September 4, 2008 / 8:03 PM / in 9 years

Canada seeks fifth foreign minister in 2-1/2 years

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Foreign Minister David Emerson said on Wednesday he would not run in an election expected to be called on Sunday, leaving Canada to find its fifth foreign minister in a little over two and a half years.

Emerson, who had been in the job for just over two months, did not give a reason for deciding not to run again in the election, expected to be held October 14. Friends say he is fed up with commuting more than 3,500 km (2,200 miles) between Ottawa and his Vancouver constituency on the Pacific Coast, where he has a young family.

Experts say the rapid turnover in the foreign ministry shows how marginalized the institution has become, with more and more important policy decisions coming from the office of the prime minister.

“Foreign ministers here tend to be more subordinate to the prime minister than in other countries,” one senior diplomat told Reuters. “They are more of a political pawn.”

Ironically, Emerson was the one of the stronger people to occupy the post in recent times. He took over in June from Maxime Bernier, who resigned after admitting he had left classified documents in the apartment of an ex-girlfriend.

Although Bernier had no foreign policy experience when he was appointed in August 2007, he came from the French-speaking province of Quebec, where Prime Minister Stephen Harper hoped to build a stronger profile for the Conservative government.

“Emerson’s appointment was ... an explicit recognition that there was a problem with not having proper adult supervision in that office,” said Fen Hampson, a professor in international affairs at Ottawa’s Carleton University.

“It’s a great loss because in a very short period of time he brought skill, statesmanship and some real gravitas to what is a very important portfolio,” Hampson told Reuters.

Even Pierre Pettigrew, who served as foreign minister in Canada’s previous Liberal government, had little control over policy matters, thanks to then Prime Minister Paul Martin’s keen interest in international affairs.

The Conservative government’s first foreign minister was Peter MacKay, a former rival of Harper‘s. MacKay, who had no foreign policy experience, started in February 2006, right after the January general election, and then moved to the defense portfolio in August 2007.

“The foreign ministry has become sort of ... a place to put individuals who are politically useful domestically,” said Hampson.

Emerson ran for the Liberals in the January 2006 election, and then immediately defected to the Conservatives, who named him trade minister.

He is only one of three cabinet ministers who have said they will not seek re-election. Fisheries Minister Loyola Hearn and Human Resources Minister Monte Solberg are also quitting.

Whoever becomes Canada’s next foreign minister after the election it will more than likely be another Conservative, according to the latest opinion poll.

An Environics survey for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. put the ruling Conservatives at 38 percent support, compared with just 28 percent for the main opposition Liberal Party.

Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson

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