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Prime Minister Stephen Harper waves as he arrives in London, Thursday June 3, 2010. Harper is on a two day trip to the United Kingdom and France ahead of this months G8 and G20 meetings in Canada. (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper waves as he arrives in London, Thursday June 3, 2010. Harper is on a two day trip to the United Kingdom and France ahead of this months G8 and G20 meetings in Canada. (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Jeffrey Simpson

It should have been Stephen Harper's shining hour Add to ...

The two summits in Canada weren't supposed to turn out this way for Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The G8 in Muskoka, followed by the G20 in Toronto, were to have provided platforms to allow Mr. Harper, as host, to shine internationally with the positive reflection felt domestically.

Alas for him, things went awry early on.

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Mr. Harper picked up an idea from previous summits and made it into his own as summits' host: a multiyear, multibillion-dollar commitment from G8 countries to improve maternal and child health. Who could be against those objectives? Internationally, they were unassailable; domestically, they seemed bulletproof, especially among female voters who generally warm less to the Conservatives than males.

Except that the Conservatives, being Conservatives, have this thing about maternal health. What if, under certain circumstances and in certain countries, abortion is considered important for maternal health, let alone maternal life? Back came, therefore, the political bugbear. Thus unfolded the politically charged debate about whether the Conservative government would actually allow Canadian taxpayers' money to fund abortion, or even programs that contemplated abortions, in developing countries.

On the Conservative backbenches, to say nothing of among Conservative supporters, lie fervent anti-abortionists. They loved this approach of no money for abortion, but of course the party's opponents made a meal of this position, conjuring up past images of Conservatives as the party that wants to limit or eliminate abortions.

There were two schools of thought in Ottawa about how this headline-grabbing abortion matter gained traction. One school said Mr. Harper, devilishly clever as he is reputed to be, planted the anti-abortion seed as part of an international aid effort, to take the issue away from Canada while throwing a bone to hard-core anti-abortionists. Another school said the government had been asleep at the switch, and that when the abortion matter blew up, the PM was his profane, furious, private self.

The latter interpretation, according to reliable sources, is the better one: that the issue blew up beyond what had been expected, putting the Conservatives on the defensive. What ought to have been a female-friendly initiative turned into a liability for many women voters. To say nothing of the fact that the other G8 countries did not agree.

Then came the summit costs. When the government published the cost - more than $1-billion - rather than being praised for transparency (even the parliamentary budget office hailed this transparency), the almost universal reaction was shock and horror. Polls uniformly showed most Canadians considered the cost excessive. Media coverage of the "fake lake," designed to impress visiting journalists with little to do during the day while cooped up in a fenced-in media centre, drowned out the summits' substantive issues.

The summits therefore became, politically at home, a question of cost; overseas, press coverage picked up the same theme of Toronto the Fortress. Even the ceaseless Harper spin-machine couldn't change the image.

Image aside - polls show only 20 per cent of Canadians care about the summits - the government has racked up some diplomatic gains.

The Harper government fought hard and effectively against a very bad European idea: to place a tax on banks around the G20 table to amass funds in case banks failed again, as some did during the recession.

It wasn't hard to find allies in China, India, Brazil and Australia for the Canadian position that countries whose banks did not fail should not be part of any generalized bank tax. The issue will be raised at the G20 by the Europeans, but the idea is dead elsewhere around the table.

Mr. Harper, looking for a reason for the G20 to be held so soon after the last one, and six months before the next, described Toronto as about "accountability." Let's make sure that the commitments made at the last summits have been met, he argued plausibly. To which the answer, predictably, is for Canada: in part. His government did stimulate the economy along the lines suggested at previous G20 summits. His government did double aid to Africa and is on target to double its foreign aid by 2011.

After that, however, the aid budget will stop growing, as a major contribution to deficit-reduction. And Canada, among the developed countries, remains with the smallest share (0.33 per cent) of its national economy devoted to foreign aid.

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