It's foreign-policy week for Stephen Harper, and not all international issues are equal.
Trade and international security are what he wants to talk about. Climate change is on a list of things he doesn't have much time for. The foreign issues themselves don't change many votes, but what he really wants is to look like a world leader. Some issues make a better backdrop than others.
Every September, a number of foreign leaders and officials stop in Ottawa on their way to and from New York for the opening of the new session of United Nations. Mr. Harper himself then decides to speak to the world, or skip it – usually the latter. It depends on whether he wants to play up his place on the world stage. Obviously, this week he does.
He's hosting both South Korean president Park-Geun-hye, who came Monday to sign a free-trade agreement, and European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, who is coming Friday to do the same. It is his week of trade triumphs.
Between those events, he'll go to New York to address to the UN General Assembly, something he often avoids.
This year, however, there are big security issues on the international agenda that are, for him, black-and-white issues that allow a forceful message. The rise of Islamic State, and Russia's dismemberment and destabilization of Ukraine, are threats he's highlighted. He's made it his business to speak out against them. So he'll speak to the UN General Assembly.
But he won't bother to speak to the conference on climate change convened by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. Climate change is quite literally on a list of things he says he doesn't have much time for this week.
It's a list Mr. Harper himself provided yesterday at a press conference with South Korean President Park, when he was asked why he will go to New York but not speak to the climate change confab. Every year at this time, he said, there's "any number of significant challenges" to address.
"We look at this year, we have obviously new and emerging peace and security threats that range from the form of terrorist organizations to major countries, in the case of the threat against Ukraine, we have challenges of development, humanitarian aid, pandemics, we have challenges of human rights and governance, we have obviously trade issues and the economy, and obviously I try and touch on a number of these including climate change."
There's not much sign he's going to touch on climate change in public, however. It's no secret that it's not his government's favourite issue. He has repeatedly delayed plans to issue regulations for major greenhouse-gas emissions, and Canada won't meet its emissions-reductions targets. The Conservatives seem to believe any time Mr. Harper speaks to the issue, they lose.
But climate change isn't the only talking point he's avoided. He likes G8 meetings, where he's in a small group of major leaders, but rarely bothers to speak to the UN General Assembly. He's never loved the institution, but clearly, he doesn't usually think it's a great political backdrop, either. Sprawling multi-lateral meetings where leaders of all kinds address the whole sweep of global challenges don't offer clear-cut messages. This year, he can speak against the threat of Islamic State or Ukraine's independence, issues he frames in far more black-and-white terms.
A poll conducted by Abacus Data, released Monday, suggests the hot international topics are pretty good talking points for Mr. Harper. Forty-five per cent agreed with steps taken to help Ukraine; the same proportion agree with using the Canadian Forces to combat Islamic terrorism.
But the poll also suggests foreign policy is not a vote-turner. Only 28 per cent think Mr. Harper has a better foreign-policy approach than the Liberals or the NDP. That's slightly more than those who think the Liberals (23 per cent) or the NDP (19 per cent) have a better approach to foreign policy – but it's about the same proportion that think there's no difference between the parties. A lot of voters seem to shrug at the differences between the parties when it comes to foreign-policy issues.
That's why Mr. Harper sticks to his strengths when it's foreign-policy week. Trade can be linked to the domestic economy. And those clear-cut stands on foreign-policy issues are supposed to beef up his image as a strong, experienced leader. Even if voters don't see much difference on the issues, they will choose a leader.