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Presidents and prime ministers routinely grouse that they travel too much, which is hard on sleep and worse on digestion. Tony Blair and George W. Bush both complained in their memoirs about the time they spent on the road. So Stephen Harper may be just a bit relieved that he won't be attending the Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka this November.
But in a way, the Conservative government's decision to boycott the summit – and to perhaps cut funding to the Commonwealth as well – over human-rights abuses in that country is a bit of a surprise. While the Conservatives look upon the Commonwealth as a club that doesn't do much, it's a paragon of purpose compared to some of the alternatives. The Commonwealth, a senior government official once observed off the record, is a diverse mix of nations mostly bound by common ties to the British crown and the Westminster parliamentary tradition – even if some members breach that tradition more often than they honour it.
At the Commonwealth table you'll find large and small developed nations, from Great Britain to Singapore, major emerging economies such as India and Nigeria, and developing nations of various shapes and sizes.
The secretariat is underfunded, no one any longer proposes trade ties (oh for the days of imperial preference!) and the only time the Commonwealth makes news is when one of its members is suspended or leaves.
But Canadian prime ministers, both Liberal and Conservative, have found it useful as a place to survey opinions from around the world on economic and human rights issues. The Commonwealth is nothing but a talking shop, but at least the talk is interesting.
La Francophonie, to cite the obvious comparison, consists of two major developed nations, France and Canada, and a gaggle of others, some of whom have no ties to the French language or culture – Greece is a member of La Francophonie – and others who are among the poorest and most dysfunctional places on earth.
For Mr. Harper, according to those who know, La Francophonie meetings are not so much attended as endured.
So there is some irony in the Prime Minister's decision to boycott attendance at, and possibly funding for, the English club, while remaining on the best of terms with the French one. The reason, of course, is domestic politics.
There are 143,000 Canadians whose mother tongue is Tamil, according to the 2011 census. Most of them live in vitally important ridings in Greater Toronto. By punishing the Commonwealth to protest abuses in Sri Lanka, Mr. Harper gets to do well by doing good. Not to mention that at least one mostly-futile trip to the other side of the world is avoided.
La Francophonie meets next year in Dakar, Senegal. At this point, there's no reason not to attend. But the Prime Minister can always hope.