Why Mélanie Joly stayed home

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WELCOME TO OTTAWA PLAYBOOK, I’m your host, ANDY BLATCHFORD. We start with a briefing from foreign ministers on what it takes to serve as Canada’s top diplomat. I have news from Rep. BRIAN HIGGINS on the Canada-U.S. border. And ZI-ANN LUM looks at STEVEN GUILBEAULT’s not-so-secret agenda.

DIPLOMATIC TURNSTILE — JUSTIN TRUDEAU’s decision to give Canada its 15th foreign minister in 20 years is a source of unease in foreign and economic policy circles. MÉLANIE JOLY is the country’s newest top diplomat since taking over last week from MARC GARNEAU, who was on the job for about 10 months.

— Hitting the books: The gig’s learning curve is steep. A spokesperson for Joly tells POLITICO the minister stayed in Canada rather than joining Justin Trudeau in Rome or Glasgow. “She’s briefing from morning till night right now,” the staffer said.

Joly’s appointment revives concerns about chronic changeover at the top of what’s now known as GAC. The changes have accelerated somewhat under Trudeau.

Joly’s Cabinet appointment came as a surprise to most given her lack of high-profile international experience. The promotion vaulted her into the foreign-affairs spotlight from the lesser-known portfolio of economic development.

— Talk of the town: With the prime minister front and center of international events, does Canada even need a foreign minister? The question is being raised on podcasts and at policy forums.

To get at the issue, we went directly to some former foreign ministers and other international power players.

— PETER MACKAY, Harper foreign minister, 2006-2007: MacKay argues that the minister’s role and, more broadly, their department is a “critical” coordinator of Canada’s foreign offices, immigrations offices and of the infrastructure that holds it together. Foreign ministers must also strengthen connections with the U.S., other partners and key bodies like the G-7, NATO and APEC.

“All prime ministers to greater and lesser degrees want to be their own foreign ministers, I understand that perhaps better than most,” said MacKay. “But there are so many other things that a prime minister is seized with as well.”

MacKay says many factors fuel the frequent changeover — election cycles, ministers who’ve “fallen on their sword” and shuffles based on regional considerations and gender balance.

“Is it a good thing? Absolutely not,” he said. “It takes you anywhere from 18 months to two years to truly get your head around the enormity and the complexity of the files.”

He added that everything becomes far more difficult in times of crisis, recalling how he had to respond to the Israel-Lebanon war and the large-scale evacuation of thousands of Canadians.

Joly, he said, is definitely studying hard right now: “Every waking hour is spoken for and more.”

MacKay says the U.S., China and climate are almost certainly at the top of Joly’s briefing-book pile.

Asked if he shares concerns about Joly’s lack of global experience, MacKay said people said the same thing about him.

— JOHN MANLEY, Chrétien foreign minister, 2000-2002: Manley says it’s not in Canada’s interest to have a “revolving door” in the Cabinet post. He said it takes time to establish the bilateral and multilateral ties at the core of diplomacy.

“I hope that the frequent changes are not a reflection of a prime minister who is less concerned with Canada’s international role,” Manley said.

Manley disagrees that prime ministers fully take on the role. He said PMs clearly manage contacts at the leaders’ level, but also have to deal with just about everything else in their government.

“Consequently, it would be quite difficult for the prime minister to essentially act as his or her own foreign ministry,” he said.

Manley says Joly has inherited big challenges — from seeking better coordination with the U.S. on border rules to figuring out how to move forward on relations with Beijing in the aftermath of the two Michaels.

— ROLAND PARIS, Trudeau foreign policy adviser until June 2016: Paris said continuity in the foreign minister role is key for the country to effectively pursue its international agenda.

“There’s always going to be turnover of ministers, but the frequency of turnover at foreign affairs has been striking,” said Paris, who called it a “revolving door.”

Every time a new face enters the minister’s office the department has to devote a huge amount of attention to briefing them up.

Paris said one of the big projects for Joly will be following through on the launch of Canada’s new “comprehensive Asia-Pacific strategy,” which was a pledge in the Liberal election platform.

— ROHINTON MEDHORA, president of the Centre for International Governance Innovation: Medhora says the foreign minister’s post used to basically be about “war and peace and the points in between.” Canada’s foreign relations these days is much more about trade, investment, technology, climate change and financial stability, he said.

“You still need someone who synthesizes and brings this all out and creates a Canadian position overseas,” Medhora tells Playbook. “Do we have that? Candidly, no. And it’s not helping that we change ministers every year, year and a half.”

He says the question is not if Canada needs a foreign minister but rather what kind of foreign minister it wants.

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WHO IS CANADA’S GREEN GIANT — Environment Minister STEVEN GUILBEAULT is in charge of the Canadian delegation after Trudeau leaves COP26 today. The former Greenpeace activist returns to COP, his 19th summit and some 26 years after his first, as environment minister.

“We have a long way to go, but where we are now is a long way from where we started,” Guilbeault told reporters in Glasgow Monday. His appointment last week signals interest from the Trudeau government to step on the (low carbon) gas pedal on climate action. POLITICO’s ZI-ANN LUM has more on Guilbeault’s not-so-secret agenda.

— Related reading: Queues delay COP26 talks as U.K. hosts struggle.

— The PM’s agenda today: Trudeau will bounce from events on carbon pricing, oceans and the methane pledge. He’s also due to attend the Build Back Better World Event. Later tonight, he’ll join world leaders and CEOs at the Red Sky Bar on the rooftop of a Glasgow Radisson.

— More from POLITICO: The COP26 power list: 15 people to watch at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.

Keep up to real-time developments at COP here.

HIGGINS’ LATEST PURSUIT — The border-opening crusade of Rep. Brian Higgins, the most vocal champion of the drive to ease Covid restrictions at the Canada-U.S. frontier, is far from over.

After putting months of pressure on the Biden administration, the Democrat from Buffalo, N.Y., is focusing once again on the Canadian government. Higgins fired off a letter last Friday to Kirsten Hillman, Justin Trudeau’s envoy in Washington.

— Abandon the tests: In the missive, Higgins pressed Hillman to tell her boss that Canada should follow the U.S. lead by ditching its Covid testing requirements for fully vaccinated individuals at the land border. (Higgins sent the message to the Canadian ambassador a couple of days after the two had a tête-à-tête in Washington.)

— Border backdrop: The U.S. will reopen its ports of entry next Monday to fully vaccinated, nonessential land and ferry travelers. To get in, incoming non-U.S. citizens won’t have to show a negative Covid test result. But those looking to cross into Canada — including returning Canadians — must take a molecular test within 72 hours of arriving at the border.

— Higgins’ argument: The congressman said in the letter that the tests are pricey and, by his estimate, can set folks back as much as C$300 a pop. The result, he argued, is an unnecessary deterrent to travel that is no longer backed by science. Local economies along the boundary will continue to suffer due to the Canadian tests, Higgins added.

“I urge your government to join the United States in dropping these testing requirements for fully vaccinated individuals,” Higgins wrote.

What is happening? Questions about Canadian politics? Send them our way.

— The Daveberta Podcast talks to HARNOOR KOCHAR and RAJAH MAGGAY about their work in the Edmonton mayoral race.

Here’s a briefing note from McMillan Vantage on the Cabinet minister prep and the key issues that await…

Read More: Why Mélanie Joly stayed home

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