Skip to main content

by David T. Jones

The following analysis of the recent Canadian elections by David T. Jones provides useful insight into the workings of our Northern neighbor’s political system and of its implications for U.S./Canadian relations.—Assoc. Ed.

The second battle of the War of the Chretien Succession is now over. On January 23, the Canadian electorate reversed its previous balance, according the Conservatives a minority government of 124 of 308 seats with the Liberals reduced to 104 seats. The Quebec separatist party holds fifty-one seats; the socialists twenty-nine; and there is a lone independent, a “shock jock” radio commentator from Quebec.

Sworn in as prime minister on February 6, Stephen Harper will return Parliament on April 3 facing a Liberal Party under a temporary leader, divided between warring factions and deeply in debt. Moreover, many previous “mentions” for party leadership have declined to run; consequently, there are some prospects that even such a fragile minority could endure two years before facing the electorate again.

The meaning for the U. S. Government? Mixed — and still a guesstimate rather than any approximation of a certainty. Prime Minister Harper’s objective will be to avoid errors and build sufficient public acceptance to win a majority in the next election; hence, he will play each issue by mentally counting voters. The best case bilaterally would be less whining, bombast, and axiomatic rejection of any and all U. S. views. The reality is likely to be a careful selection of Canadian positions taken only when judged to be overwhelmingly beneficial to Canada. But hopefully these will be advanced without the crude America baiting/bashing that has so characterized Canadian politics since 2001.

Some Background. Like every election, January 23 had its history. In this instance, the history was rooted in the unprecedented success of the Liberal Party victory in 1993. At that juncture, a roundly despised Tory government, laboring under the burden of scandal, recession, and constitutional turmoil after 9 years in power was virtually annihilated. The Liberals seized a crushing parliamentary majority, leaving a fragmented opposition of Western conservatives (the Reform Party), a powerful Quebec separatist party (the Bloc Quebecois), a socialist rump, and two lonely Tories. Indeed, the Tories never recovered.

Under Jean Chretien the Liberals won repeat victories in 1997 and again in 2000; the Western conservatives morphed into variants seeking greater national acceptability, slowly strengthening, but still far from power. The Quebec separatists declined in successive elections; Tories and socialists essentially marched in place. There was, in fact, no effective opposition to the Liberals.

So the Liberals, long anointed as Canada’s “natural governing party” became arrogant, self-satisfied, and “entitled.” That is hardly surprising; indeed, it would have been more amazing had they not. More unfortunately, however, they became corrupt—and finally sufficiently corrupt that it had to be sanctioned in political as well as juridical terms.

The arrogance played itself out thru internecine party maneuvering that resulted in Prime Minister Chretien forced most unwillingly into retirement and replaced (after a long/long goodbye) in February 2004 by his former finance Minister Paul Martin. Bitterness remained palatable between the Chretienites and the Martinites; there was no kiss-and-make-up. Instead, former rivals were consigned to outer darkness (Ambassador to the UN) or defeated in constituency renomination battles by individuals personally selected by Martin. This weakened the party on the eve of the 2004 election.

Scandal. Martin had barely time to take a deep breath as PM when the Auditor General tabled a report to Parliament, detailing information on apparent malfeasance in the awarding and fiscal monitoring of federal sponsorships and advertising contracts in Quebec. These contracts were designed to give a stronger image of “federalism” in Quebec. Quickly labeled “Adscam,” the circumstances had the labyrinthine intricacies of “Whitewater” or other comparable exercises when massive amounts of money evaporate, and legions of lawyers are rallied to find the guilty and/or defend the accused.

In the run up to the 2004 election, Martin dodged the Adscam bullet. He denounced malefactors, declared he was “mad as hell” over events, and fired anyone in sight connected with the program (notably they were all Chretien supporters). Parliamentary inquiry was predictably raucous and politicized with Liberals obfuscating and Conservatives denouncing. A formal judicial inquiry was scheduled for fall 2004.

The 2004 Election. This was near death for the Liberals. Martin wasn’t the only Canadian who was “mad as hell” over Adscam; plenty of ordinary Canadians were just as incensed and determined to take it out on Liberals. This was particularly true in Quebec where the intimations of bribes and payoffs and covert intervention in the 1995 Quebec referendum revived a virtually moribund Bloc Quebecois, which rose from thirty-three to fifty-four seats.

The conservatives had a different problem. After a decade of dagger-pointed difference and split into two parties, they had been slowly inching toward fusion. Akin to the technique of mating porcupines (“very carefully”), the parties agreed to reunite in December 2003 with the Canadian Alliance leader (Stephen Harper) as leader of the new Conservative Party of Canada (the Tories) and the leader of the old Progressive Conservatives, Peter McKay, as his deputy. That unification left little time for creating a party platform or putting together the structure of a national campaign. It was akin to taking a handcrafted prototype racing car directly from the garage to the Indianapolis 500. And, it broke down.

After a fast Tory start, the Liberals were able to exploit infelicities by various Tory candidates (who revealed themselves—horror of horrors—to be conservative). A variety of end-game Liberal attack ads effectively depicted the Tories as “scary” with the intimation that Harper was a respectable “suit” fronting for redneck Albertan trogs who would implement a right wing agenda, end a woman’s right to choose anything but a coat hanger for an abortion, and put Canadian boys into body bags for U. S. government benefit. And, at the end, Martin campaigning like a man possessed seemed to want it more — covering the breadth of Canada in a day while Harper seemed exhausted and campaigned in final days only in fortress Alberta.

Thus “fear overcame loathing” and the Liberals eked out a minority government victory. One more time they had proved not only that they could not be defeated, but that they could not even defeat themselves.

Fast Forwarding Thru the Minority Government. Although minority governments are not common in Canada (the last being a short-lived episode in 1979), they can be productive. Many observers hoped that a chastened Liberal Party could combine tactically with socialists and/or others to produce liberal legislation to address perceived social problems in health care, child welfare, aboriginal poverty, and the support payments to provincial governments.

Instead the Liberals knife edge hold on power never sharpened. They had no single partner, e.g., the socialists, with whom they could form a solid majority. They constantly battled the revelations stemming from the judicial inquiry over Quebec sponsorships and almost collapsed in the spring (saved only by inducing a senior Conservative to cross the aisle to assume a Liberal government ministerial position). It was high politics, breathtaking in its audacity and indicated that the Tory leadership had been badly outmaneuvered.

Nevertheless, the Liberals could do nothing with their renewed lease on life. Their initiatives to “fix” health care promised transfers of tens of billions of dollars to the provinces without any public sense that the essential problem of extended waiting times for major health services would be resolved. Their approach to governing appeared to be find problems and throw money at them. Promises/promises fueled by a surging oil-based economy that continued to pump petro-dollar money into federal coffers.

Paul “Peter Principle” Martin as Prime Minister. Paul Martin appears to be a classic illustration of the “Peter Principle.” Son of a senior Liberal minister (who desperately wanted to be prime minister but failed), he was a highly successful businessman before entering Liberal politics. Within the Chretien government, he proved to be an excellent finance minister—or at least one lucky enough to ride the best economy of the twentieth century to a conclusion wherein the budget deficit was eliminated, national debt reduced, and taxes cut. As prime minister in waiting, he was the “anti-Chretien,” i.e., a man who listened and consulted, thought and reflected, and had a sophisticated urbane approach to the topics that Chretien either ignored or mangled.

Unfortunately for all concerned, and particularly for Prime Minister Martin, his abilities proved more hypothetical than real. There was no priority that wasn’t “very important”—hence there were no priorities. He pondered for months over trivial appointments. His willingness to consult looked increasingly like indecision. Doubtless, he was constrained by the realities of minority government, but instead of opening parliament to greater “democracy” and free votes by party members, he (and his increasingly disliked staffers) rigidly enforced party discipline and dissipated their natural positive media relations.

Moreover, he mangled the bilateral relationship with the United States when everything was prepared for success. Ostensibly, he sought better relations with the United States — and we were prepared to support anyone who was not Jean Chretien. But Martin postured and prevaricated when confronted with issues. Thus after having led senior U. S. government officials to believe Ottawa would give tacit support to continental missile defense (that would have cost Canada nothing financially and required no commitment to basing), he rejected such an agreement (leaving the American ambassador “puzzled”) without having bothered to inform senior U. S. officials prior to his announcement. The combination of irresolution and delay gained him the sobriquet of “Mr. Dithers” — the type of characterization that is hardly politically enhancing.

The beaver gnawing down the Martin government, however, was the Gomery investigation into the advertising/sponsorship scandal in Quebec. In a cesspool that kept deepening, the federal and provincial Liberals were shown to have engaged in endless rounds of manipulated contracts and kickbacks. It was discouragingly sleazy, and the “Liberal” brand in Quebec suffered accordingly. Ultimately Judge Gomery released a major report in mid-November that cleared PM Martin from direct responsibility, but damned other Liberals and the Liberal Party’s culture of entitlement/corruption prevalent in Quebec. Seeking to benefit from this renewed round of popular anger, the Opposition parties toppled the Liberals on a rare vote of “no confidence” at the end of November.

The Campaign
Nevertheless, despite popular irritation and the wide impression that the Liberals were well past their “best before” date, when the election campaign began, the impression remained that the Liberals would not lose. It is very hard to defeat an incumbent when the lunch buckets are full, and Canada was enjoying one of the best economies in memory: low inflation; balanced budgets; increased federal spending; reduced taxes; rising employment. Consequently, the polls suggested that the Opposition’s manipulation of an election was premature and that the electorate was not amused by the prospect of an election in the worst winter month (and including the holiday season). The result, said the pundits, would be still another minority government headed by Liberals. But a funny thing happened on the way to the polls.

It was a curious election: longer at fifty-six days than the Canadian standard and broken at the three-week mark by the Christmas-New Year’s holiday, it was distinctly a two-parter.

During the first three weeks, the Tories offered a proposal a day, while the Liberals just took pot-shots at the Conservative ideas and waited for Harper and Tory trogs to repeat their 2004 mistakes. But they didn’t; instead, it was the Liberals who stumbled — most notably when the primary Liberal media spokesman sneered at a Tory proposal of $25 per week/per young child for day care when the Liberals were proposing a massive state funded program. The Liberal spokesman said parents would spend it on “beer and popcorn”—thereby illustrating an essentially condescending philosophical approach, i.e., that Liberals knew better than parents how to care for children.

Following the Christmas entr’acte, events broke badly for the Liberals. The RCMP announced an investigation into potential leaks from the Finance Minister’s office that boosted insider trading in specialized funds immediately prior to the finance minister’s ruling on the funds. This dramatic announcement (it is rare that the RCMP would publicly declare such an investigation at so early a juncture) suggested—indeed hammered home the point—that the culture of entitlement/sleaze epitomized in Adscam had not ended. Then a wild gang shooting on a major downtown Toronto street killed a teenage girl shopping with her family. This mini tragedy played to the law-and-order with mandatory sentencing themes that the Conservatives had been stressing while other parties had mouthed “root causes” platitudes to address violent crime.

The Liberals plunged in the polls; it looked like a death dive, but their response was a barrage of negative advertising that, while bitterly denounced by the media, staved off what looked like impending Liberal electoral collapse. To a degree the negative television ads proved counterproductive; however, the intimation that Harper was bankrolled by rightwing U. S. operatives and was a George Bush clone with a U. S. (obviously un-Canadian) agenda will stick with many of the unsophisticated.

So Why Did the Liberals Lose?
Stephen Harper Is Smart. You can do more with intelligence than with stupidity — and Stephen Harper is one of the most intelligent men in current Canadian politics. Intelligence doesn’t always translate into charisma or “street smarts,” and Harper’s reputation in and outside politics was that of a man more comfortable with ideas than with people. During the 2004 campaign, the camera didn’t love him and he didn’t love the media (and worst of all, he let it show). He wasn’t a chatty, small talk person and on television, he gave the impression of someone in a suit who would prefer to be elsewhere. Consequently, he could be depicted as “scary” in a way that your average politician, genetically programmed to be warm, cuddly, and extraverted automatically avoids.

So Harper changed. He took a deep breath, reviewed the bidding (perhaps listened to handlers and media experts) and changed: modern hair style; open-necked shirts and turtle necks; chat with the press (pretending at least to enjoy the experience); and smile. Everyone knew it was a pretense — but it proved that Harper cared enough about popular image to try and Canadians gave him credit for it.

In this regard, Harper is reminiscent of one-time Bloc Quebecois leader Lucien Bouchard. Also one of the most intelligent men in Canadian politics, Bouchard was initially a hopeless campaigner, having to be all but led through the motions by professional managers. But driven by the chimera of Quebec independence, Bouchard transformed himself into a brilliant speaker and outstanding campaigner. For obviously different objectives, Harper has also harnessed his intelligence into a political design that if not charisma is at least campaigning competence.

Conservatives Moved to the CenterNor did the Conservatives avoid substantive makeover. Gone were many of the Reform Party maxims of a “triple E” Senate (equal, elected, effective), popular referendums/recall, hostility to Quebec, and upfront calls for abortion limits and flat rejection of gay marriage. Instead, in the great centralizing tendency of successful political parties, the Tories stressed honesty/accountability in government, tax reform, direct payment to parents for child care, and adjusting the “fiscal imbalance” between Ottawa’s revenues and those of the provinces.

Time for a Change. There was a strong sense that re-electing the Liberals would endorse their corruption and sense of entitlement. The hopes that rested in 2004 with Paul Martin, i.e., that he would demonstrate a “clean broom” and revive the Liberals simply didn’t emerge. Martin often looked old, frazzled, fatigued — in short every one of his sixty-seven years. Harper, who had clearly worn down during the 2004 campaign, appeared to pace himself better; had lost some weight; and benefited from the mid-campaign Christmas-New Years break to recharge. The juxtaposition between the calm Harper and “hot” Martin benefited Harper. Moreover, the circumstances were propitious for “change” as the Liberals suggested a same-old/same-old approach with almost a palatable need to sit one out; get a new generation of leadership to the fore; and decide what they are all about as a twenty-first century political party.

A Perfect Conservative Campaign. The Tory campaign was one for political scientists to mull over for years; it was, however, more accidentally perfect than designed perfect. It juxtaposed what had been “learned” by the Tories in 2004 with what the Liberals had “learned” in 2004. Each party indeed learned; however, what the Tories learned and implemented, perfectly countered what the Liberals had learned.

Thus the Liberals decided that they would delay the release of their full platform until the second half of the campaign (after the Christmas break) so it would not be lost or ignored during the opening days of campaigning. They anticipated that Harper/Tories would repeat errors and misstatements that had plagued them during the 2004 campaign, and the Liberals could easily play off these goofs with “gotcha” ripostes. Instead, the Tories made no errors; they ran a tightly scripted campaign with their more rambunctious MPs silenced. They presented a proposal per day — bringing out their platform plank by plank; some elements such as reducing the generally despised national goods and services (GST) by one percent immediately and another one percent shortly struck a nerve as the Liberals had implicitly promised to eliminate the GST during the 1993 campaign, but kept it as an efficient money gatherer. Although the proposals did not seem to have great individual resonance, the cumulative effect dissipated the ritualistic Liberal charge that the Tories had a “hidden agenda.”

And the Tories were lucky. The announced Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigation into the question of leaked financial information and the “murder on Main Street” reminded Canadians of Liberal weaknesses and Conservative merits.

So What Does This Mean for the USA? Some Canadian commentators cautioned Washington against appearing triumphal about a victory by the Conservatives and Stephen Harper. In other words, we should show less enthusiasm than Canadians would have done noting the first anniversary of “President Kerry’s” inaugural.

Canadians need have no fear. There is no dancing on Pennsylvania Avenue. There is no “Dubya” nickname awaiting “Big Steve.”

Americans have been down this road recently enough to remember the trip. Two years ago, we assumed that any “non-Chretien” would improve our bilateral relations. But Mr Chretien’s anti-Americanism was so visceral that while spewing insult, he could hardly resist stabbing us in the front. With Mr Martin, however, for some while, we thought that he was patting us on the back. After all, he said that one of his key objectives when assuming office was to improve Canada’s relations with the United States. That objective was not the least of his failures—presumably he thought he could defer it until his second mandate, but it might have been better for all if he had cultivated a profile of courage not caution.

So now we remain “best friends, like it or not” with the emphasis on the “not.” But that means “not” at the jaw/jaw level of disagreement with lawyerly sniping as the norm. Economics are the driver in our relations. There are limits to how bad the relationship can become, and we are nowhere near these limits. Most Americans, for example, still have no idea how much they are disliked north of the border. When Canadians really don’t want to soil their feet on our ground, they travel to Cuba where there are no vicious American exploiters or Kyoto deniers.

And the idea that Stephen Harper is a U.S. neocon in drag is akin to suggesting that Pope Benedict is a closet atheist. Those who suggest Harper is a right wing conservative have a malicious disregard for U.S. political realities. Yes, we know that Canadian politicians fly with two left wings, but that is not how eagles are feathered. When you have a politician who supports socialized medicine, official bilingualism, extensive controls on firearms, and easy access to abortion, this is not a conservative Republican.

So what will Washington expect from a Harper/Conservative government? What we may most appreciate from the end of the Canadian election campaign is that Ottawa will stop insisting that we are its problem and concentrate on the reality that Canada is its own problem. In truth the Tories will be like all Canadian governments—one that is nationalistically Canadian. Ottawa will vigorously promote its own interests and seek bilateral solutions that satisfy its domestic economic objective and international foreign affairs ambitions. To the degree that these interests and objectives coincide with those of the United States, there will be agreement and cooperation. And to the obverse, not. Curiously enough, that is exactly the approach taken by the U. S. government — that is, we will act in our own interests for our own objectives.

Perhaps the most unfortunate consequence of the recent campaign is the heavy investment that the Liberal Party has made in anti-Americanism. Yes, ritualistic anti-Americanism is embedded in Canadian DNA and is part of virtually every Canadian politician’s cassette. The thirty-second sound bite that “I won’t be the fifty-first state of America” is almost as uneventful as U. S. politicians discovering that we share “the world’s longest undefended cliché.” But not since 1988 when Liberal John Turner ads attempted to defeat NAFTA with a giant eraser wiping out the border has hostility to the United States been such an election focal point. One could come away from Liberal campaign rhetoric with the conclusion that only Canadians had “values” (let alone virtues) and that as a “neighbor” we were barely tolerable in any dimension (a bit like living next to the sewerage reprocessing center). It was almost plaintive when official American spokesmen such as Ambassador Wilkins noted that the United States was not on the Canadian ballot.

In a parliamentary system, it is the role of the Opposition to oppose. There is no incentive for cooperative creativity, only negativity. And particularly given a minority government, the Opposition will not want the government to succeed. Thus we can anticipate that any bilateral proposal not opening with a recommendation that Washington be burned to the ground and salt sown in its ashes will be depicted as a craven sell out to the United States. And any American refusal to proclaim a Canadian initiative as the best idea since sliced bread will be characterized as illustrating U. S. recalcitrance. Indeed, Stephen Harper hadn’t even officially become prime minister before he denounced U. S. policy for recognizing Canadian sovereignty over Arctic Northwest Passage waters — a point, incidentally that no other state accepts, but gave Harper a quick shin-kicking opportunity to demonstrate that he was not a “Dubya” clone.

One Clear Benefit — a New Ambassador. Certainly one of the positives from the election was the departure of Ambassador Frank McKenna, who resigned within hours of the election results. Departure prior to defenestration was an adroit choice on his part. Indeed, it is rare that a diplomat is so comprehensively maladroit. He was virtually the poster child for the political appointee out of his depth — a status frequently accorded to U. S. ambassadors but now ceded to Mr. McKenna.

Upon McKenna’s arrival in Washington in March 2005, the essential hope was that the presence of a senior Liberal politician would demonstrate to Washington that he could speak definitively for Ottawa — and assure that official U. S. messages would have a direct pipeline to the prime minister. Unfortunately from the beginning, he proved to be totally out of the loop, indicating that Canadian participation in continental missile defense was “on” when it was “off” and then suggesting that Ottawa had rejected participation because of U.S. mad cow disease concerns on Canadian beef. That potentially catastrophic venture into “linkage” was quickly gainsaid by Ottawa.

McKenna then added insult to ignorance with speeches that declared the United States to be a dysfunctional society and described the U. S. Congress as akin to having “535 Carolyn Parrishes in one place.” For those unaware of Ms Parrish, she was the worthy who declared that she hated Americans, termed President Bush a “bastard,” and jumped up and down on a Bush doll on national TV. This, to be sure, was a curious way to influence even blue state American congressmen.

McKenna’s replacement, Michael Wilson, is an old-line Tory, finance minister in the Mulroney government. Although hardly a Harper intimate, he is deeply connected with Ontario business/banking circles. The implicit message from his appointment is that our bilateral business is business, and he has made his public priority the resolution of the softwood lumber controversy. With Wilson, if he insults us, we can be confident that it was calculated and cleared, not gratuitous.

Conclusion. The War of the Chretien Succession is far from over and the Harper government is a work in progress. The last Conservative minority government (in 1979) collapsed in nine months from a combination of arrogance and ignorance by it leader. While we can assume that Harper has taken counsel from history, one miscalculation among his “must have” priorities could bring him down — and two-thirds of Parliament stands politically to his left.

Oddly, if there is a foreign affairs problem it is less likely to be directly with the United States as we have deliberately decided not to engage on high profile issues (missile defense or Arctic sovereignty). Rather, it is Afghanistan where the Canadians with over 2,000 troops committed find themselves in a lead role for the NATO force when it is moving into higher risk (and likely casualty producing) operations. Although hardly a stealth commitment, the Canadian public apparently paid no attention; but now there have been some bloody consequences and sixty-two percent in a recent poll decided they don’t like the idea after all — presumably because it helps the United States. Stay tuned.End.

David T. Jones
David T. Jones

David T. Jones earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees and pursued further graduate studies, all at the University of Pennsylvania. He has written extensively over the years for U.S. and Canadian publications.

Comments are closed.