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A retired senior U. S. Foreign Service officer, the author of this analysis brings many years of experience to the scene in examining in detail the current state of national Canadian politics. The reader may well be interested, among other topics, in the question of Quebec independence at this time. – Ed.

by David T. Jones

The Canadian federal Parliament has now risen for an extended summer break. The recess provides a useful juncture to offer a prima facia substantive assessment along with the prospects and problems facing a Conservative minority government. In short, Canadians are still getting accustomed to Conservatives in government; however, they appear to like the experience. At a minimum, they seem to be concluding that PM Stephen Harper as a middle age, wonky, hockey dad isn’t as “scary” as Liberals had depicted him and, if there is a “hidden agenda” in the Tories’ hip pockets, it has yet to emerge.

Bilaterally, the Tories are an attitude changer in U. S.-Canada bilateral relations—regardless of the duration of the government. We will still disagree over problems—and even principles—but not over personalities.

The election of a minority Conservative Party government in January (124 seats in a 308 member parliament) is the first conservative government since 1992. The Conservatives succeed a minority Liberal government. They require support (or abstention) by other parties to pass any legislation; however, all three opposition parties must cooperate to defeat the government.

For his part, Prime Minister Harper has been governing with a confidence and energy that belies the tentative nature of any minority; running on a tight rope takes nerve.

Tory Tactics in Government.
Substantively speaking, Harper has been the “anti-Martin”; that is, former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin had a priority a day—each vitally important. Harper has focused relentlessly on five priorities stemming from the electoral campaign that have been hammered into public consciousness:

— “accountability” (a major revision of bureaucratic regulations to prevent a repetition of the contracting/bribery scandal in Quebec (“Adscam”), revise campaign financing, and limit post-government consulting;
— a “tough on crime” package, including increased minimum sentences;
— individualized day care support directed to families with young children rather than government operated institutions;
— a reduction in health care waiting times; and
— a reduction in the national goods and services tax.

The juxtaposition with Martin is brutal. With his ever changing, “I feel your pain” style of priorities, implicitly, he had no priorities. The diligent Canadian Civil Service, pretzeled in its efforts to respond to every changing Liberal priority, is far happier dealing with the Harper government. Martin dithered; Harper decides. That is not inconsequential for managing a bureaucracy that historically has been more congenial to Liberal than Conservative concerns.

Not that Harper has any special interest in making bureaucrats comfortable. His sole objective is to govern in a manner that will convince the Canadian electorate to give him a majority when he next goes to the polls. And in this regard, he is almost universally regarded as having done very well; one normally critical observer suggested that Harper had the best first 100 days in the past 50 years. There have been virtually giddy comparisons with political icons such as Pierre Trudeau. At a minimum, there is grudgingly admission that Harper’s government has adroitly managed its inexperience factor (thirteen years out of power; no current minister ever part of a federal ruling party).

Certainly, Harper has kept his eye on the “doughnut” (and avoided the “hole”). His ministers have, in effect, been told that if their ideas and projects do not advance the interests of the five key government objectives, they should not publicize them. Thus laws/proposals addressing topics such as the environment, energy, and aboriginal affairs have been set aside for a majority government or at least the second tranche of this minority government. The ministers for these second and third tier interests are virtually silent; they specifically avoid—even flee from— journalists and speculation—much to the irritation of the media who delight in novelty and controversy and have little interest in repeating the mantra of the government’s five essential objectives. This government restraint also has the benefit of concealing the weaknesses of its less experienced ministers who have the proverbial “steep learning curve” to master their portfolios.

One of those struggling the hardest appears to be Foreign Minister Peter MacKay. While regarded as personally pleasant, his level of issue ignorance remains high—although his initial tendency to speak out without proper briefing has been cured. Nevertheless, some doubt that he has the personal commitment to gain full command of the global range of his portfolios. Thus the judgment prevails that the Prime Minister’s Office has him “on short leash.”

Conservatives Battle the Media.
In the absence of substance and disinterest in publishing the government’s “spin,” the media has focused on procedure. Specifically, the parliamentary press gallery has excoriated Harper as a “control freak” for his effort to create new parameters regarding encounters between the prime minister and the press. For his part, Harper has concluded that the media is now the de facto Opposition and is treating them with calculated hostility. The result has been an unedifying spectacle, verging on puerile “gotcha” games between the Prime Minister’s Office and the media. Currently, the media is on the short end of public opinion (which loves the media as little as it loves politicians in general), and the Conservatives push their message and spin by selected one-on-one interviews and sessions with journalists outside Ottawa.

The Defense Dilemma.
Lying outside the five priorities but within the confines of its campaign platform is Conservative commitment to improve the Canadian Forces. Ostensibly, this is not a partisan issue; the Liberals, albeit with slight of hand, had signaled significant defense/security commitments in their final budget. And polling suggests that Canadians agree defense/security should be a priority. The question, of course, has been in the always devilish details: what level of priority and how much to spend on what?

Recognizing that Canadian Forces are at the last gurgle in going down the drain, the Tories are attempting to put in the plug. “Airlift” was the key word—but again, what kind of lift to be purchased from whom. Consequently, the question of long range strategic lift (buy C-17s, rent Russian relics, buy European) versus shorter range lift (a C-130 replacement) became a bureaucratic battle between the Defense Minister Gordon O’Connor and the Chief of Defense Staff Rick Hillier. Tossed into the mix also was the well recognized need for medium lift helicopters, particularly for use in Afghanistan.

In truth all defense analysts recognized that the Canadian Forces needed all three air transport options, as well as much more. In particular, the C-130s have been under discussion for replacement since 1967 when a tentative decision to purchase C-141s was scuttled after Pierre Trudeau was elected in 1968. So the basic issue was the jostling in line for funding and attempting to make concrete defense commitments after most of a decade of deliberate decision avoidance.

In late June, there was a flurry of defense announcements in which the government announced that it would purchase all of the above—plus three naval transports and replace the Army’s fleet of medium trucks. Total costs would run over CN$17 billion. The announcements were showy and staged, but the reality of planes on tarmac (other than token, show-the-Maple-Leaf precursors) could still be years down stream.

Whether there was real disagreement between O’Connor and Hillier is less important than the perception that there is much head-butting as strong personalities sort out a relationship that originates when both were Canadian Forces officers.

A sidebar is the Conservative campaign platform commitment to purchase three armed Arctic icebreakers and create an Arctic base to defend national sovereignty. The commitment raises professional eyebrows (“Armed icebreakers? And who would they fire on—the Americans?”) The best hope is that the icebreakers share the fate of PM Mulroney’s proposal for Canadian nuclear submarines to defend the Arctic as an idea that died on the drafting table for lack of funding.

Security—Border and Otherwise.
The shock over the arrest of the “Toronto 17” prospective terrorists charged with plans as sweeping as bombing the CN Tower and Parliament’s Peace Tower as well as beheading the prime minister has dissipated. A clampdown on pre-trial publicity has combined with media skepticism over whether these were “real” plotters or a combination of misguided youth and gang-that-couldn’t-shoot-straight incompetents. No clarion call; a snooze alarm. Such a reaction is predictable as there is no enthusiasm for intense examination of the “why” behind a homegrown, Canadian-Islamic terrorist plot.

Separately, discontent with the prospective U. S. legislative requirement for a secure passport-type document for land entry into the United States by the beginning of 2008 continues apace. Canadians, complemented by various border state Americans, are fighting the problem with “sky is falling” predictions over the demise of tourism and disruption of commerce. The technical problems of devising secure documents are virtually trivial in comparison to the problems convincing Canadians that Uncle Sam has real enemies and not just paranoia.

Any minority government is a minor miscalculation from parliamentary defeat and an election—wanted or not. To a degree, the Harper/Tory performance to date is akin to the individual who jumps from a 50 story building and at the 48th story says, “So far; so good.” Albeit sanguine, this judgment is currently true: polls now suggest that an election would return a Tory majority. But there is no excuse for calling an election; Harper has said that he would willingly govern with a minority for 4 years and has proposed radical revision of parliamentary procedure to set fixed election dates. What then are Harper’s potential problems—either during an election or in Parliament?

—Afghanistan. The Canadian presence in Afghanistan is unpopular (one supporter described Canadians as “a feeble lot” regarding military force). Canadian Forces have over 2,000 troops in country and are committed to take the NATO lead next year. Harper has fireproofed himself with a (narrow) parliament endorsement for continued military commitment until 2009 and has the further cover that the Afghan commitment was a Liberal policy. Nevertheless, popular toleration for significant casualties is questionable, and only one serious Liberal leadership candidate (Ignatieff) supports this commitment. One could easily see a Liberal leader unconnected with the previous Liberal government campaigning on “enough is enough; it is ‘Harper’s war,’ not ours.”

— Social Conservatives. Getting elected meant moving toward the center, but that doesn’t mean that all Tories are now “red” or happy about their sacred cows being hamstrung. The Government is committed to a “free vote” to reexamine “gay marriage” in September; the issue ostensibly has been closed by court decisions, but how closed is “closed” remains to be studied. Likewise, flash point topics such as abortion, decriminalization of marijuana, elimination of the highly expensive long-gun registry (tabled in Parliament immediately before summer recess) are those on which conservatives have strong feelings often discordant with general popular desires.

— The Kyoto Treaty. The Treaty is “popular” without significant popular understanding of its requirements or potential economic implementation. Although the Liberals signed/endorsed the Treaty, the government came nowhere close to meeting its objectives. The Conservatives have bluntly (and accurately) said that the objectives cannot be met—and that a made in Canada approach (still to be defined) is necessary. With awe inspiring hypocrisy, the Liberals are denouncing the Tories for their recognition of reality—along the same lines as Paul Martin’s condemnation of the U. S. during the campaign for lacking a “global conscience” over global warming despite the fact that the U. S. had a better record than Canada in limiting emissions growth.

— The “Abergine Affair.” This is a label for the unknown unknown. That is, the event that bursts out of the shadows and becomes defining for a government: an electric grid crash in Ontario during the summer; a Big Three auto producer bankruptcy throwing thousands of Canadians out of work; a confrontation with First Nation “warriors” closing a major bridge/highway; a key Tory caught doing something illegal, immoral, or fattening. Such a challenge is not an “if” but a “when” question.

Perhaps the Tory’s greatest strength is Liberal weakness. More than having been defeated in January, the Liberals leave the impression of waiting for Godot. As the “natural governing party,” many Liberal MPs have never been in Opposition. Much of the senior leadership from the Chretien/Martin eras was defeated or retired; the interim party leader Bill Graham, as former defense and foreign minister, is experienced and competent, but by definition a seat-warmer as the Liberals grapple with a leadership race that will not conclude until December.

Consequently, Liberal presence in Parliament is more shadow than substance. While the Opposition by definition must oppose, a number of currently controversial issues are those for which they either are responsible (Afghanistan commitment) or failed to address effectively (the Kyoto Agreement, aboriginal problems). Consequently, for the near term at least, the Conservatives can blame any and everything on Liberal failures. As the Liberals were in power for thirteen years, there is much for which they can be deemed responsible—at least until the next election.

—The Liberal Party Leadership Race. Immediately following his defeat, Paul Martin resigned as Liberal leader, setting off the process to name a new party leader. Although Martin’s resignation was expected, its abruptness was not anticipated. That said, few beyond his immediate loyalists desired to retain him as party leader. He has virtually become a political nonperson, rarely appearing in Parliament (not even for the vote on continued Afghan commitment). There are those who suggest he may become Canada’s Jimmy Carter, engaging in international good works. Others suggest North America can barely stomach one Jimmy Carter.

Discussion of Martin’s reign mixes sorrow and contempt; he appears to be the classic example of the Peter Principle, having risen above his competence level with catastrophic consequences for the Liberals. Some continue head-shaking over Martin’s decision to create the Judge Gomery inquiry instead of leaving “Adscam” to the judicial process. Some are furious over having been sold a bill of goods by fawning media that predicted Martin would turn water into wine while walking on it. Others blame his immediate staff, which selected Martin as their “horse” to ride to power and influence; they led the horse to water—but he didn’t drink. Sill others simply note that Martin chose and defended his staff, so his is the blame. And his staff demonstrated a level of arrogance that only would have been justified/tolerated by electoral victory.

The scramble to replace him has interesting facets.
For the first time in a generation, there is no obvious successor. Even more startling, the most prominent “names” in the party, including those who had campaigned for leadership against Martin in 2003, all declined to seek the leadership. These include formers such as Deputy PM John Manley; Justice Minister/UN Ambassador Alan Rock; Industry Minister/Newfoundland Premier Brian Tobin; and New Brunswick Premier/Ambassador to the U. S. Frank McKenna. While each of these potential leaders had liabilities, they would clearly have been the “first line” in any contest. The protestation of “personal reasons” that led them to opt out are individually convincing (family concerns, new careers, etc) and reinforced by the reality that several now hold highly compensated positions. Nevertheless, the substantive conclusions also include:

— still poisonous Liberal party divisions between supporters of the former PMs Chretien and Martin that may be resolved only when all are dead;
— difficult financial conditions for the party and the prospects that new financing rules will make fund raising even harder;
— a sense that the party is tired and requires significant re-thinking with the proverbial “new blood” that none of the former leadership could offer;
— the collapse of the Liberals in their long-time Quebec bastion as a consequence of the reverberations of the advertising/sponsorship scandal suggests that it will be years before the Liberal brand is other than merde in the province.

These have driven the conclusion that the Liberals will need six years—perhaps more—before they can seriously anticipate returning to power.

The eleven current candidates for leadership are universally described as second rank. When you have eleven candidates, you have a group that has measured themselves not against the giants in Canadian political history, but rather against their perception of the quality of the competition. For what it is worth, the generally recognized “front runner” is newly elected MP Michael Ignatieff, a respected scholar and author whose career was spent largely in the United States—a circumstance that would disqualify him for senior political leadership in many countries, but is less relevant for Canada. Other leading contenders (depending on the day of the week or the most recent debate) include former Environment Minister Stephane Dion (the only Quebecker), Bob Rae (former NDP premier of Ontario—fired by 12 million voters after one term), Scott Brison (former Tory who switched to the Liberals), and Ken Dryden (hockey great, now an MP).

Simultaneously, the Liberals are working on policy renewal in a “2020” conference. Ostensibly, the conference will produce the ideas that will motivate the Liberal Party into the 21st century. Its initial session, chaired by former Deputy Prime Ministers John Manley and Anne Mclellan, heard a reportedly interminable speech by Al Gore and a presentation by a French speaker who opined (to hisses from all present) that the only difference between Canada and the United States was Quebec.

There is no question that the relationship has eased. Attitudes are more businesslike. The USG needs no longer anticipate gratuitous insult on a day-to-day basis such as epitomized the Chretien-Martin regime. If we are insulted, it will be by design; if there is a direct substantive challenge, e.g., Arctic sovereignty, the parameters will be clear and, if we are fortunate, less emotional. PM Harper has indicated that it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable; doubtless, we would endorse such an approach, minimalist as it might be. For there is no question that during the Bush Administration, the level of comity in bilateral affairs deteriorated. The media focus, reflecting official attitudes in Ottawa, has concentrated on every nuance of difference. So, if one highly visible problem is resolved, e.g., the “mad cow” BSE exclusion of most Canadian cattle from export to the U. S., the relationship did not improve, but rather Ottawa found another drum to beat.

Thus one can argue that the highly politicized dispute over softwood lumber could have been resolved years ago along the lines of the agreement announced in April. Repeatedly, U. S. officials urged negotiation; repeatedly, the Liberals said that they had “won” judicially and the United States should capitulate. Retrospectively, it appears as if the Liberals were less interested in an agreement than in a “victory.” They seemed to require Uncle Sam’s beard torn off and nailed on the wall. This approach was notable during the Martin tenure and election campaign as an indication that being “tough” with the USG was the correct approach (and thus the Liberals should be re-elected).

U. S.-Canada relations are often characterized by saying that we are “best friends, like it or not,” but there is also no doubt that since the 2000 U. S. electoral campaign, we have been in the “not” portion of the cycle. The Conservative government, transient or enduring, offers a chance at least to stabilize what has been a downward spiral.

Ritualized Anti-Americanism.
Anti-Americanism is as “Canadian” as flying the flag is American; indeed, there are those who regard anti-Americanism as quintessential Canadian patriotism. However, regardless of how imprinted on the Liberal genome it may be, the Liberal investment in anti-Americanism during the 2005-06 federal campaign was disproportionate to any reality and smacked of desperation by the Martin government. Harper was demonized as a Bush clone and virtually every proposal advanced by the Tories was slagged as a U. S. import or designed to transform Canada into USA lite. This approach is damaging to the longer term interests of both the party and Canada, but appears to be the Liberals current paradigm for our bilateral relations.

Every discussion of Canada leads to one about Quebec. The country faces the continued existential question of the nature of its existence. It is a “will it or won’t it” question regarding Quebec sovereignty and independence that has been analogized to a skin disease: it will never kill the patient—but it is never cured.And thus it is today in Quebec.

Quebec political analysts carefully maintain a “fever chart” of polls reflecting popular support for sovereignty. Support, they contend, is less connected to an individual sovereignist leader (former premier and 1995 referendum campaign leader Bouchard may be an exception) but rather is prompted by action of the federal government. Thus support for sovereignty surged after the defeat of Meech Lake/Charlottetown constitutional reforms and more recently during the exposure of the “Adscam” sponsorship/contracting scandals tied to the provincial and federal Liberal Party. Currently, however, the emergence of the new federal Conservative Party has driven down support, and some predict it will eventually reach its baseline of low 40s.

Quebeckers are, according to sovereignists, taking counsel of their hopes. That is, the outreach to Quebec epitomized by the efforts of Prime Minister Harper suggests to “soft sovereignists” the possibility that their objectives might be obtained without the trauma of another referendum. Specifically, the Harper moves have been both optical (support for Quebec membership in UNESCO separate from Canada’s membership) and potentially substantive (recognition of a “fiscal imbalance” between Ottawa and Canadian provinces that could lead to significantly greater federal funding to Quebec).

Sovereignists, however, believe that Harper will fail. The members of the federal Bloc Quebecois (BQ) and provincial Parti Quebecois (PQ) believe that there is no way the federal government can construct a system providing Quebec the financial support that it wants and believes justified—and still meet the requirements of other provinces. Thus sovereignists believe that the meetings and discussions now in train to resolve this imbalance (which many economists deny even exists) will end with the current impasse, disappoint Quebeckers, and expose Harper as just another in the extended line of federal politicians who over promise/under deliver.

Nevertheless, at this point, sovereignty is in remission. It is not a subject for politicized discussion—and Quebeckers appreciate the respite. The PQ platform emphasizes its commitment to an early referendum, which reflects the success of sovereignty hard liners who drove the commitment into its current form; however, open discussion of what is largely regarded as a negative has been avoided.

Mundane. Neither the Quebec prime minister (Jean Charest) nor the PQ leader (Andre Boisclair) inspires. The leader of a third party, the Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ), Mario Dumont, seems unable to find province wide support and is growing older without maturing; his party does not appear to be recovering from its 2004 election collapse. Each leader has spent his adulthood in politics without the distraction of real life.

— The Liberals. Jean Charest—the “Captain Canada” whose efforts for federalism during the 1995 referendum were defining in their eloquence—has proved less effective as Quebec prime minister than as a campaigner. As one observer put it, “every time it looks as if he is going to turn the corner, he trips on the carpet.” For much of his mandate, he has struggled, enmeshed either in intraparty sniping or endorsing politically questionable activity—the most recent being a land swap/development of a provincial park viewed as benefiting Liberal supporters. These problems have detracted from some solid policies advanced by Liberals such as new energy and environment plans.

Nevertheless, the most recent poll puts the Liberals ahead of the PQ virtually for the first time since Charest’s election in August 2004. Consequently, rumors of a snap provincial election in the autumn persist, despite Charest denials, conditioned on Ottawa delivering a revised fiscal support for the province that Charest could argue is a consequence of his good relations with Harper.

— The Parti Quebecois. The PQ is in transition. Its founding leadership and most dynamic figures have passed from the political scene. In June 2005, Bernard Landry, failing to receive the level of support at the PQ party conference that he desired, abruptly resigned. The most obvious successor, BQ leader Gilles Duceppe declined to run on the basis that he was committed to leading the Bloc in the next federal election and did not want to leave it in the disarray of a leadership campaign with the federal election pending. The resulting leadership race, concluding in November 2005, selected Andre Boisclair with a first ballot majority from eight candidates.

In many respects, Boisclair is a curious choice. He is still young (40) and, although he held ministerial rank in the previous PQ government, it was not a major portfolio, and he was not a National Assembly member when selected PQ leader. In contrast to every other PQ leader and virtually all former Quebec premiers, he has no university degree. Moreover, during the leadership campaign, he was identified as a substance abuser (including cocaine) and is an open homosexual. While being gay is virtually irrelevant in Quebec (or Canadian) politics and Bill Gates also lacks a university degree, it remains hard to visualize him as the first president of an independent Quebec nation.

Over the past several months, there has been an element of “buyers’ regret” among the PQ. Some of the irritation reflects the depressing political reality that the PQ stood at 50% when he was selected and is now (late June) arguably behind the Liberals; an element of this decline must be laid at his feet. Some concerns may be transient—reportedly he has been imperious and didactic with senior Pequistes and the party’s National Assembly members—and may evaporate when a scheduled by-election returns him to the Assembly in the fall and he begins to operate as parliamentary Opposition Leader. Nevertheless, following Landry’s resignation, there was a sense that it was “time for a change”—a sense that weighed against the obvious next-in-line (Pauline Marois who had the ostensible attractions of being well experienced and, as a woman, could appeal to gender gap/feminist issues as well as putting a kinder, gentler face on the prospect of Quebec sovereignty).

Even more than usual, the “who will win the next election” question is a mug’s game. Everything depends… The election date? The most prominent issues? The quality of the campaign and the campaigners?

Favoring Charest is his extensive experience in campaigning and debating against Boisclair’s relative lack of such; a Quebec tradition of giving a party two mandates (but rarely a third); and the best economy in a generation. Favoring Boisclair would be his appeal to youth and a “fresh image” complemented by the various failures of the Charest Liberals, e.g., failure to make promised tax cuts. Additionally, the “Adscam” scandal has devastated the federal “Liberal” trademark, but also adversely affected provincial Liberals. Likewise, the spoiler effect of the ADQ (polling in the mid-teens) and leftist alternatives (polling in single digits) could be defining in specific ridings—or irrelevant.

Without a fixed election date, Jean Charest controls the timing of the next election (technically, it could be delayed until August 2009 — five years after the last election). As such, Charest will call an election at the point most likely to give him a victory. This is a point that could come as early as fall 2006, timing that Charest has denied but which Pequistes believe is still in play. The most obvious stimulus for an early election would be a success (or development that could be so played) in fiscal “equalization” between Ottawa and the provinces.

There is an obvious symbiosis with the next federal election. The Conservatives project their best hope for a majority government in taking more seats in Quebec; these could come from reducing the thirteen seat Liberal rump further, but the fifty-one BQ seats are a more compelling target. Polls suggest that the Tories are rising and BQ, albeit still ahead, is falling; in most ridings, the Liberals are in single digits their “brand” wrecked by Adscam and positing at least two elections to recover. And Harper and the Tory team are constantly campaigning in Quebec, most recently on Quebec National Day (June 24). But the next federal election also depends on Harper having been able to devise circumstances—particularly a perceived resolution to the fiscal imbalance—that would allow Quebeckers to look past several unpopular Tory positions (extended presence in Afghanistan, indifference to the Kyoto Treaty, dismantling the long gun registry). Absent such a lure for Quebeckers, there is no incentive for a federal election; likewise, without a victory-partnership with Ottawa over the fiscal imbalance, there is little incentive for Charest to go to the polls in the near term.

Again, the vested wisdom appears correct. Quebec sovereignty is the proverbial “sleeping dog” with passions cooled, certainly for the near term. Despite eighteen months of intermittent missteps, the Liberal provincial governing team has demonstrated durability; its leader, like that old Timex watch, “takes a licking but keeps on ticking” while Pequistes often appear glum. Indeed, recalling the two-term sequence for governing parties (and the positive conditioning of a strong provincial economy), some Pequistes imply that current leader Boisclair has one chance as a high risk, high gain selection.

The United States has no dog in this fight. Our long standing mantra combining an endorsement of Canada as a strong historical friend while recognizing that Canadians will decide their political future has recently gathered dust. We are happy to leave it on the shelf.End.


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 on the subject of the Canadian political scene for American and Canadian publications.


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