the OAS, the Armed
Forces Reserves, and security and disarmament. That is in addition to work on
various bills, the estimates, annual reports. The Senate Committee on Foreign
Relations meanwhile published its third report on Canada-U.S. trade relations.
It is now engaged in a study of Canada's relations with the Middle East and
North Africa. In addition, a special Parliamentary Task Force on North-South
relations made an extensive and valuable report on that subject.
The influence of these studies on Government
policy is a longer story than can be told in this article. I can say that every
report has contributed significantly to decision-making in the relevant policy
area, Even when the Government has been unwilling to adopt particular
recommendations, that has not been for lack of serious and detailed attention.
Under the new House of Commons rules the government also is required to make a
"comprehensive response" to any SCEAND report which calls for one.
Another important function of
parliamentarians and one yet to be exploited fully – is their role in
relationships with their foreign counterparts. Through the network of
parliamentary associations and friendship groups, Members cover most of the
foreign bases important to Canada the USA, the European Community, France, Japan,
NATO, the Commonwealth and la francophonie.
A particularly important example is the
Canada-United States Inter-Parliamentary Group. It is invaluable to us at a
time when Congress is playing such a prominent role in U.S. foreign and
economic policy. The semi-annual meetings of the group are sessions of frank
talk on subjects of clear importance, for example, Canadian gas export prices,
U.S. Buy American legislation, the Garrison Diversion, and defence plans.
Consciousness is raised, misunderstandings are dispelled, and intentions are
clarified in a manner possible only between elected representatives. These
meetings are a major complement to the normal diplomatic relations and
negotiations between the two countries.
How can the role of Parliament and
parliamentarians be enhanced? Obviously the more that Members of Parliament and
Senators can devote themselves to international questions the more enlightened
the process will be. The proportion of energy expended on partisan wrangling
might also be looked at by all sides. For the Government's part, I accept that
without ministerial encouragement parliamentarians cannot contribute fully to
Canada's international relations.
We will continue our efforts to improve the
provision of information and services to members. Briefings on many subjects
routinely are given to individual parliamentarians, caucus groups, and to
various parliamentary delegations. Perhaps the Government can do more to meet
parliamentary requirements and we will pay close attention to any suggestions
made in this; respect We do not, by the way, consider the information flow a
one-way street. There also would be benefits to more extensive debriefings and
discussions after foreign visits.
Providing additional opportunities for
foreign policy debates in the House of Commons is an attractive idea. It is
often suggested that the Government ought to make more time available for
foreign policy debates. Each of us agrees in principle with that idea.
Implementation is a much more difficult thing. As a former House Leader, I know
the demands that are made on the House of Commons. When there are bills to be
passed, still waiting in the wings, it is more difficult to put aside time for
two or one day of debate on a general subject of interest in the foreign policy
field. However we have had at least one government-sponsored debate earlier in
this Parliament, and recently the Prime Minister's peace initiative was the
subject of a thorough exchange during the Throne Speech debate. Now what can we
do more to sponsor these particular foreign policy debates of a general
character in the House of Commons? I think the prospects for future debates
depend of course on the overall use of House time, both from the Government and
Opposition perspectives. Proposals for general foreign policy debates face
stiff competition from other items of business. This said, I believe it would
be worthwhile to explore whether among parties we could achieve a more
co-ordinated approach to the use of House time that would improve the prospect
for foreign policy debates in the future.
Now may I say a word about a practice that
used to exist in the House of Commons which has fallen into disuse and that is
the practice of Government Statements on motions. It used to be the case that
when the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State for External Affairs returned
to the country following an important visit abroad that frequently a statement
was made on motions Opposition parties were permitted under the rules to
comment. Now if that procedure were used it would permit questions to be asked.
Well that practice has virtually disappeared. I think it is unfortunate. I
think we should try to have it revived. It can only be revived by some
discussion among the parties as to how they will use that time. I have never
been against political debates. I've never been against the cut and thrust that
will occur in the House of Commons. But I have expressed the view that the main
reason why Ministers, certainly the Prime Minister and the Secretary of Slate
for External Affairs have found it not very productive to make these statements
or motions is because sometimes they have developed more into partisan
wrangling rather than a serious examination of the foreign policy issues.
The role of parliamentary committees is a
complex subject. The Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs is now occupied with
the Middle East and North Africa. SCEAND has been at work on estimates and a
variety of matters. Without wishing to intrude on the responsibility of SCEAND
members for their work program. I would repeat the Government's willingness to
co-operate in a reference on East-West Relations, security, disarmament and
peacekeeping. Nor do I believe that this would exhaust the topics which might
deserve attention, either through a separate reference or under the Committee's
mandate to examine the annual report of the Department of External Affairs.
Some examples might include Canada's evolving relationship with the USA,
relations with ASEAN, Japan, and other Pacific Rim states; the current
challenge to multilateralism symbolized by the U.S. attitude toward UNESCO;
interdependence and Canadian competitiveness, and the aid/trade relationship.
Each of these is a current question. All of them could not be examined by the
Committee, but there are some subjects that come to mind.
Decisions about such studies raise the
question of timing. Clearly, the parliamentary committees can have their
greatest influence on policy if studies bear some relation to the Government's
decision-making timetable. At the moment, Government departments go through a
variety of internal planning exercises to identify the international framework
for upcoming decisions These efforts also serve as guidance to cabinet. I would
be quite prepared to discuss with the steering committee of SCEAND and the
Senate Committee whether the Government might systematically provide analyses
of the international scene and a more precise indication of its planning
schedule. The form and timing of such guidance would be for discussion, but the
general objective would be to stimulate timely and focused input from
As Minister in a Department of External
Affairs which now holds responsibility for trade relations and so many matters
which touch the daily life of Canadians in every constituency across Canada, I
believe that foreign affairs inevitably will become an even more prominent
concern of parliamentarians. While deliberating upon "Parliament and
Foreign Affairs" keep in mind that the basic challenge is not to alter the
relations between Parliament and the Government but to ensure that both
contribute more effectively to the promotion of Canada s interests in the