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doug saunders

It may be remembered as the moment Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau found his political voice in a sequence of passionate attacks. But Monday night's foreign-policy debate should also be remembered as the moment when Stephen Harper dodged a potentially fatal bullet.

For the greater part of an hour and a half, I watched the Conservative Party Leader stand on the Roy Thomson Hall stage in Toronto, his face a mask of Cheshire-cat calm, confident in the knowledge that neither the Liberal nor the NDP leader would be able to call him out for his greatest international failures.

While Mr. Harper faced some fiery attacks from NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and from Mr. Trudeau, they were largely around a set of mainly domestic-focused issues that played to his preferred agenda: The revocation of Canadian citizenship for convicted terrorists under Bill C-24, the paltry response to the Syrian refugee crisis, the threat to civil liberties created by increased spy powers.

His response to the latter was typical: "The group we fear is not CSIS, it's ISIS." He was able to characterize his "shutting the gates" on refugees and his bill's threat to revoke citizenship as prudent security measures.

He knew that attacks on these issues from a centre-left opposition would not hurt his electoral chances, because he could portray them as acts of strength and resolve.

What he managed to avoid was serious criticism on his own turf. The Conservative years have been marked by a series of profound failures on the international stage – not just the sort of failures that Liberals and New Democrats prefer to point out (a retreat from peacekeeping, an abandonment of climate-change policy), but larger consequences that have tripped up the Tory agenda.

Mr. Harper's term in office has been marked by a braying recitation of "muscular" rhetoric around symbolic international issues, combined with a withdrawal from the institutions, partnerships and engagements that might have allowed Canada to flex those muscles.

Even as Mr. Harper's officials made loud noises about terrorism, about Benjamin Netanyahu and about Ukraine, Canada was absent from the most important international developments of the day: We abandoned our strong foundation in nuclear-disarmament negotiation, so we played no part in the Iranian nuclear deal. We abandoned our strong development links to Africa's emerging economies, so we have lost out in the investment boom taking place in sub-Saharan countries. We botched our bid to win a traditional Canadian seat on the United Nations Security Council, so lost the strongest platform we could have used to take Russia to task over its invasion of Ukraine. We walked away from climate change almost completely, so China and the United States managed to make history without any Canadian involvement.

As retired general John de Chastelain, the chief of defence staff under previous Conservative and Liberal governments, told my colleague Mark MacKinnon, "We've been talking loudly and carrying a twig."

Mr. Harper's disengagement from the world has cost him on his own turf. His complete non-interest in climate-change policy, his inability to propose the North America-wide carbon policy or to make any other major move on this central U.S. issue alienated Washington to the point that President Barack Obama refused to support the Keystone Pipeline, costing Mr. Harper his most important ambition.

Mr. Mulcair began to acknowledge this failing toward the end of the debate. "There is an old saying, Mr. Harper, that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar," he said. "I think you were pouring vinegar by the gallon on the Americans and it is not a surprise that they said no."

But because Mr. Mulcair's party did not support the Keystone agreement, he failed to fully connect the dots.

And because both opposition parties are skeptical about international trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Canada-European Union trade agreement, neither opposition leader was prepared to call out Mr. Harper for his profound failure in international trade: By placating the dairy-farming lobby and supporting farm subsidies, and by failing to have a close relationship with the Americans at a crucial moment, he has delayed, damaged and nearly lost both agreements.

That kind of criticism, on his home turf, could have really hurt Mr. Harper. But for most of the night he was able to sit back and watch the passions burn exactly where he wanted.

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