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How troubles with China are becoming an election issue

The 2019 election campaign is already underway — the CBC News Canada Votes newsletter is your weekly tip-sheet as we count down to Oct. 21.

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The China Factor

Vassy Kapelos, host of Power & Politics

“Told you so.”

That’s what the president of Tibet’s government-in-exile said when I asked him if Canada’s current diplomatic standoff with China surprised him.

Lobsang Sangay wasn’t being glib, but his message to the Canadian government was blunt: they should have seen this coming.

Let’s review where things stand with China. Back in December, Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver. She was arrested because American authorities asked their friends north of the border to do so. They say she violated sanctions against Iran. Canada agreed to arrest Meng because we have an extradition treaty with the U.S.

This did not go over well in China. Meng isn’t just anyone – she’s the chief financial officer of telecommunications giant Huawei. Her dad is the company’s founder. And Huawei isn’t just any company – it’s a Chinese corporate titan that does business all over the world. The company itself is under heavy scrutiny right now over the ties it insists it doesn’t have with the Chinese government. Much of the world, including Canada, is struggling to decide whether Huawei can take part in the next-generation communications infrastructure of our countries – whether that would make it easier for Beijing to spy on us.

China took Meng’s arrest badly. Not long after, Chinese authorities detained two Canadian men doing business in China – Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig – and eventually accused them of stealing intelligence. But the legal system works very differently over there; we don’t know what evidence the authorities have against Kovrig and Spavor, if any, and the two men haven’t been permitted to see a lawyer.

Meng Wanzhou leaves her home in Vancouver, British Columbia on Wednesday, May 8, 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Next target: canola. China blocked some Canadian shipments of canola seed, claiming something was amiss with them. Contamination? We don’t know – because China still hasn’t cleared the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to send a delegation there to check it out.

And Beijing isn’t just freezing out our agricultural inspectors. It also won’t return Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s calls. The minister even went on CBC radio recently to essentially plead for contact. “If Chinese officials are listening today, let me repeat I would be very … I’m very keen to meet with Minister Wang Yi or speak with him over the phone at the earliest convenience,” Freeland told host Matt Galloway.

Maybe government officials here can meet with the Chinese ambassador to Canada in the meantime? Not soon. Ambassador Lu Shaye – the diplomat you probably remember for suggesting Canada’s complaints about China’s justice system were based on an attitude of “white supremacy” – has been promoted. He’s moving to Paris.

All of which restates the obvious: this is a deep diplomatic impasse. Now think back to about four years ago, when the Liberals were campaigning and promising to “explore deeper trade relationships with emerging and established markets, including China …”

About a year later, in September of 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier Li Keqiang held a joint press conference and announced they wanted to double bilateral trade by 2025 and look toward negotiating a formal free trade agreement.

That was then, this is now. And to be fair, it’s not as if previous federal governments perfected the Canada-China relationship. Stephen Harper’s distaste for China’s human rights record abated to a degree over time; he made two trips there during his mandate and signed a number of economic agreements with Beijing.

All governments face the same challenge. The lure of a massive market like China’s is difficult to ignore, especially after we’re offered proof of how problematic our reliance on the U.S. market can be (the NAFTA negotiations over the past two years, the steel and aluminum tariffs).

But this has gone far beyond some conflict over market access or crop inspections. Two Canadians are being held against their will in a foreign country, with no idea if or when they’ll be set free. The policies Canada decides to pursue with China won’t just affect markets for our pulse crops, pork and beef. They’ll affect lives – as they’ve affected the lives of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor already.

There’s no way this won’t be an issue during the election. Meng’s extradition hearing isn’t set to happen until early 2020, and most experts we’ve talked to on the show think the diplomatic dispute won’t end until her extradition is resolved.

The parties have sketched out some policy points. The Liberals have backed away from pursuing formal free trade in favour of a sectoral approach, and they’re reviewing whether Huawei will take part in Canada’s high-speed 5G internet infrastructure. Conservatives say it should be a hard no to Huawei and a hard no on free trade.

Will either party present detailed policy on China in time for the election campaign? Now more than ever, it seems that’s exactly what Canada needs.

Nobody said dealing with China would be easy – but people like Lobsong Sangay did warn us it would be harder than we thought.

Vassy Kapelos is host of Power & Politics, weekdays at 5 p.m. ET on CBC News Network.

Have a question about the October election? About where the federal parties stand on a particular issue? Or about the facts of a key controversy on the federal scene? Email us your questions and we’ll answer one in the next Canada Votes newsletter. Scroll down to see the answer to this week’s question.

Power Lines

The Power & Politics Power Panelists on where the big parties will be focused this week. 

Amanda Alvaro  president and co-founder of Pomp & Circumstance

The Liberals are staying focused on growing the economy. They will continue to promote the fact that Canadians have now created more than 1 million jobs since they took office in 2015 and that unemployment has hit a new record low. They will draw a contrast, using these gains to illustrate how Andrew Scheer and Doug Ford’s Conservative cuts would hurt the middle class and put Canada’s economic progress at risk.

Rachel Curran  senior associate at Harper & Associates Consulting

The Conservatives will be arguing that Trudeau does not have a credible environmental plan; instead, he has a tax plan that increases costs for families while falling well short of Canada’s Paris targets. Scheer will outline his plan this month – a plan one that takes meaningful action to protect the environment while protecting Canadian taxpayers.

Kathleen Monk  principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group

New Democrats have been rolling out their offer to Canadians in the dying days of this Parliament, setting up a summer of campaigning on these policies before this fall’s election. Look for Jagmeet Singh to continue this next week to play to a traditional NDP strength: consumer protection and standing up to big telecoms.

Poll Tracker Takeaway

Éric Grenier’s weekly look at key numbers in the political public opinion polls. 

This time four years ago, pundits and strategists were furiously re-thinking the coming election.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals had been leading in the polls for nearly two years, but the upset victory by Rachel Notley’s Alberta New Democrats in May 2015 sent support for the federal NDP soaring. On Jun. 8, 2015, the Poll Tracker put the NDP at the front of the pack for the first time that year, with 31 per cent to the Conservatives’ 30 per cent and the Liberals’ 27 per cent.

The fall election was suddenly looking unpredictable. Voters were on the move — and they kept on moving straight through to the Oct. 19, 2015 vote.

Canadians are looking a lot less mobile these days.

Voting intentions swung significantly in the wake of the SNC-Lavalin story in February, but since the beginning of March — now running on three months — the trend lines have been fairly static. The Conservatives have led by between three and six percentage points over the Liberals, while the New Democrats have been stuck somewhere around 16 per cent.

The only party on the move has been the Greens, but while they have put themselves in a position to win a few more seats — and are polling ahead of the NDP in Atlantic Canada — their numbers are a long way from forcing another complete re-think of the fall election.

Voters can certainly move quickly in a matter of weeks. That shift in the spring of 2015 toward the NDP was followed by another shift away from them and to the Liberals in the fall.

So there is still plenty of time for things to change between now and October.

But the polls don’t always move. Campaigns don’t always change people’s minds. They did in 2006, 2011 and 2015, but they didn’t in 2004 and 2008.

We don’t know where 2019 will end up. For now, it seems that Canadians are staying put.

Tap here to go to the full poll tracker

Canada Votes Poll Tracker Federal Averages as of June 4, 2019 (CBC)

Ask us

We want to know what YOU want to know

James Miller asked: I would like someone to ask our politicians what can be done about getting an answer to questions that are asked. Avoiding answering happens all the time. Could the Speaker of the House ensure an answer?

People on Parliament Hill like to say there’s a reason it’s called “question” period and not “answer” period. If you’re looking for a straight answer, you’re not likely to find it in QP. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule.

The whole daily question period exercise is less a genuine effort to solicit answers from the government and relevant ministers on issues – and more a chance to score partisan potshots as the cameras roll. As my colleague Aaron Wherry once wrote, the session is “only vaguely a place for questions. Generally, it’s a time for invective and accusation.”

And because it’s such a politically charged environment, governments typically stick to their scripts to avoid saying anything that could be used against them down the line. They turn to the comfort of talking points, largely drafted by a team of political staffers and MPs at ‘QP prep’ sessions ahead of the hour-long verbal slugfest. This isn’t a practice unique to Conservatives or Liberals or New Democrats — they all do it.

Most historians point to the introduction of parliamentary broadcasting as the beginning of the end of genuine debate. TV cameras went live in the Commons for the first time in 1977. The constrained timelines — questions and answers typically can be no more than a minute — see to it that detailed answers are rare. Most MPs are just interested in scoring a good clip that will make it on the nightly news or into tightly-edited video packages for dissemination on social media channels.

That’s not to say it isn’t still a useful exercise. It’s a chance for the opposition parties to hold the government to account each and every sitting day — to press them on scandals or instances of incompetence, or to demand action on files that matter to constituents. And because most of the parliamentary press gallery tunes in to QP regularly, it’s a chance for the opposition benches to draw attention to issues important to them and their parties in the hopes that journalists might write a story or two.

It’s hard for governments to ignore issues raised in QP outright; they’ll often make changes to policies simply to make a particular line of questioning go away. A recent example is the outrage over the transfer of child murderer Terri-Lynne McClintic from a traditional penitentiary to an Indigenous healing lodge. After weeks of questioning, the Liberal government made changes to the transfer process.

While journalists might tire of hearing the same questions and answers for days on end, it still serves as an exercise in political messaging. Repetition is the parties’ way of connecting with voters who may be paying only vague attention to the daily cut-and-thrust of Parliament Hill.

That’s how the Trudeau government exposed voters to their oft-cited claim that they’re working for “the middle class and those working hard to join it.” That’s how the Conservatives shifted the terms of the carbon pricing debate to a verbal brawl over a “job-killing carbon tax.”

The prime minister, a supremely powerful figure in a majority government, still has to face his critics directly in QP — something a president in a republican system, with a separate legislative branch, seldom has to worry about.

And Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has given himself the added task of fielding virtually every question on Wednesday during “the prime minister’s question period,” a British tradition that requires the PM to be on his feet throughout the hour as opposition and backbench MPs quiz him on matters of the day.

So while you might be frustrated by the flurry of non-answers, remember that question period offers at least a measure of accountability.

– John Paul Tasker, senior writer  

Have a question about the October election? About where the federal parties stand on a particular issue? Or about the facts of a key controversy on the federal scene? Email us your questions and we’ll answer one in the next Canada Votes newsletter.

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