It’s (past) time to defund the Halifax International Lobby Forum

The real questions for Harjit Sajjan should be these. Has the world become a better, safer place after more than a decade of Canadian-funded Halifax International Security Forum schmooze fests? And are there better ways to invest tax dollars to achieve that end? No. And yes.

Last year’s virtual Halifax International Security Forum.

When I first read the news that Harjit Sajjan, Canada’s minister of national defence, “wouldn’t commit to continuing to fund an annual security forum in Halifax,” my first thought was… Well, it’s about time. But then I kept reading and discovered Sajjan’s threat to the future of the annual Halifax-named but American-run, (yet significantly Canadian-funded) Halifax International Security Forum is actually just about the usual geopolitical gamesmanship.

The forum, reported the Canadian Press, “has become embroiled in a controversy over an award it reportedly planned to give to the President of Taiwan.” We’ll come back to that.

There are many better reasons to cut off funding for the forum, starting with the more than $30 million Canadian taxpayers’ dollars Canadians have shelled out since 2009 to stage what the Forum loftily describes as “the preeminent annual gathering of the world’s democratic decision-makers in the political, military, media and business spheres… devoted to strengthening strategic cooperation among democratic nations.”

The rest of us might less loftily — and more accurately — describe it as a self-indulgent echo chamber for a bunch of like-thinking, right-thinking, global-pie-dividing oligarchs.

Let’s step back. The idea for an international security forum based in Halifax began more than a decade ago when our then-defence minister, Nova Scotian Peter MacKay, “got a little tired” of traveling to other global security conferences in places like Munich where the discussions were all “Europe-America, Europe-America,” as he explained to the Globe and Mail at the time.

So, MacKay created — and his Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency funded, to the tune of about $3-million a year — a new “opportunity” for the same cast of characters to come together to drone on about “Europe-America, Europe-America,” but in Halifax instead of Munich.

Until COVID forced them online last year, more than 300 equally busy, self-important international politicians, generals, academics, security experts and assorted media celebrity hangers-on made the trek to a Halifax hotel each year on the weekend before American Thanksgiving. There, they would schmooze and fawn over each other for “two days without distractions to focus on pressing security issues, conduct bilateral meetings and network.” After hours, of course, they would hang out with each other and “network” at local restaurants and bars where they would be wined and dined, and we would pay for the pleasures of their presence.

In theory, there is nothing wrong with such gatherings. Bringing people together to talk about, and hopefully solve, world problems is a laudable goal. But the reality is that this security forum only brings together those who already share the same general worldview.

When the Forum talked about China at its 2020 virtual conference, for example — “China vs. Democracy: The Greatest Game” — not a single panelist actually represented the views of the Chinese government, even just so they could be challenged in public. The same was true when it came to Venezuela (given the title, “Maduro’s Venezuela: A Rogues’ Gallery,” that shouldn’t have been surprising) or Russia (“From Moscow to Minsk: Putin’s Poison”). And so on.

You may not be surprised to know that forums over the years haven’t focused on the ongoing threat to democracy posed to much of the world by the United States, especially during the Trump era.

The real questions for Harjit Sajin should be these. Has the world become a better, safer place after more than a decade of Canadian-funded Halifax International Security Forum schmooze fests? And are there better ways to invest tax dollars to achieve that end?

Unfortunately, Sajin has now gotten trapped in a mess of the Forum’s creation.

The China Campaign

Rather than serving as a forum for discussions about global futures, the Washington-run organization has become an anti-China, pro-Taiwan lobby group. In November, it launched a funding campaign to “strengthen your government’s resolve to stand up to China.” Two months later, Peter Van Praagh — a former aide to Peter MacKay who is now the Washington-based president of HFX, as it now seems to prefer to be called — upped the ante, “respectfully” asking world leaders to endorse its campaign against the Chinese government.

And then, of course, the Forum decided to give its 2021 John McCain Prize for Leadership in Public Service to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. Tsai won re-election in a landslide last year on a pledge to defend Taiwan — which China considers a breakaway province — from China.

Fair enough. Except…

The Canadian government is in the messy middle of a delicate, difficult dance to free two imprisoned Canadians more than two years after the Canadian government honoured a US request to arrest Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou so she could be extradited to the US to face fraud charges.

Helping to underwrite what amounts to an American anti-China lobbying campaign in the middle of those negotiations hardly seems the best way to “strengthen strategic cooperation among democratic nations.”

Or to free Canadian citizens wrongly imprisoned in China.

When Canadian officials let it be known that they might withdraw their funding from the conference — we now pay about half the cost — the forum’s Washington office rushed (we can only logically assume) to leak the news to Politico. Meghan McCain quickly tweeted, “Absolutely pathetic — Canadian government is a bunch of cowards condoning Chinese genocide.”

All of which led, of course, to Tory demands in the House of Commons for Sajjan to “guarantee the Halifax security forum will get to keep its funding.”

He didn’t, and he didn’t not. He denied threatening to withdraw funding for the forum, “an independent organization… They make their own decisions on where the awards need to go.” That said, he made clear he wasn’t pledging to fund the forum for the future. “National Defence has supported the international security forum in Halifax for the last 10 years and, once a request is made, it will be considered.”

Which means?

Well, this year’s forum will take place. “We have every confidence that the world’s democracies will succeed in their endeavours to bring the pandemic under control so we can meet in person in November,”  Van Praagh declared. We shall see.

But perhaps we can hope that, even for the wrong reasons, the federal government will finally end its wasteful spending on a policy echo chamber that has become little more than another American lobbying enterprise.

There are more than enough of those already.

A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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