Parliamentary Diplomacy in an Era of Uncertainty: Toward a Paradigm Shift in the Parliament of Canada’s International Missions
David-Andrés Novoa is a procedural clerk with the House of Commons currently on secondment with Global Affairs Canada. He perviously worked in the International and Interparliamentary Affairs directorate. The opinions and ideas expressed in this article are his own and not of past or present employers.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced a temporary shift in the Parliament of Canada’s diplomatic engagement, with international activities taking place virtually. However, there is reason to believe that the post-pandemic world will be different in many ways and that adaptation will be necessary. This article discusses factors that may impact Parliament’s future international missions, explores aspects that support these activities, and proposes reviewing them strategically to better guide international missions in a different and uncertain environment.
A different environment
The Parliament of Canada’s current diplomatic engagement generally has three unofficial goals: “exchanging ideas and best practices; helping to inform collective policy and action; and promoting democratic values and Canadian interests.”1 Among the main tools for achieving these goals are Canadian parliamentarians’ international missions, which often take the form of bilateral visits or participation in conferences.
These missions developed during a favourable era of globalization starting in the 1990s. At that time, building relationships with other international actors was easier because the rise of democracy seemed to be irreversible. Trade liberalization also contributed to the increase in international interactions, as finding new market opportunities was a priority for many governments. Sustained economic growth in many parts of the world likely resulted in more generous parliamentary budgets for diplomacy as well.
In recent years, however, the context has changed. Global democratic decline, deep economic disparities and growing geopolitical instability have made the international environment more complex. The pandemic has served as a catalyst to accentuate these trends. At the national level, the decline in voter turnout reflects a certain apathy toward democratic institutions.
There are five factors emerging from this new context that could have an impact on planning and conducting the Parliament of Canada’s international missions.
Factors that could have an impact on international missions
Freedom House’s 2022 report paints a disturbing picture of the state of democracy around the world. It argues that the world is facing a “Global Expansion of Authoritarian Regimes” as an increasing number of countries are experiencing a decline in democracy and the institutions that support it, for the 16th consecutive year.2 This climate is conducive to authoritarian regimes building alliances and becoming increasingly willing to flout the principles of international law, as evidenced by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As a result, there are likely to be dwindling number of fully democratic counterparts who Canadian parliamentarians can interact with.
Threats to democracy are not limited to fragile states. A 2021 Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) report explains how foreign states conduct interference activities in Canada to further their strategic interests.3 Their targets include Canadian voters, the media, officials, and parliamentarians, all in an effort to undermine trust in democracy and disrupt the rules-based global order. It is clear that Canada is facing a potential democratic erosion. Therefore, it will no longer be just a matter of promoting democracy, but also of defending it.
Bill C-58 (42nd Parliament, 1st Session)4 introduced proactive disclosure measures in the Parliament of Canada. As a result, new and more detailed reports on travel and hospitality expenses related to parliamentary diplomacy activities must be published. In this case, the report will disclose the travel, accommodation, perdiem and other expenses incurred by each participant, including speakers, parliamentarians, and staff.5 Although reports were already published by Parliament for these missions, practices varied by activity and amounts were approved by category (transportation, accommodation, etc.), not by individual. This increased transparency is beneficial, but it could be used to criticize any international activity that is perceived as futile.
The global health emergency has had a negative impact on public finances around the world. In Canada, this has resulted in an increased federal deficit because of reduced revenues and government measures to support the economy.6 While this situation was temporary, the impact will be felt for many years to come. In fact, a Conference Board of Canada report predicts that the budget will not be balanced until 2040.7 Combined with an aging population and the provinces’ requests for financial assistance, there is reason to believe that future governments will exercise strict control over finances. This is likely to affect the funds allocated to the Parliament of Canada and, by extension, the amount of money parliamentarians allocate to parliamentary diplomacy. Since the situation is similar abroad, it may limit the ability of parliaments to host delegations or international parliamentary activities.
The pandemic has made tools such as videoconferencing indispensable for carrying on Canadian parliamentarians’ international engagements. While this may have been considered a temporary and less effective alternative to face-to-face meetings, there is reason to believe that virtual meetings are a new tool in the parliamentary diplomacy arsenal. According to the Report to Canadians 2022, Canadian parliamentarians took part in over 290 virtual events between April 1, 2021, and March 31, 2022.8 It would not make sense to set aside the experience acquired through the intensive use of this new format because of the many benefits it brings. It will therefore be necessary to incorporate and master virtual meetings in order to remain engaged in the international parliamentary scene.
All of these factors suggest that the environment in which external parliamentary diplomacy will take place is one of change and instability. Consequently, the Parliament of Canada should consider adapting to this environment in order to remain relevant internationally. To do so, it should maximize and redefine the role of resources for international missions, while adopting a pragmatic approach that produces tangible results. This should include a strategy to review the aspects that guide and support its international missions.
Aspects to review as part of an international missions strategy
Since the Parliament of Canada has very broad goals, it would benefit from establishing specific key topics, under these goals, that serve its immediate interests. This would provide more information, over a given period, about the challenges and best practices of other parliaments. In light of threats to democracy and the growing use of virtual meetings, here are some topics that might be useful to Canadian parliamentarians.
Security of parliamentarians
In recent years, Canadian politicians have faced growing threats and intimidation. What used to be limited to harassment on social networks now sometimes manifests itself as physical attacks. In the United Kingdom, for example, two parliamentarians have been murdered in the last six years.9 What concrete steps are other countries taking to protect parliamentarians while guaranteeing their access to constituents? This is a topical concern because it was one of the key issues at the G7 Speakers’ Conference in 2021.10
The 2021 CSIS report lists the ways in which foreign actors can influence political decisions or the outcome of an election in Canada.11 A concrete example of the latter was the apparent targeting of some ridings by outside influence operations during the 2021 election campaign.12 What forms does interference take in other countries?13 What steps are parliaments taking to educate parliamentarians and their officials? Should security clearances be considered for the Parliament of Canada? A better understanding of this phenomenon, based on the experiences of other parliaments, would help to combat it and limit its impact.
Telework for parliamentarians
The pandemic forced the adoption of telework to enable parliamentarians to continue their deliberations. In addition, with the creation of an application that allows MPs to vote remotely,14 the stage is set for parliamentarians to fundamentally change the way Parliament works. While there are advantages, such as better work-family balance, greater presence in ridings and a Parliament that is more accessible to people with disabilities, there are also disadvantages. Some suggest that it does not allow parliamentarians to ensure proper government oversight.15 In addition, there is a risk that virtual technology will deprive parliamentarians of different perspectives, particularly because of the lack of interaction with parliamentarians from other parties or groups. This could contribute to increased political polarization. In short, a number of parliaments will have to explore these issues, and it would be interesting to take stock of these experiences in order to help parliamentarians make a more permanent decision.16
These three suggested topics address concrete and immediate needs. Of course, there are many others that would be worth exploring. Such an exercise could help refine the Parliament of Canada’s parliamentary diplomacy goals.
The roles of parliamentary officials
It is worth reviewing the roles and mandates of officials so that they can better support international activities. There are some options to empower them.
In-house strategic expertise
Currently, parliamentary officials provide administrative, logistical and targeted research support, through the Library of Parliament, to international parliamentary missions. With regard to advice on international relations, Global Affairs Canada assumes this role by providing documents and briefings. While this input is very useful, parliamentary considerations are often given less prominence, if not lacking entirely, since this department serves the government’s interests first and foremost. Therefore, it would be useful to have a permanent group within Parliament to provide strategic recommendations on international parliamentary considerations. This would give Parliament more independence with respect to international issues.
An international network of parliamentary officials
The Parliament of Canada could promote the creation of a new international network of likeminded parliamentary officials to address the rise of authoritarianism. Unlike existing networks,17 this proposed network should consist of officials directly involved in their parliaments’ international relations and should meet regularly. The G7 would be a prime candidate, as it includes countries with a strong commitment to democracy. Such a group could address issues of common interest to better identify international challenges and coordinate actions. For example, parliamentary officials could hold preliminary discussions about statements to be issued at international parliamentary conferences in order to establish common positions, as some countries are increasingly trying to incorporate language that undermines international norms and put the governments’ interests ahead of those of individuals.18 Countering such an erosion of international principles and, by extension, democracy, requires coordinated action by parliamentarians through interparliamentary administrative coordination.
The format of missions
Given the vast experience acquired through virtual meetings during the pandemic, they are not likely to disappear anytime soon. As for face-to-face international missions, they will undoubtedly remain, but there will have to be increasingly compelling reasons to justify them. Therefore, parliamentary missions should now be either virtual or face-to-face. To determine the preferred format for each activity, Parliament should assess some of the factors favouring these types of meetings.
Factors favouring face-to-face meetings
Large gatherings of parliamentarians, such as international conferences and annual general meetings of international parliamentary associations, should remain face-to-face. These activities allow parliamentarians and officials to interact with numerous interlocutors other than parliamentarians, such as NGOs, representatives of civil society and experts. In addition, they enable consensus-building on the margins of these meetings, particularly when it comes to negotiating declarations. They also help promote the goals of Canadian parliamentary diplomacy through impromptu bilateral meetings.
Another factor should be the nature of the topics to be discussed. For example, if the discussions involve sensitive issues, such as parliamentary security or outside interference, it may be worth considering face-to-face meetings to build trust in order to explore these issues further. This is especially true when the goal is to establish lasting alliances or cooperation networks.
Lastly, the interlocutors’ commitment to democracy is becoming an increasingly important consideration. A visit to a country where there are no democratic interlocutors could lead to discussions marked by doublespeak. Moreover, such an activity could be perceived as lending implicit Canadian support to these regimes. In the future, international parliamentary missions to non-democratic regimes will be increasingly difficult to justify to Canadians. Therefore, more emphasis should be placed on face-to-face meetings with parliaments that want to strengthen democracy, both at home and abroad.
Factors favouring virtual meetings
The use of technology would provide access to perspectives from hard-to-reach actors. For example, even in non-democratic regimes, there will always be democrats worth listening to. This is where virtual diplomacy can build bridges simply and effectively. Canadian parliamentarians could hold discussions with leaders of civil society or the opposition, in camera if necessary, in order to obtain accurate information about a country’s political situation. Virtual site visits could also be considered,19 such as to Canadian development projects in remote areas, to simplify the logistics of such travel.
Virtual meetings also facilitate greater participation in international activities. It allows for much greater involvement from parliamentarians and increased knowledge-sharing. All this while saving time and money. There is even reason to believe that some of these virtual activities could be open to the public, drawing back the curtain to reveal an aspect of parliamentarians’ work that is not very well valued and sometimes even criticized.
Virtual meetings are environmentally friendly because they cut down on air travel, a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. In a world where governments are developing initiatives to fight climate change, parliamentarians will increasingly be called upon to set an example by limiting air travel. In this respect, videoconferencing offers a greener alternative.
Some pundits believe that the 2020s will be an era of “predictable unpredictability” where the old institutions and attitudes that brought stability in the old world look ill-prepared for the new.20 This could be true for the Parliament of Canada’s international missions if adaptive measures are not taken. Therefore, a paradigm shift in interparliamentary relations is necessary. A strategy to review the aspects that support Canadian parliamentary diplomacy would allow international missions to remain relevant in this new environment.
Tapping into the pool of diversity within the Parliament of Canada to ensure that this strategy reflects the values and interests of parliamentarians would be essential. In addition, a formal discussion between parliamentarians and the numerous actors who support Parliament’s international relations would be beneficial. For example, this could be done by consulting with Global Affairs Canada to develop a strategy that complements Canada’s international goals but puts the Canadian Parliament’s interests and priorities first. Distinct but aligned goals could be set.
The strategy should seek to reinvigorate the mandate of international missions in two main ways. The first would be by establishing formal goals for parliamentary diplomacy. In particular, Parliament should aim to engage on issues related to protecting democracy in Canada and abroad. One goal could be “to promote and defend democratic values.” This is not meant to be alarmist, but rather realistic. Second, missions should have a tangible impact. For example, parliamentarians should make recommendations in the reports prepared after each international mission. This would allow delegations to influence future parliamentary priorities and activities.
Allocating human resources to analyze these recommendations and coordinate the strategy is vital. This would require officials with international expertise, who are aware of interparliamentary issues and look after the Parliament of Canada’s interests. Building ongoing relationships with parliamentary officials in other countries is key because collective action at the international level will have a greater impact than individual efforts. In addition, with more minority governments, these officials would provide strategic stability across parliaments. This stability is vital because international issues often require longterm efforts. Expertise, collaboration, and continuity are assets that would provide better strategic support to parliamentarians in a new world of interparliamentary relations.
Establishing guidelines to determine when missions should prioritize virtual or face-to-face meetings would institutionalize this new duality of parliamentary diplomacy. This means that Parliament should ensure that there are sufficient resources so that videoconferences can be used for international activities, without compromising resources already allocated to other parliamentary areas. And with the arrival of new generations of tech-savvy parliamentarians, it is even more important for Parliament to realize that virtual technology consolidation is real.
This article has touched on only one of the many aspects of parliamentary diplomacy within the Parliament of Canada. To fully adapt, a parliamentary diplomacy strategy for all of Parliament’s international activities should be considered, as the Italian Chamber of Deputies has done.21 This would include the coordination of foreign missions headed by parliamentary committees, visits by incoming delegations, courtesy calls by speakers, and conferences held in Canada, among other things. This more holistic approach is well worth exploring in this era of uncertainty.
1 Natalie Mychajlyszyn, “Parliamentary Diplomacy: Canadian Parliamentarians and the World,” HillNotes, November 18, 2021. https://hillnotes.ca/2021/11/18/parliamentary-diplomacy-canadian-parliamentarians-and-the-world/
2 Sarah Repucci et Amy Slipowitz, “The Global Expansion of Authoritarian Rule”, Freedom House, February 2022. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2022/global-expansion-authoritarian-rule
3 “Foreign Interference Threats to Canada’s Democratic Process,” Canadian Security Intelligence Service, July 2021. https://www.canada.ca/en/security-intelligence-service/corporate/publications/foreign-interference-threat-to-canadas-democratic-process.html
4 An Act to amend the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts (C-58), LEGISinfo, June 19, 2017. https://www.parl.ca/LegisInfo/en/bill/42-1/c-58
5 Laura Ryckewaert, “Deeper, detailed look at Parliament’s spending coming as new disclosure rules take effect,” The Hill Times, July 22, 2020, p. 13.
6 “Annual Financial Report of the Government of Canada Fiscal Year 2020–2021,” Department of Finance Canada, December 20, 2021. https://www.canada.ca/en/department-finance/services/publications/annual-financial-report/2021/report.html
7 “Increases in Immigration to Help Offset Effects of Population Aging: Canada’s Outlook to 2045,” The Conference Board of Canada, November 23, 2021, p. 11.
8 “Report to Canadians 2022,” House of Commons – Canada, June 21, 2022. https://www.ourcommons.ca/reporttocanadians/en/printable-version?year=2022
9 Jo Cox, Member of Parliament, in 2016 and Sir David Amess, Member of Parliament, in 2021.
10 “Speakers and Presidents of the Lower Houses of the member states of the G7 Chorley, United Kingdom 2021 – Declaration,” UK Parliament, September 21, 2021. https://www.parliament.uk/business/news/2021/september-2021/speakers-and-presidents-of-the-lower-houses-of-the-member-states-of-the-g7–chorley-united-kingdom-2021–declaration/
11 “Foreign Interference Threats to Canada’s Democratic Process,” Canadian Security Intelligence Service, July 2021. https://www.canada.ca/en/security-intelligence-service/corporate/publications/foreign-interference-threat-to-canadas-democratic-process.html
12 Alex Boutilier, “Conservatives believe 13 ridings were targeted by foreign interference in 2021 election,” Global News, December 15, 2021. https://globalnews.ca/news/8452551/conservatives-foreign-interference-canada-election-2021/
13 Gordon Corera and Jennifer Scott, “MI5 warning over ‘Chinese agent’ in Parliament,” BBC News, January 13, 2022. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-59984380
14 “The new hybrid voting process,” House of Commons – Canada, February 26, 2021. https://www.ourcommons.ca/Content/Newsroom/Articles/Factsheet-ElectronicVotingSystem-e-Final-02-25.pdf
15 “Towards a Virtual Parliament – Design choices and democratic values,” The Samara Centre for Democracy, May 1, 2020. https://www.samaracanada.com/fr/democracy-monitor/les-parlements-virtuels
16 On June 23, 2022, the House of Commons passed a motion to resume hybrid sittings until June 23, 2023.
17 Examples are the Association des secrétaires généraux des parlements francophones (ASGPF) within the Francophonie and the Society of Clerks-at-the-Table in Commonwealth Parliaments (SOCATT) in the Commonwealth.
18 For example, in the case of the High-Level Declaration adopted at the IPU Fifth World Conference of Speakers of Parliament in 2021, Speakers from a number of countries expressed reservations about the phrase “community of common destiny for mankind” because it is promoted by China and is aimed at undermining international norms. For a detailed explanation, see Stella Chen, “Community of Common Destiny for Mankind,” The CMP Dictionary, August 25, 2021. https://chinamediaproject.org/the_ccp_dictionary/community-of-common-destiny-for-mankind/
19 “Minister Gould concludes virtual visit to Colombia and announces new projects,” Global Affairs Canada, March 5, 2021. https://www.canada.ca/en/global-affairs/news/2021/03/minister-gould-concludes-virtual-visit-to-colombia-and-announces-new-projects.html
20 “The new normal is already here. Get used to it,” The Economist, December 18, 2021, p. 13.
21 David Beetham, “Parliament and Democracy in the Twenty-First Century – A Guide to Good Practice,” Geneva, Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2006, p. 174. “The Italian Chamber of Deputies has a separate Committee for Parliamentary Diplomacy, which is ‘responsible for harmonizing the international activities of permanent committees and parliamentary delegations to international assemblies as well as the activities of bilateral cooperation groups and other organs of the Chamber.’” http://archive.ipu.org/PDF/publications/democracy_en.pdf