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Colin Robertson

Colin Robertson

Colin Robertson

No wonder diplomats are on strike: The foreign service needs fixing Add to ...

For a nation whose prosperity and growth depends on a strong, active internationalism, it makes no sense for our government to be at war with our foreign service.

The Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers, the bargaining agent for Canada’s diplomats, is now into a second month of active protest. This has included a series of rotating walk-outs that have affected visits abroad by the Governor-General, the Prime Minister and ministers.

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The PAFSO complaint is a growing pay gap between foreign service officers and more highly paid economists, commerce officers and lawyers who are doing the same job, often working side-by-side.

As the smallest of the public-service bargaining agents, PAFSO has gotten short shrift from the Treasury Board Secretariat. Treasury Board has probably made the calculation that there is not a lot of public sympathy for bureaucrats, especially those perceived to lead a ‘glamorous’ existence on the international cocktail circuit, courtesy of the Canadian taxpayer.

That this perception is a myth is beside the point. The foreign service does not have a natural constituency. Yet its work is crucial to the government and the public it serves.

Get into trouble through injury or with the local authorities and need help? Want a lead on selling or buying a product? Want to sponsor your fiancée or parents for immigration to Canada? Call our embassy and who responds: a foreign-service officer.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his government have developed an ambitious international agenda. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is actively recruiting new Canadians; this requires careful screening and issuance of immigration visas. International Trade Minister Ed Fast is negotiating a series of trade deals. Foreign Minister John Baird is determined to advance the ‘dignity’ agenda.

The foreign service often designs and always delivers these initiatives. Without its active effort and involvement, government objectives would be difficult to achieve.

Within the civil service, the foreign service has traditionally been the closest to the Prime Minister. The foreign service was effectively an adjunct of the Prime Minister’s Office from its inception in 1909 until 1945, during which time successive prime ministers from Robert Borden to William Lyon Mackenzie King also held the portfolio of Secretary of State for External Affairs.

The foreign service was housed with the prime minister in the East Block until they moved into the Pearson Building in 1973. Even then, foreign service officers traditionally served on the staff of the prime minister and a senior foreign service officer accompanied the PM on travels abroad.

Pierre Trudeau once complained that he could read all he needed to know in the New York Times, but he came to rely heavily on the foreign service, especially in the promotion of his valedictory ‘Peace Initiative.’ Brian Mulroney promised ‘pink slips and running shoes’ in his first months of governing, but before long his chief of staff, lead speechwriter and communications director were all from the foreign service.

Today, there is a perception that, after seven years, the Prime Minister and the international portfolio ministers have no confidence in their foreign service even if they trust individual officers. If so, then now is the time to reform the foreign service rather than continuing to rubbish it.

The last serious look at the foreign service was a Royal Commission conducted by Pamela McDougall between 1979-80.

Prime Minister Harper has had success with task forces, such as that on Afghanistan, with clear objectives, a short time-frame, and designed to produce practical recommendations.

Mr. Harper should mandate a task force to determine what kind of foreign service we need for the future. Terms and conditions of service – including a more flexible approach to postings, improved language training, and better recognition of spousal contributions – should be a part of the inquiry. It would complement ongoing work on the government’s Global Commerce Strategy.

Both efforts need to bring us into the 21st century by also allowing our foreign service to use social media. If the foreign services of our U.S. and European allies can use the tools of public diplomacy – to blog, tweet and speak out in support of their national interests – why can’t we? Today’s foreign service long ago embraced the tenets of guerrilla diplomacy, exchanging pinstripes for a backpack.

For its part, PAFSO should lift its guild-like grip on lateral entry into the foreign service. In the future we are going to need the best talent we can find and this will require a creative approach to appointments.

In the meantime, the Treasury Board should look carefully at the PAFSO case and provide compensation commensurate with what it pays those doing the same kind of work. We need our foreign service back on the job.

A former PAFSO president, Colin Robertson is vice president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and a senior advisor to McKenna, Long and Aldrige LLP.

 

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