What do Stephen Harper of Canada, David Cameron of Great Britain, Tony Abbott of Australia and John Key of New Zealand have in common?
All are prime ministers who lead conservative parties. All govern countries that share the most sensitive intelligence information so that with the United States they comprise the so-called "five eyes." All govern countries that are members of the Commonwealth.
But one of the four, Mr. Harper, has to deal with a large community of Tamils in Toronto who feel aggrieved for having lost the civil war and for continued discrimination against their ethnic group in Sri Lanka. Mr. Harper wants to cement Tamil support for his Conservative Party coalition.
The other conservative prime ministers – Mr. Cameron, Mr. Abbott and Mr. Key – will attend the Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka, but Mr. Harper robustly and loudly will not. In a further act of truculence, Mr. Harper is threatening to review Canada's financial contribution to the Commonwealth, an organization of which Canada has been a stellar member since its creation. Mr. Harper's decision is further evidence of the boorish current nature of Canadian foreign policy, which has alienated and alarmed traditional friends.
This attitude has been recently on display in other areas.
At the United Nations, where Canada's name is already mud, Mr. Harper's government is refusing to say whether it will sign an international agreement monitoring trade in small arms. The reason has nothing to do with foreign policy – the U.S. administration and most of Canada's other traditional allies are on board – and everything to do with appealing to the Canadian gun lobby, which is part of the Conservatives' base.
Like the National Rifle Association south of the border, the Canadian gun lobby has convinced itself that this treaty might somehow spawn an international gun registry, which in Canada would take the place of the one just abandoned.
Even if the Harper government eventually signs on, it wants to have shown this base that its interests were taken into account. And if it refuses to sign on, it will declare that its decision was based on "principle" – language that is, in fact, a rhetorical cover for naked domestic self-interest.
The same attitude was displayed in its reaction to the new government of Iran. Whereas traditional allies, including the United States, have guardedly welcomed the changes in Iran and expressed a willingness to talk, Canada's position has been so deeply skeptical that it comes close to Israel's, which is not surprising given the Harper government's staunch defence of every Israeli position.
Having isolated ourselves from traditional allies on other files, Canada's boycott in Sri Lanka isolates us from some of our most trusted and long-standing allies within the Commonwealth.
Since this boycott, as always, is justified as the pursuit of "principle," it must mean that the governments of Britain, Australia and New Zealand are lacking those principles that animate Mr. Harper's government. Since this is obviously absurd, what the Canadian position again displays is that our country now stands out as a rogue – even among friends.
Think of former prime minister Brian Mulroney, another conservative. He led the fight against apartheid within the Commonwealth – a fight that went back to another conservative prime minister, John Diefenbaker. Mr. Mulroney did not pull Canada out of the organization. He did not threaten to withdraw funding, or take Canada's marbles and go home when he disagreed with Britain's formidable Margaret Thatcher over sanctions.
He and Australian prime minister Bob Hawke and other like-minded leaders worked together, which is what diplomacy and international relations are all about. He didn't pull a hissy fit. He acted like a statesman with principles, instead of talking about "principles" to camouflage evident domestic political interests, as this government does.
The right course of action for a principled Canadian government would be to draw attention to and fight against human-rights abuses in Sri Lanka, or anywhere else, from within the organization, as Canadian governments have always done.
What we should not do is forsake our traditions and principles for the Conservative Party's pursuit of a few ridings in Toronto.