One of the Conservative government’s principal vulnerabilities is its tendency to isolate itself on the international stage (see “On Mideast peace and Arab Spring, Harper stands apart” in Saturday’s Globe and Mail, for example). Which gives the Opposition in Parliament an opportunity, not to be missed, to claim the national and international mainstream on a number of critical issues.

Opposition Leader Jack Layton wisely re-appointed MP Paul Dewar as foreign affairs critic, and MP Jack Harris as defence critic. Continuity with such strong, senior players will serve him well on that part of the opposition front bench.

And then, where to start? An excellent place to start would be on environmental policy.

Foreign governments, notably in the European Union, have long been dismayed by Canada’s record on this issue. Our now long-ago Liberal government paid lip service to international environmental agreements, while compiling the worst environmental record in the G8. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have embraced that record and made it worse, while repudiating the agreements,

We are paying a heavy economic price for this. European and Asian energy and technology firms are adapting quickly to a lower-carbon, higher-efficiency economy — and are becoming more globally competitive in the result. Canadian energy companies understand that they are being left behind, and have been quietly talking about what a sensible climate change policy should look like, in their own best interests as well as those of good environmental policy.

But the Harper government, with an eye on its vulnerable populist right flank in Alberta, is going to stay on its simple-minded populist dime on this issue. As far as this Conservative government is concerned, dealing with climate change is about slapping big taxes on your family, and that is bad bad bad. Fill ‘er up for ya?

So the Opposition has a chance here to work with and learn from the governments of other G20 countries, and to work with and learn from an interesting potential new partner — Canada’s more progressive-minded energy companies. It has an opportunity to credibly attack this government for being economically, environmentally and diplomatically reckless and incompetent on this issue. And it has an opportunity to propose better alternatives, that might draw wide national, international and industry support.

What next? How about defence procurement.

Multi-billion dollar defence purchases are — wisely — debated in detail in other countries. Now that Parliament has a government and an opposition that disagree on issues of substance, you can expect to hear a good deal more about real issues like this in Canadian federal politics — just one example of the many benefits of moving away from elite brokerage politics in our national legislature.

So then, tune in to the debate about the F-35 fighter-bomber in the United States and in Europe. Our American friends are getting their heads around the idea that investing in a fleet of F-35s might imply an overall lifetime investment in the order of a trillion dollars.

The Harper government is in denial about the real costs of this airplane, and is seeking to lock Canada into it. This is an opportunity for the opposition to make some friends in Washington as well as in Europe — to join in this debate, to get to the bottom of it, to force the government to tell the truth about this multi-billion dollar proposed investment, and to consider whether there aren’t smarter alternatives.

And more? Carefully, prudently, without repeating past mistakes, the Opposition has a further opportunity to occupy the national and international mainstream on the issue of peace in the Middle East.

On few issues has the Harper government been more isolated internationally than in its unhelpful, nakedly opportunist, purely domestically politically-driven policy towards peace in that region. Privately, diplomats in Canada don’t try very hard to hide their outrage over the approach taken by the Conservatives to one of the world’s most difficult and dangerous challenges — right at the heart of a region currently riven by tumultuous change.

The Opposition has had some growing up to do on this issue itself, if we’re all being honest about it. The new interim leader of one of the third parties in Parliament left the NDP claiming (fairly justified) outrage over the opposition’s previous inability to find a balanced approach.

But that was then. Opposition Leader Jack Layton and foreign-affairs critic Paul Dewar have undone most of the damage — speaking directly and clearly to the rights of the Israeli people to legitimacy, to security, and to freedom from terror. And to the concurrent rights of the Palestinian people to those same rights. As people of good heart on all sides have been saying for a generation now, this is, surely, the only basis on which peace will return to that microscopically tiny patch of land. Murdered Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, one of your modest blogger’s personal heroes, showed the way forward. A point that entirely eludes Mr. Harper, to the dismay of all of his peers in the G20.

And so, the Opposition has an opportunity to make friends with the mainstream interlocutors trying to make progress on this issue — in the U.S. administration, in the EU, and in the region. And — coolly, calmly, quietly, without regressing to one-sided sloganeering — to propose a better approach to Canada’s global responsibilities in this area.

Lester Pearson won his Nobel for his work in the Middle East. Mr. Harper is in no danger of receiving a Nobel for what he has been doing there, or anywhere else. Canadians want to be proud of their contribution to peace and to world affairs. If it plays its cards skillfully, Her Majesty’s Official Opposition in Parliament can make much of this.

This article was originally published in the Globe and Mail.

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