Skip to main content

Following a recent visit to Canada, a retired senior U.S. diplomat and longtime observer of the Canadian scene provides an overview of current politics and political issues as well as Canadians’ view of the electoral process in their neighbor to the south: They are fascinated. — Ed.

by David T. Jones


Winter largely defines Canada — and Canadians both revel in and deplore their climate. The winter of 2006-07 was indisputably mild, and instead of enjoying their reduced heating bills, Canadians complained, invoking “global warming” as the Great Satan of the twenty-first century. The current weather across the country, however, has been described as a “pre-global warming winter,” and a visitor to Ottawa noted drifts and piles of snow head-high at curbsides and was told that 18 of the first 20 days of February delivered precipitation on the capital.

Thus this good, old-fashioned winter has left Canadians with political cabin fever regarding their domestic politics and envy over the warmer political climate south of the border.

Maneuvers of a Minority
A minority government is a rather rare occurrence in Canada. Prior to the Liberal minority in 2004, there had not been a minority government since the short-lived Tory government in 1979-80, which lasted about six months. This Liberal government fell in February 2006, succeeded by a Conservative (Tory) minority government led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper that now has endured a rather surprising two years. And, although it would be modern era unprecedented on the federal level, it is no longer inconceivable that the Tory minority could persist until the next mandated election in autumn 2009.

The curious endurance of the Harper government, which originally programmed for a sprint but now has settled into a long distance run, is partly explained by the presence of three significant opposition parties. Cooperation by all three is necessary to defeat the Tories and force an election. Thus finding an issue on which all three can agree is just the starting point; finding an issue that each perceives will benefit it in the resulting election is key. So “just say no” will defeat the government, but it must be sung in three-part harmony.

On the government side, there is no purpose in manipulating a defeat unless it can secure a majority in the resulting election. Currently, it is a best-of-times moment for Canada. There is no federal deficit; federal debt is declining; inflation is low; taxes are declining; unemployment is at a generation low point; and the Canadian “loonie” at virtual parity (if not higher) than the U.S. dollar. Moreover, for the first time in almost a generation, there is no overhanging Quebec crisis. Additionally, Harper faces a weak Liberal leader, Stephane Dion, who mangled his one chance to make a positive first impression and projects the aura of a university professor unrolling his yellowed notes prior to a numbathon lecture. With this constellation of good fortune, one might think that the Tories had a mortal lock on an election victory.

Wrong. In truth, the Liberals are Canada’s “natural governing party.” They controlled the country for most of the twentieth century and have been defeated only when they totally exhausted a mandate with the departure of a powerful leader (Trudeau in 1984) and/or presented the country with a gag-a-goat scandal (bribery and payoffs in Quebec in 2004-06). Consequently, persistent polling over the past year suggests that the Tories are not significantly more popular than when they won their minority government. These figures appear to reflect a Canadian electorate unwilling to return the Liberals to power (since they have yet to sit out their “penalty minutes” on the bench) but apprehensive that Tories with a majority would run roughshod over their rights and freedoms, introduce private medical care, sell Lake Superior’s water to the United States, and provide cannon fodder for George Bush’s wars.

Prime Minister Harper

So while Tories may believe that they could win an election highlighting Harper’s significantly higher ratings for leadership and competence over Dion, it might be no more than another minority — and Tory positions in Ontario and the Maritimes are weak, with gains in Quebec far from assured.

The Liberals have a somewhat opposite problem. They don’t want to force an election that they would lose. But they don’t want to permit the Tories to continue legislating contrary to Liberal philosophy — even if reversible when they regain power. Moreover, while Dion struggles to improve his personal status with the electorate, he suffers from a fractious caucus that recalls that he was fourth in the voting of the first round of the leadership conference in December 2006 (and there is considerable “buyers’ regret” after assessing his first year as Liberal leader). Dion has one chance to survive: win the next election; a defeat would result in his quick ouster. Hence, he wants the best alignment of the political/economic constellations before any election.

So an unstable equilibrium persists, but this winter there have been/will be three opportunities for the lemmings to rush over the cliff:

  • The Crime Bill. To shorthand its elements, the bill is a “tough on crime” measure that would be ho-hum in the United States, e.g., some mandatory/longer sentences for various violent crimes, but rather new for Canada and criticized as being too conservative and U.S. derivative. The Tories demanded the Senate release the bill from its (protracted) review by the end of February. Rather than force an election that would implicitly tar them as “soft on crime,” the Liberals walked out of Parliament for the vote.
  • The Budget. In a parliamentary system, the budget is the classic “confidence” vote; lose it and the government falls and an election ensues. But the Tory budget released on February 26 was relatively modest: continued avoidance of deficit spending; some tax cuts; some spending hikes (notably on defense). Were the Liberals polling numbers favorable, it would be an obvious opportunity to defeat the government. But with dicey odds, Dion indicated in advance of the budget release, that he did not feel obligated to have an election that “Canadians don’t want.” Translation: An election he fears he will lose.
  • Afghanistan. Canada has only one real foreign affairs issue — Afghanistan. The previous Liberal government committed first to participate in the UN/NATO effort to support the post-Taliban Afghan government and then to take up greater military responsibilities in Kandahar. This move from Boy Scout level action in Kabul to “peace enforcement” against the Taliban has been increasingly contentious domestically. As one of the principal combat elements in Kandahar since 2005, there have been 71 deaths during this period (since 2002 Canadians have lost 78 soldiers and a diplomat). The Opposition has convinced the Canadian public that losses have fallen disproportionately on Canada; they have demanded more NATO assistance for Canadian troops.
PM Harper with Canadian troops

While few indeed are the NATO states that are taking significant risks in Afghanistan (primarily the United States, Britain, Netherlands, and Canada), nevertheless in historical terms the losses are trivial, and more Canadians have died in ski-mobile accidents during the same period. Nevertheless, Dion declared that Canadians should end their combat role in Kandahar by February 2009 (presumably regarded as a compromise when compared to the Canadian socialists who wanted troops out as soon as they could be moved to aircraft). However, Dion quickly found his line-in-the sand undercut by a report from a blue-ribbon panel headed by former Liberal Deputy Prime Minister/Foreign Minister John Manley. The Manley report proposed a continued Canadian combat presence in Kandahar through 2011 if NATO countries added 1,000 troops, helicopters, and RPVs to supplement forces in Kandahar. More importantly, Manley made it clear that a reconstruction/instruction role without a combat option was feckless.

Looking into the abyss of an election based on Afghanistan, the Liberals again backed off. They offered compromises that will permit Canadian forces to remain throughout 2011 without restraints on a combat role. The government picked up these concessions, and debate began on February 25, with the expectation of a vote by the end of March.

It is still possible that by design or error, the government will fall either over the budget or Afghanistan, but for now the parties are suppressing their lemming instincts.

But that Leaves Political Envy of the United States
Fascinating as the Canadian maneuvers are to the cognoscenti of political science, they lack the panache and the prospect for clear political solutions that the current U.S. political scene presents. The United States continues its protracted primary process just in preparation for the real campaign. While Americans are often bored with the campaign, many Canadians are fascinated, and their political junkies are deeply engaged with our process. One can argue that outside the United States, no country is more deeply affected by the U.S. election than is Canada. Consequently, you will rarely find a Canadian without strong opinions on the race, and one poll even indicated that 15 percent of Canadians would surrender their right to vote in a Canadian election if they could vote in the U.S. elections.

What do Canadians want? Virtually to a citizen they reject President Bush (about 90 percent) and probably 70 percent want a Democrat — any Democrat — as the next president. But each of the three candidates (Senators Clinton, McCain, and Obama) is unique so far as contemporary Canadian politics is concerned.

There is, for example, no currently prominent female in Canadian federal or provincial politics. Canada has had women in senior positions, e.g., short term prime minister Kim Campbell in 1993 and several senior ministers in the 1993-2005 Liberal governments. But there are no contemporary equivalents in power or influence to House majority leader Pelosi or Senators Clinton and 15 other female senators including Boxer, Collins, Dole, Feinstein, Hutchinson, Mikulski, and Snow. For many Canadian women, Senator Clinton is the leader they would like to see in Ottawa.

Likewise, there is no “visible minority” in Canadian politics anywhere near equivalent to Senator Obama. While there are “persons of color” throughout Canadian politics, there is nobody with the Obama charisma factor. As Canadians struggle with their cult of multiculturalism, there is more than a touch of chagrin that without special concessions, Obama has come to the fore of U.S. politics.

Finally, a genuine war hero such as Senator McCain, who suffered years of torture as a POW, is unique to the United States. While Canadians accord their (few) soldiers respect, they have never had a former general officer as prime minister, and very few Members of Parliament have performed military service. Indeed, the last prime minister with active military service was Lester Pearson, who was a World War I veteran.

The result is a rather bland Canadian political scene, minus the bold strokes and drama of the U.S. election process, part carnival as well as deadly serious in its global consequences. While all recognize the peril of asking for something (as you might get it), Canadians would appreciate a little more drama in their present politics.

On the other hand, the snows of Ottawa should melt by the end of April, permitting Canadians to anticipate the perils of their next winter.


David T. Jones, a retired senior Foreign Service Officer, served as minister-counselor for political affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa. He has written extensively on Canadian affairs for American Diplomacy and other publications in the United States and Canada. He is the co-author of Unfinished Neighbo(u)rs, a book about U.S.-Canada relations.

Comments are closed.