John McCallum’s political skills failed both him and Trudeau

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John McCallum got the job as Canada’s ambassador to China because of his political background. The clear signal to the Chinese was that the former cabinet minister could pick up the phone and speak directly to the prime minister.

In the end McCallum’s political skills failed both him and the man who sent him to Beijing.

His last call with the PM wasn’t initiated by him — it was Justin Trudeau firing him from the post.

Virtually every analyst says McCallum had to go for telling the media, not once but twice this week, that it would be better for Canada if Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou isn’t extradited to the United States.

One slip-up could be forgiven. The second could not.

Former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson, who’s now vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said McCallum’s firing was unavoidable.

« In private discussions with the Chinese he might be able to say those things, » Robertson told CBC News on Sunday. « To say those things publicly is completely counter to what the prime minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland have been saying — that this is a judicial process based on the rule of law. »

McCallum’s comments suggested just the opposite, lending credence to what Chinese had insisted all along — Meng’s arrest was political.

It’s a devastating setback for Canadian diplomacy with China.

When Justin Trudeau first met President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Turkey back in November 2015, Xi made a point of praising his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, for what he called his « historic engagement » with China in 1970.

« China will always remember that, » Xi said. 

Better left unsaid

In sending McCallum to China in 2017, Trudeau was choosing a long-time cabinet member who had overseen the process of re-settling nearly 40,000 Syrian refugees.

Yes, there were risks in appointing a politician who was never loath to speak his mind to the sensitive world of diplomacy where, as the American politician Lincoln Chafee once said, « some things are better left unsaid. » That just wasn’t McCallum’s style. He was a frequent guest on political talk shows. He was never one to duck a question. Unlike most diplomats, he never bought into the notion of talking without saying anything.

But whatever those risks, Trudeau wanted the value of appointing a highly visible cabinet minister to Beijing. In doing so he elevated China to a status that had been reserved, previously, for the most important and high-profile diplomatic posts in Washington, London and Paris.

Trudeau wanted closer ties with the world’s second-largest economy. McCallum’s job was to help make that happen.

McCallum leaves a federal cabinet meeting in Sherbrooke, Que., on Wednesday, Jan. 16. He was a frequent guest on political talk shows and was never one to duck a question. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

News reports of his appointment noted McCallum’s wife is Chinese. His old riding in Markham, Ont., is home to many people of Chinese descent.

« I need my top people to be out there engaging at the highest levels around the world, » Trudeau said at the time.

The marching order, as McCallum himself set it out, was more of everything: trade, investment, tourism, cultural ties.

Those gains really never fully materialized.

Canada did secure a tourism deal with China that made it easier for Chinese tourists to visit Canada.

But the desire to commence formal free trade talks fizzled, despite the prime minister’s own visit to China in December 2017. A year later, Meng’s arrest on behalf of the United States as she stepped off a flight in Vancouver sent relations spiralling to new lows.

Choosing the next ambassador will be a delicate process 

The consequences of McCallum’s departure now are serious.

Two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, remain in custody in China, accused of endangering national security, both arrested shortly after Meng was detained in Canada.

A third Canadian, convicted in China of drug smuggling, had his 15-year jail term overturned and now faces a death sentence.

McCallum’s predecessor in Beijing, Guy Saint-Jacques, said finding the right person now to represent Canada is critical.

« In my view, this crisis is the worst we have seen with China since we established diplomatic relations back in 1970. »

And whoever Trudeau chooses, it has to be soon. The lives of those three detained Canadians are in the balance. A successful resolution to that crisis, and to the Meng extradition, is paramount.

Normalizing relations with a powerful nation such as China comes next. That job will include communicating to China what role, if any, Huawei will have in Canada’s 5G mobile network.

The question now is where Trudeau will turn for his next ambassador.

Saint-Jacques, for one, believes the next ambassador has to have a deep knowledge of China. Others add that McCallum’s successor needs to be fluent in Mandarin, which McCallum wasn’t, and should come from the senior ranks of the foreign service, rather than the front lines of the political world.

Still others say the next ambassador must continue to have the ear of the prime minister.

It all adds up to this. The next call between Trudeau and Canada’s ambassador to China will be initiated by the prime minister again. And it will be just as important as his last.

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McCallum’s firing an opportunity to ‘reset’ relations with China: former diplomat – National

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The firing of John McCallum as Canada’s ambassador to China represents an opportunity for the two countries to reset their relationship, according to a former diplomat.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Saturday that McCallum had been told to hand in his resignation hours after he was quoted saying it would be “great for Canada” if the U.S. dropped its extradition request for Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.

McCallum’s firing left Ottawa’s strategy for navigating tensions with Beijing in disarray; it came days after the former immigration minister and Liberal MP said he misspoke in telling Chinese-language journalists that Meng had arguments that could aid her legal fight against extradition.

READ MORE: McCallum out as Canadian ambassador to China after comments on Meng extradition

“It’s an opportunity to reset the relationship. We’ve now got the opportunity to put in a new ambassador,” Colin Robertson, former diplomat and vice-president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, said on The West Block on Sunday.

“I think we should also be pushing for a new Chinese ambassador because some of the comments that he’s made about white supremacy are just off the reservation,” Robertson added in reference to ambassador Lu Shaye’s accusation that Canada’s calls for the release of detained Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were driven by “Western egotism and white supremacy.”

WATCH: Government explains firing of Canada’s Ambassador to China







Robertson said the appointment of new ambassadors could pave the way for more fruitful engagement, and that the Canadian government should “impress upon the Chinese that we’re prepared to engage with them.”

However, the first priority is getting Kovrig and Spavor released and convincing China to mitigate the death sentence handed to convicted drug smuggler Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, Robertson added.

In the wake of McCallum’s resignation, Jim Nickel, deputy head of mission at the Embassy of Canada in Beijing, will represent the country in China as charge d’affaires effective immediately, Trudeau said.

READ MORE: McCallum’s comments ‘unhelpful’ in securing release of Canadians detained in China, Mendocino says

Canada’s strategy is being closely watched by Western allies such as Australia and the U.K., Robertson said, “because they could be in this same situation so that’s why they’re banding behind us.”

But he acknowledged that, ultimately, Canada is in the middle of a spat between two far more powerful players in the U.S. — which is seeking Meng’s extradition — and China.

“I don’t think much is going to happen until the China-U.S. relationship is sorted out and, of course, we’re through this extradition hearing with Meng Wanzhou,” Robertson said.

— With files from the Canadian Press

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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‘Nobody is feeling good about’ John McCallum’s departure, says PMO source

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John McCallum had two big jobs in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government. First, as immigration minister from 2015 to early 2017, he managed the influx of Syrian refugees to this country; then, for the last two years, McCallum was Canada’s man in China.

On a day that both of those issues collided spectacularly in the news, McCallum lost his job as Canada’s ambassador to China — asked by Trudeau to step down after some extremely ill-advised remarks on Friday to a StarMetro reporter in Vancouver.

Even as attention was riveted on Kingston, Ont., and the questioning of a Syrian refugee in a terrorism take-down on Friday, McCallum was musing aloud in Vancouver about how it would be “great for Canada” if the U.S. dropped an extradition request that has entangled Canada in a massive, high-stakes dispute with China.

It was McCallum’s second verbal misstep in a week, and Trudeau phoned him late on Friday night to say that this latest outburst was one too many.

The firing throws a bucket of cold water over speculation all last week that McCallum was saying what the Trudeau government could not say publicly in what has been an escalating, high-stakes feud with China, kicked off by the December arrest and detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou as part of the U.S. extradition request.

Since then, two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, have been detained and another, David Schellenberg, has been sentenced to death.

This is, in short, not a situation that can tolerate freelancing, even by a man with a long history with this Prime Minister. (McCallum was dean of arts at McGill University when Trudeau and his principal advisor, Gerald Butts, were students there.)

McCallum, on two separate occasions in the past week, appeared to be saying that politics — not the rule of law — would get this whole mess sorted. That’s “completely offside” with what the Trudeau government has been saying, a PMO source said, about the need to keep the rule of law at the forefront.

“You can walk those comments back once,” the PMO source said on Saturday. “Not twice.”

Trudeau’s reluctance to jettison the ambassador was evident earlier in the week, when reporters asked him on Thursday about the outcry over McCallum’s remarks and demands — especially from Conservatives — that he fire him.

The Prime Minister, obviously annoyed, made clear that McCallum’s job had been saved for practical, not sentimental reasons: “Making a change would not help release those Canadians a day sooner,” he said.

The question now is whether McCallum’s missteps have prolonged the misery of those Canadians. This will be the top question in the coming days, as Trudeau wrestles with the question of who will replace the ambassador to China at a moment when every step seems perilous.

Read more:

Ambassador John McCallum says it would be ‘great for Canada’ if U.S. drops extradition request for Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou

John McCallum’s ‘gaffe’ was telling the truth about China and Huawei

Canada’s ambassador to China backs Meng’s chances of fighting extradition to the U.S.

One thing is clear — the next appointee will not be offering political opinions to journalists. It will be a surprise, in fact, if the next ambassador is allowed to speak to the media at all.

It is almost ironic that McCallum would lose his job for being too political. When he first came to elected politics in 2000, fresh from the Royal Bank of Canada where he served as economist, many thought McCallum was too academic for the rough and tumble of political life.

But he seemed to relish the job, and was repeatedly a good sport when Stephen Harper, then in opposition, did his annual impersonations of McCallum at the press gallery dinner. Once the Liberals were relegated to the opposition benches, McCallum was one of the happier warriors, appearing to enjoy the chance to pillory the Harper government at any opportunity.

So McCallum became one of the few, trusted “old hands” when Trudeau swore in his first cabinet, with all its emphasis on youth, women and diversity. Similarly, his appointment as ambassador was meant to send a signal to China that the Trudeau government was putting someone serious, political and trusted into the job of ambassador.

“Nobody is feeling good about this,” the PMO source said of the decision to axe McCallum. That is undoubtedly true — many times over — for the Canadians whose future hangs in the balance in China.

The questions over McCallum’s future have been settled this weekend. But the futures of Kovrig, Spavor and Schellenberg — as well as Meng in Vancouver — are as unsettled as they were last week, and perhaps more so.

Susan Delacourt is the Star’s Ottawa bureau chief and a columnist covering national politics. Reach her via email: sdelacourt@thestar.ca or follow her on Twitter: @susandelacourt

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