The Liberals who assembled for former Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler's speech on Africa could be forgiven if they did so anticipating further condemnation of the Harper government's policy toward the world's poorest continent.
On that score, they left fulfilled. Mr. Fowler, who survived a kidnapping by an al-Qaeda offshoot last year when he was serving as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's special envoy to Niger, joined many others in strongly disapproving of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision to focus his international policy on relatively richer Latin America.
But few of those Liberals attending the final day of the party's weekend thinkers' conference in Montreal likely anticipated what Mr. Fowler had in store for them.
With Sunday's agenda constructed in a such a way that criticizing the government's foreign policy would be unavoidable, Mr. Fowler told Liberals that if they believe that Canada's voice on the international stage is less than it should be, then they too must accept much of the responsibility.
"I believe to a significant extent the Liberal Party has lost its way, at least in policy terms - and of course I mean in particular in my area, foreign policy terms - and is in danger of losing its soul," Mr. Fowler told a hushed audience in what was the first speech of the day. "It seems that Liberals today don't stand for much in the way of principle. I have the impression that they will endorse everything and anything that might return them to power and nothing which won't."
Watch Mr. Fowler's speech to Liberals below:
This is the kind of thing that Liberals like to say about the current Conservative government, which has been criticized by some former diplomats and academics for turning its back on Canada's foreign policy successes simply because they are too closely associated with the Liberal governments that enjoyed them.
But Mr. Fowler, 64, took the podium with the look of a man who had tired of simplistic partisan debate.
His choice of attire for his Sunday morning address was a black sport coat with a white pocket square; a black shirt, unbuttoned at the collar; and grey slacks. The speech represented a rare public appearance since he was released by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb after five months in captivity, and he appeared ready to make the most of it.
He warned his audience that he wasn't going to "mince my words." At different points in the speech he acknowledged his discomfort in criticizing the government that gained his release, and the Liberal organizers for "permitting me to be blunt and rude while accepting your hospitality."
I believe the Liberal Party has lost its way… indeed, is in danger of losing its soul. Robert Fowler
Neither Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, nor any of the organizers, knew what Mr. Fowler or any of the other speakers would say.
After the speech, Mr. Ignatieff shook Mr. Fowler's hand and thanked him for saying "something his party needed to hear," according to an account of the encounter by CTV News.
Another common criticism of Mr. Harper's foreign policy is that it has been narrowly designed to win the votes of specific ethnic communities that could help the Conservatives scratch their way to a majority government.
Mr. Fowler added his voice to that criticism Sunday, but accused the Liberals of being no better. One example, he said, are the party members who are "falling all over themselves" to celebrate Toronto supporters of the Tamil Tigers, which Mr. Fowler called "one of the world's more unpleasant" terror groups.
"The Liberal Party today is not the party that governed this country for 30 of my 39 years in public service," Mr. Fowler said. "Liberals have yet to present Canadians with a cogent vision, one with a fully articulated international dimension of where they stand and what they represent."
The response of Mr. Ignatieff and other Liberals to Mr. Fowler's remarks was to embrace them in an effort to show they are tough enough to absorb a series of body blows.
"It's fantastic that you can have a conference where people can be really candid, can say what they think," said Eddie Goldenberg, who was senior adviser to former prime minister Jean Chrétien.
Still, criticism from someone of Mr. Fowler's stature will hurt the Liberal critique of Mr. Harper's foreign policy.
Dimitri Soudas, the Prime Minister's spokesman, said Sundathat he had little to add to Mr. Fowler's remarks. "He's certainly not praising Mr. Ignatieff's and Mr. Rae's foreign policy," Mr. Soudas said, referring to Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae.
But Mr. Fowler certainly wasn't praising Mr. Harper's foreign policy, either. Mr. Fowler, who represented Canada at the United Nations, said his country's role in the world has become so diminished that he is "not at all sure" that Canada deserves the temporary seat on the UN Security Council that it is seeking next year.
The government should pay attention to Mr. Fowler's concerns, said Paul Heinbecker, a foreign policy adviser to former prime minister Brian Mulroney.
"The general weight of opinion internationally is that Canada is not engaged like it used to be," said Mr. Heinbecker, who recently edited a book on Canada's role in the world that sought opinions from other countries. "We're not present and we're not constructive."
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