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Canada in November 2009

by David T. Jones

A long time contributor to this journal and the author of a book on the U.S.-Canadian relationship examines the political landscape of our largest trading partner.   He answers the question:  Should it really matter to the United States which political party leads Canada?  -Ed.

After a frequently cold and rainy summer (Canadians believe they should have pleasant summers as compensation for their gruesome winters), the country appears to have avoided an autumn election.  Although as close to a sure thing as you can get in politics, miscalculation could still result in an election nobody now appears to want–and all three opposition parties must combine to defeat the government.  For his part, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff stated that he would not support the government in future votes (declaring that the “time is up” for PM Stephen Harper).  Other opposition parties have traditionally opposed all government proposals, but the socialist New Democrats have indicated they will support the government while it implements revised unemployment benefits.

An autumn election would be the fourth in six years (and a recent poll says that over 70 percent of Canadians oppose it), but there is an air of frustration over the systemic limitations of a minority government coupled with its highly politicized day-to-day parliamentary confrontations.
Public opinion polls have been indecisive; they have gyrated from mid/late October entrails readings showing the Tories in range of a parliamentary majority to early November estimates that the parties again stand where they did in October 2008. With such inconclusive figures, Ignatieff appears to have concluded that he has one chance to be lucky and now is not that time.

To Review the Bidding
The Canadian election in October 2008 reaffirmed the Tory/Conservative government in power.  At that juncture, the Tories and Prime Minister Harper, still a minority albeit a strengthened minority at 143 of 308 seats, appeared near term dominant/defining for Canada.  Nevertheless, as Parliament ground through the first ten months of 2009, such blithe predictions had gone askew.  What appeared clear is now a murky muddle.  The year since the election has seen:

  • misguided political overreach by the Conservatives prompting an Opposition riposte that challenged the style of parliamentary governance if not its technical legality;
  • early defenestration of the hapless Liberal leader and his replacement by an innovative enigma who has begun his own set of stumbles;
  • a global recession which in October 2008 was the equivalent of a bad cold moved to a perception of economic pneumonia—presumably survivable but massively uncomfortable.  Now it has moved back to the very bad cold category.  Technically, the recession in Canada is over; job creation albeit slow has resumed; energy prices are up; Canadian banks are sound–but full recovery really depends on south-of-the-border events;
  • a reshuffle of the Quebec cards, both provincially and federally; and
  • a U.S. election which now juxtaposes a considerably more liberal U.S. government against a Canadian administration philosophically as conservative as Canadians are likely to elect.

When Parliament rose for the summer in June and then resumed in September, the result appeared to be an edgy domestic political truce.  A resurgent Opposition seemed willing to permit the minority Tories to cope with the worst economy in living memory while calculating the best moment to force an election.  An election by definition was “inevitable”—but the election calculations differed within the Opposition, permitting a spectrum of “the inevitable” ranging from summer 2010 or arriving as early as autumn 2009.  But as the year nudges toward its conclusion, the perception that Canadians were edging toward their fourth election in six years and transformed into a conclusion that they are now slouching away from an early jousting match.

Canadians Dealing with Canadians
Scene Setting.  The October 14, 2008, election generated a political scenario that appeared near-term predictable.  The Tories, while falling short of a majority (143 of 308 seats) strengthened their parliamentary representation for the third consecutive election.  Their primary opposition, the Liberals, had suffered their worst defeat in a generation, dropping to 77 MPs and their lowest ever percentage of the popular vote.  Stephane Dion, Liberal leader was well-burnt bread; almost instantly he agreed to step down after the scheduled party congress in May 2009.  De facto leaderless, demoralized, and financially depleted, the Liberals anticipated a grueling leadership campaign that might well exacerbate party divisions and further drain their finances.

Other opposition parties were exultant.  The socialist New Democratic Party (NDP) had gained seats and votes; its scrappy “energizer bunny” leader, Jack Layton, had beaten back a Green threat on the left and taken seats from the Liberals on the right.  The Quebec separatist Bloc Quebecois (BQ), depicted as dead in the water if not sinking prior to the election, had maintained strength, trimming Tory expectations in Quebec and costing them a majority government.

Given this landscape, Tory Prime Minister Steven Harper appeared to be strongly positioned.   He had governed effectively with the weakest minority in modern history but following the election, for him to be defeated, all three opposition parties must vote against the government—unlikely as individually none (and particularly not the Liberals) wanted an early election.  Thus Harper with his strengthened minority believed he had a mandate to govern as if he held a majority, pushing forward a variety of items in the Tory agenda that had been deferred during his first mandate.

The Price of Arrogance 
We all know that “pride goeth before a fall.”  In this occasion, arrogance left PM Harper flat on his face, barely able to escape from a desperate, but adroit parliamentary maneuver that would have overturned his government without the need for an election.

As is often the case, the proximate issue was money; and “money” at this point was the official funding provided by the Canadian government to political parties.  Highly restricted in accepting individual private donations and forbidden from receiving corporate/labor union contributions, political parties receive government funds proportionate to the number of votes that they won in the previous election—at $1.95/vote, it was desperately needed life support for most.  Specifically,  it is telling and provocative that the Bloc Quebecois secured 86 percent of its funding from a federal government that it seeks to destroy–apparently an “only in Canada” concept of what constitutes fairness.  Indeed, the Bloc would be more internally consistent were it to scorn federal handouts–and campaign on the money that it raises from Quebeckers.  And the publicly financed Greens (65 percent) and Liberals (63 percent) demonstrate that their supporters’ philosophy doesn’t include putting their money where their mouths are.

The Tories are a different story.  Although they had received the most votes and thus would receive the largest government subsidy, they had also developed the only effective small donor network in Canadian politics and thus were financially flush.  So in a move that proved too clever by half, in an interim budget, PM Harper proposed the elimination of all government subsidies for political parties.  It was the most disastrous decision in PM Harper’s career.

Jesse Unhru, a dominant force in California state politics in the mid-20th century, once was credited with saying “money is the mother’s milk of politics.”  And anyone experienced with a nursing infant knows the reaction of the child removed untimely from the teat.  It is almost as loud as the commotion created when the Tories proposed to eliminate government subsidies for political parties.  It was Mr. Mean trying to take candy from NDP/Liberal/BQ/Green children or a feckless intruder attempting to yank steaks from a pack of rotweilers.

Galvanized by the prospect of a political downward spiral stemming from limited funding leading to feeble organization and ever lower popular support, the Opposition did the totally unpredicted:  they moved to create a coalition government that could defeat and replace the Tories without requiring an election.  The magnitude of that move was awe-inspiring in its audacity; it created a formal agreement between the Liberals and the NDP, tacitly supported by the BQ and committed to defeating the Government on December 1 when its interim budget came to a vote.  Each party, either explicitly or implicitly, had previously rejected the idea of a coalition.  Even more eye-popping was accepting the support of the Quebec separatists—previously anathema for the federalist NDP and Liberals.  But there was something for everyone:  for the Liberals a return to power; for Stephane Dion, a chance to avoid the onus of being the only Liberal leader in over a century not to become prime minister; for the NDP, its first ever opportunity for federal cabinet posts; and for the Bloc, a renewed level of legitimacy for its vision of Quebec, with first/last/always demands for more “booty” from Ottawa.

Thus Canada appeared poised to create a Coalition—a majority generated by defeating the Tories over an interim budget—and then presenting the Governor General with the proposal to form a new government without requiring an election.  While such manipulation is standard political practice in most parliamentary systems, where governing coalitions form and dissolve with the seasons, e.g., the revolving door governments of the French Fourth Republic and Italian, Israeli, and Belgian governments for the past generation, it was greeted with “sky is falling” rhetoric by a substantial portion of the population—and not just Tory partisans.

Harper maneuvered desperately.  He first delayed the confidence vote until 8 December and then on December 4 after addressing the nation about the dangers of a Coalition and fruitlessly seeking a mechanism to break away Coalition supporters, he requested the Governor General to prorogue (suspend) Parliament over the Christmas holidays.  If the prospect of a Coalition government without an election was unprecedented, so also was a suspended Parliament less than two months after the last election—a blatant manipulative device to avoid a confidence vote.  Faced with two unprecedented action options, the Governor General took the one with the least prospect of political turmoil.  Arguing that a PM’s request to suspend Parliament had never been refused, the GG agreed to prorogue Parliament until 27 January.

Given this breathing period over the Christmas holidays, PM Harper rallied public opinion, trumpeting the dangers for Canadian unity of a government dependent on the Bloc Quebecois.  Simultaneously, Tory partisans implied that such a development would be the equivalent of a political coup (it was a perfectly legitimate parliamentary tactic albeit unprecedented in Canada).  Public opinion turned definitively against the Coalition and, with the failure of the Coalition to force an immediate vote, Dion was pressured to accelerate his resignation and did so on 8 December—the day which he hoped to have toppled the Harper government.

The New Liberal Leader
There is never a good time to replace a leader, and unless one dies in office, departure is rarely voluntary.  Following the election catastrophe, permitting Dion to condition his departure pending selection of a new leader at the May Liberal conference was procedurally polite rather than preferred policy.  Thus following the Coalition debacle, Dion was bluntly informed that he would resign.

After a brief internal tussle over how to nominate his successor, on 9 December the Liberals selected Michael Ignatieff as “interim” party leader, a position that was confirmed at the Liberal Vancouver party conference on 2 May.

Ignatieff the Enigma
Ignatieff is no Dion. To begin, he “looks prime ministerial.” Additionally, he is a sophisticated, highly educated, cosmopolitan author, journalist, and TV personality—at least as fluent in French as Harper.  But his strengths are his weaknesses.  The downside is that virtually all of this experience has been in the U.K. and U.S., where he spent virtually his entire adult life—by some accounts (but who’s counting) only three of the last 33 years were in Canada.  Indeed, occasionally there is more enthusiasm for Ignatieff outside Canada, e.g., a September New Yorker puff piece profile.

Carpetbagger comes to mind and, while he has paid basic dues by being immersed in the Canadian political system during the past several years, some still suspect his Canadian credentials.  Indeed, simply the fact that he is contending for national leadership boggles the mind—imagine an aspiring U.S. politician who had been out of the country for a comparable period.  It would defy belief that a U.S. citizen could spend upwards of 30 years, say in the United Kingdom, as a public intellectual, author, critic, commentator, and professor and immediately be politically credible as a candidate for the U.S. presidency.

Ignatieff has, for example, more gut appreciation for the shards of former-Yugoslavia than of the mechanics of the Quebec sovereignty movement.  Moreover, his massive literary production and journalist commentary, just supplemented by a new book, True Patriot Love that doubled as a pre-campaign platform, has proved a goldmine for political adversaries.  Over the decades, he has found himself on multiple sides of key questions from the Iraq war to torture to the Israel-Lebanon fighting in 2006 to the role of Quebec in Canada.  Moreover, Ignatieff’s descriptive writing reveals him as having been intermittently nasty to friends and family and invariably egotistical—not that humility is a required characteristic for aspiring politicians, but Ignatieff finds it hard to fake humility.

Nevertheless, he will be and already has been a more effective foil for Harper in Parliament and political debate, comfortable as a former telejournalist with TV repartee and highly experienced in foreign relations from having spent virtually all of his professional life abroad.  Moreover, as a Harvard academic, he dealt with colleagues who are now senior officials in the Obama administration, making him less the “unknown” than is the case for many senior Canadians.

But the Tories, apparently sensing a Canadian discomfort with the cosmopolitan nature of the Ignatieff resume, have attempted with some success to define him invidiously in a series of attack ads starting at the end of May, characterizing him as “just visiting,” and implying he would leave Canada if he didn’t become PM.  Ignatieff’s slightly weak riposte was to claim that the Tories are slandering, inter alia, immigrants who haven’t lived their entire lives in Canada and a series of “soft” ads featuring him in a forest environment later revealed to be an urban park.

Politically, following the Liberal leadership conference in May, Ignatieff attempted to jump start Canadian interest in Liberal solutions to domestic problems by urging comprehensive reform of Employment Insurance (EI).  EI is not the sexiest of issues, but one, which, during this Great Recession, had more resonance than usual—buttressed by the reality that the EI system was a dysfunctional hodgepodge varying erratically throughout the country.  Nevertheless, it was not a throw-yourself-off-the-cliff issue worthy of an election, and Ignatieff accepted a compromise panel study (ending inconclusively) that permitted the Canadian electorate a summer untrammeled by politicians attending local barbeques.  So far, this decision was Ignatieff’s best political move as Liberal leader.

But when Parliament resumed in September, Ignatieff again rushed to the brink stating that Harper’s “time had come” and that the Liberals would bring down the government at an early opportunity.  However, adverse pollster statistics intervened, and Ignatieff backed away from forcing an early election; the result, however, has given “Iggy” an “Iffy” sobriquet and a somewhat undeserved aurora of indecisive political ineptitude reflecting his inexperience.  In early November, he reshuffled his personal staff, replacing as chief of staff a long-time friend with an old pol expected to give greater rigor and focus to Liberal strategy.

The Old Conservative Leader
Stephen Harper is perhaps the only man in Canada who regrets the departure of Stephane Dion as Liberal leader.  Dion was the perfect opponent:  charisma challenged; convolutedly inarticulate in both official languages; vaguely professorial; and almost appearing as if he should be wearing a “Kick me” sign on his back. Just by existing, he made Harper look good by comparison.

Harper, for all of his virtues, is simply not loveable.  He has tried—and tried again—but simply lacks the “warm and fuzzy” gene that grants popular forgiveness to scalawags; indeed, he projects the opposite—a Mr. Clean—but also Mr. Mean.  However, his latest PR maneuver—playing the piano accompanied by Yo Yo Ma while singing a Beatles song at a National Arts festival—has (temporarily) bemused his axiomatic liberal media critics.

Politically, he has been highly successful, and he has been saved by this competence.  In each election in which he has led the Tories, he has increased their parliamentary representation.  Intelligent, honest, focused, relentlessly organized, he has maintained very tight caucus discipline, keeping the party “on message” while directing a minority government in the worst recession in 70 years.  Polls suggest that, albeit grudgingly, Canadians recognize his leadership qualities but are not happy about it.  And a Canadian media, normally jaundiced toward any conservative, has engaged him in a mutual hate fest that grinds away on Harper’s popularity.

Thus Harper’s challenge has been to manage the day-to-day socio-economic issues while hoping that the negatives of an early election will keep it at bay and give the Canadian economy a chance to rally—thus permitting Harper to claim credit for being a great helmsman.  The economic up tick by the end of the summer with the Recession officially ended combined with some gains in job creation and increased energy prices would have given him debating points for any campaign, but they must be sustained into 2010 to maintain the current Tory polling lead.

The Inevitable Election…but When?
No minority government can count on governing past the next confidence vote.  Harper is strengthened by the requirement that all three opposition parties coordinate to defeat the government—and none of the three (Liberals, NDP, or BQ) can be confident an autumn election will help them.  Polls remain erratic—the Liberals initially strengthened under Ignatieff’s leadership, but that surge turned into swoon by mid-October before apparently recovering in early November.  Moreover, recent polls don’t show gains for the NDP or the BQ.  Thus…drift.  Having navigated through the rising of Parliament for summer and its resumption in September, the Tories still could face defeat in the fall if Liberals/NDP/BQ coordinate (or miscalculate).  Or they could stay afloat until officially presenting a budget in February 2010—or longer.

Liberal Fibrillations
Normally, inconclusive entrails would mean “wait and see,” but Ignatieff, after having spent a largely invisible summer, declared at the annual Liberal Party convention on 2 September that Harper’s time had come.  That move put Canada on election alert and sparked a frenzy of “Why Now?” media commentary.

Shakespeare suggests that “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune,” and Ignatieff appeared to have taken counsel of himself and close advisers to decide that the time was nigh.  They dismissed polls and pundits that said over 70 percent of the electorate didn’t want an election by observing that the electorate never wants an election and “if we give an election, they will come.”  Certainly, circumstances were better for the Liberals than they were at the beginning of the year.  Ignatieff was less charismatically inspirational than anticipated, but effectively had pushed both party reorganization and fund raising.  Recent party income matched the Conservatives, giving the Liberals sufficient reserves for an extensive TV advertising barrage to counter the Tories “just visiting” images.  Moreover, although party enthusiasm for an election was hardly universal, Ignatieff’s calculations apparently concluded that it was their best near term chance.  Waiting until the 2010 February budget would conflict with Canadian hosting the Winter Olympics in Vancouver and forcing a winter election would be even less popular than other timing.  So having fibrillated during the first nine months of the year between “going now” or “going later,” attempting to catch the wave of popular anxiety over the (perhaps worsening) economy before a (perhaps improving) economy recovers sufficiently for Tories to claim credit, the Liberals appeared to have concluded that waiting would reinforce Harper’s credentials as an adroit steward of Canada’s economy.

But, “wait a minute”—or wait a considerable period.  Just as the Liberals rushed toward the brink, their polling numbers rushed south.  It began to appear that not only would the Liberals not win a near term election, but the Tories could be verging on securing a majority.  A combination of an improving economy; effective Tory PR, and the absence of such by Ignatieff/Liberals; leadership infighting, especially in Quebec; and the absence of defining, differentiating issues forced next to last minute reconsideration.  For now, the Liberals have decided to vote against the government, leaving it to the NDP and/or BQ–that argue topics such as extending unemployment insurance justify supporting the government—to prevent the government being defeated.  The result is a fragile and ad hoc balance designed more to avoid an election than to govern the country effectively.

Canadians Dealing with the Economy
We all know that “it’s the economy, stupid,” but many highly intelligent professionals throughout the world failed to get it right and are still failing to do so.  While the ongoing Great Recession is not (yet at least) going to transform into the equivalent of the 1930s Great Depression, this has been the worst economy that virtually any living citizen has experienced.  And that reality has political ramifications at least as important as its economics.  Actually, Harper—and Canada—look good by comparison with much national global leadership, but that abstract debating point was initially not particularly helpful for the prime minister who suggested during the October 2008 campaign that nothing untoward would affect Canada.

Eighteen months ago, one could have characterized the Canadian economy as enjoying “the best of times” with low unemployment, low inflation, declining federal/provincial deficits, reduced taxes, steady growth, rising exports (particularly open-ended sales of energy), and an increasing value for the Canadian dollar.

That is not today’s reality.  Instead there is 8.7 percent unemployment rate (more than a point lower than the U.S.), weak GDP growth, declining exports, and massive federal and provincial deficit spending projected to continue until 2015.  Consequently, there is an irritated appreciation that Harper may have adroitly orchestrated the October 2008 election at the last juncture when he could have won it, and his comments throughout the campaign that economic circumstances/prospects were not that dire were disingenuous if not deliberately duplicitous.  At the minimum, one can now be skeptical of his credentials as an economist (his academic field of study), despite the economy’s modest rally over the last few months.

Consequently, it provides scant comfort to say that the economy is not as bad as it could be.  Indeed, various international agencies have praised Canada’s earlier fiscal prudence in banking and mortgage policy that staved off the meltdowns that characterized global banking.  In comparison with the USA, the Canadian economy still looks good.  The problem for Canada, however, is that its economy is melded at the hip to that of the U.S.—if the U.S. does not recover, Canada cannot either.  And if the U.S. sinks further or continues to muddle messily, all of the technical virtues of Canadian economic/fiscal policy will be to no avail.  So Canada is damned to follow where the U.S. leads—or stumbles— concerning industrial “bail outs” (automakers) or energy policy (“cap and trade” for carbon dioxide emission standards.)  Massive financial support (and consequent government ownership) for General Motors became necessary just to match U.S. policy; not to do so would have been a decision to abandon an auto industry in Canada—but regardless of the necessity, it was still a very expensive action.

The massive deficit spending has already absorbed a substantial part of the painfully ground down, decade-long debt and deficit reduction.  There is a sense that Sisyphus is going to be crushed beneath that downward rolling rock, and it will take the efforts of rest of this generation—if lucky—to get back to where they were in 2008.  Such a conclusion has left fiscal conservatives angry at “one of their own” abandoning actuarial purity while providing ammunition for critics on the left to proclaim that if only Harper hadn’t earlier reduced taxes and/or reduced the wrong taxes, more money would be available to shrink the deficit.

So for the Tories/Harper, the economy is a walking on eggs exercise.  Harper continues to be subjected to forces largely beyond his control.  Although making the right moves, the downward spiral is scarcely abated, e.g., the federal deficit for 2009 projected in April at $34 billion by 10 September had vaulted to over $55 billion.  He must play a waiting game, hoping that the economy will recover quickly enough (and certainly not relapse) to stave off increases in Liberal popularity.  Conversely, economic bad news is good for the Liberals—they have used the past ten months to reorganize party finances but still must devise a campaign program more sophisticated than “We are not Tories,” and “We can do better.”  That they have chosen not to “go now” suggests analysis that the improved economy would help Tories in an early election; they waited too long to force an election and now must hope the economy won’t improve further.  Or just hope that “something will turn up” in Dickensian fashion to give them a defining issue.

Canadians Dealing with Quebeckers
Even when the “dog” of separatism is sleeping, it has a somnambulist facility for biting a federalist ankle.

On both federal and provincial levels, Quebec has again demonstrated that it cannot be taken for granted.  It has also proved that it is far easier to lose hard-won gains than to build further upon them.

For PM Harper, the result of the 2006 election in Quebec was a stunning albeit delightful surprise.  From essentially no expectations of winning any seats, the Tories gained ten—the consequence of assiduous efforts by Harper to reach out to Quebeckers, featuring improved French, frequent visits to the province, and astute commitments to upgrade Quebec’s status nationally and internationally.  To be sure, Quebeckers also remained furious at the Liberal-connected “Adscam” fraud and bribery scandals that featured prominent provincial Liberals and were willing to punish the party with a credible federalist alternative.

Seeking to build on this base, Harper continued his courtship of Quebec after the 2006 election, attempting to transform what was described as a “French Kiss” in one account into full matrimony.  Quebec was recognized as a “nation” (within Canada, to be sure), accorded a separate seat at UNESCO, and provided expanded federal funding.  The general expectation was that the Tories would be rewarded for such attention, particularly when the Liberals were led by the massively unpopular Stephane Dion, whose Quebec origins made his vigorous federalism anathema for many Francophones.  Moreover, the separatist Bloc Quebecois appeared to be a fading force with its long term leader, Gilles Duceppe, presenting more the image of a man edging toward the exit (and into Quebec provincial politics) than someone eager to continue as the sentinel for sovereignty in Ottawa.

Nevertheless, the Tories proved again that counting unhatched chickens is likely to result in omelet on your face.  They were still far from understanding the nuances of courting Francophone semi-sovereignists.  Politics is an art form; often telling one audience what it wants to hear alienates another.  Thus it is hard to wow audiences in Winnipeg and Eval with the same tune—and twice over during the 2008 election campaign the Tories hit wrong notes.  First, they supported tough-on-juvenile-crime legislation that went against the Quebec grain of a softer juridical approach (reform rather than punishment) to crimes by minors.  But more disastrously, the Tories implemented essentially minor budget cuts in arts/culture funding as much to discomfit the Toronto chattering class as to save money.  The result, however, was to convince influential Quebec intellectuals that the Tories were unsympathetic to Quebec/French culture, and the impending conservative surge in the province evaporated, essentially to the benefit of the Bloc, which actually gained a seat.

Nor has the intervening year been particularly kind to the federal Tories.  Their collapse can be sourced to the 2008 campaign missteps, but is also attributable to the intensity with which Harper assailed the BQ link with the Liberal/NDP Coalition in December 2008, attacks that some regarded as “over the top” demonizing of the Bloc and insulting to Quebec interests.  Combined with the collapse of their provincial allies, Action Democratique Quebec (ADQ), federal Tory support sagged; at one point, it was in single digits and while it has recovered to competitive levels, it still remains well behind the Bloc and weaker than the Liberals.

Moreover, the Liberals “rebranded” with Ignatieff’s arrival as leader.  Not only is he unconnected to the Adscam scandals, his touch-of-arrogance “princely” attitude reminds some Quebeckers of Pierre Trudeau.  And Trudeau built on Quebec’s love/hate relationship to construct repeated national federal Liberal victories.  To be sure, Ignatieff has made his own share of missteps in Quebec, including a damaging battle over candidate nominations that cost him his Quebec “lieutenant” and proved to Quebeckers that he has far to go before understanding the provinces political nuances.  Nevertheless, in November, Harper must contemplate painstaking rebuilding from the ruins of the 2008 campaign.  His Quebec MP caucus is weak; his ADQ provincial analogue has collapsed; his relations with the Liberal premier Jean Charest strained.  He must struggle and will be fortunate to retain his current caucus in the next election; further errors could cost him many of these seats.

Provincial Twists and Turns
The story of 2008 for provincial politics was the majority victory in December elections for Charest’s Liberals.  Charest too had read the tea leaves in the wind and called for an election before the ramifications of fiscal incompetence proved damaging.  Thus he can contemplate the rare pleasures of a third mandate with a solid majority and ignore the grousing of those who believe he had advance warning of the results of the fiscal disaster afflicting Quebec’s pension fund/investment Caisse de Depot, which announced in March an unprecedented $31.7 billion loss for 2008.  The financial results were disconcerting, but even worse for Quebec psyches was that the highly touted Caisse lost significantly more than the comparable Ontario fund.

The second story, however, was in some senses even more dramatic:  the recovery of the separatist Parti Quebecois and the collapse of the ADQ.   Led by Pauline Marois, the first woman to lead a major Quebec party, the PQ vaulted back into Official Opposition status, gaining 15 seats and 8 percent in the vote (Charest’s Liberals gained more in both categories).  While Marois certainly would have preferred a victory, the PQ is quietly content with moving to second place, appreciating privately that in democracies the Official Opposition eventually gets a chance to govern, and the PQ is a known (and reasonably trusted) quality with the electorate.

The ADQ, however, had a catastrophic defeat.  In the 2007 election, the ADQ was regarded as an alternative for Liberals who were repelled by Charest’s broken promises and Pequists repelled by their cocaine-using, “metro sexual” leader; it surged to 41 seats and appeared poised to gain power.   Headed by Mario Dumont, who at 39, had been politically prominent since 1992 and termed “the oldest young man in Quebec politics,” it remained more a one-man band than a coherent political party.  Dumont was never able to institutionalize the ADQ as a substantive alternative to Liberals and Pequistes.  In December the party lost 34 of its seats and Dumont resigned to become a TV talk show host. The ADQ’s protracted search for a successor to guide the party’s remnants concluded in mid-October, with the selection of an uninspiring candidate who had been defeated in the December election. He, however, abruptly resigned and was replaced by another political unknown. Thus Quebec has returned to its existential two party face off:  federalists versus sovereignists, each arguing that they have a clearer image for Quebec’s future.

So far as the somnolent sovereignty canine is concerned, mid year polls suggested an almost equal division among those who say Quebec has enough autonomy (and should stay in Canada); those who think that Quebec needs more autonomy (but should stay in Canada); and those who think that Quebec should leave Canada and become independent.  On the other hand, 74 percent of Quebeckers consider it either “very unlikely” or “not likely at all” that sovereignty will become a reality.  Consequently, Marois who has suggested a four-point plan to increase Quebec authority over culture, the economy, and fiscal power is well-positioned to appeal to Quebeckers.  And, in an intimation that the sleeping dog could get a kick, former Quebec prime minister Jacques Parizeau, has hypothesized that single-issue referendums could address these subjects, galvanizing provincial interest in full sovereignty.  Nevertheless, the Montreal mayoral election on 1 November, which featured a strong “sovereignist” (Louise Harel), left her in second place.  A victory on her part could have stirred the pot for sovereignty.

More generally, however, the desperately fought 1995 sovereignty referendum seems very much an artifact of a bygone century.  In contrast to the expectation a decade ago that sovereignty would grow in strength as more young Francophones arrived on the scene and old Anglophone/federalist Francophones departed it, sovereignty has proved to be more “not their father’s Oldsmobile” than the political vehicle they wished to drive into the 21st century.

Hard core sovereignists will never give up, and occasional snorts from their old bulls (and cows) mark this commitment, but they have realized that now is not their time.  They take comfort in polls suggesting that as much as 80 percent of the electorate wants greater autonomy in at least one area, and hope to nurture that wish into more comprehensive desire for independence.

Dealing with the USA:  A New American Relationship
President Obama is a game changer globally in regard to perceptions of the United States.  It is irrelevant whether previous global attitudes were misperceptions or not—or whether the perception “changed” with the election of the first African American as president will endure.

As our most intense and critical observers, Canadians remain fascinated by President Obama.  He is everything that delights the “chattering class”—urbane, articulate, intelligent, educated, and a “visible minority” that goes counter-crossways to their attitude toward “Dubya.”  After all, who would not prefer an Obama to a conservative “cowboy” with “born again” religious attitudes whose approach to foreign affairs appeared to Canadians to be “monster mashing through the tulips?”  Thus the honeymoon since the Inaugural continues—one reinforced by Obama on 19 February visiting Canada on his first foreign trip (regardless of how briefly), saying the right things, patting the prime minister on the back (but not calling him “Steve”), talking about having Canadians among his advisors, and even consuming a “beaver tail” in the Ottawa Byward Market while purchasing souvenirs for his daughters.

Since then, the president and prime minister have met multiple times:  G-20; NATO Summit; 65th anniversary of D-Day; North American Leaders; and a 16 September White House bilateral after another G-20 session.  The photographic “body language” suggests nothing amiss between the two; at the minimum, polite collegiality is the norm.  We can be sanguine.

Conservatives and Democrats
Historically the relationship between Democrats and Conservatives in power has not been so much a “poor fit” politically as it has been an infrequent one.  Indeed, in recent bilateral politics, there is only the brief, less-than-a-year interlude featuring the Clinton Democrats and the Mulroney-Kim Campbell Tories, before the 1993 election annihilated the Tories.  That period was politically uneventful with the Tories focused on recovering from the defeat of the Charlottetown constitutional referendum and changing leadership and the Clinton Democrats still getting their act together, putting the last negotiating touches on the NAFTA agreement.  One must go back to the Kennedy-Diefenbaker period for a somewhat extended Democrats-Tories bilateral relationship—doubtlessly cranky and contentious.  But happily for Canada, Harper is no Diefenbaker, regardless of how “Kennedy-esque” Obama may be.  Thus the day-to-day personalities and substantive issues are manageable.

Nevertheless, with the Conservatives running a minority government—and the Liberals yo-yoing in the polls (now down)— during the year since election, Obama and the USG administration may well be tempted to look past the Tory/Harper government.  This is hardly a prediction of U.S. interference in Canadian domestic politics (no need for regime change) so much as an appreciation that Obamaites probably regard themselves more politically-philosophically attuned to Ignatieff Liberals–and more likely to have read the New Yorker article touting Ignatieff.  There would be no jumping for joy in the White House if the Tories were defeated in the next election, but no wet eyes either.

But Do Personalities Really Matter?
To be sure, it is better that the presidential-prime ministerial relationship be marked at least by professional respect, even mutual congeniality, rather than thinly veiled contempt.  And we have had both the congeniality and the contempt between our heads of government–certainly the latter as anyone with historical knowledge of Diefenbaker-Kennedy; Johnson-Pearson; and Nixon-Trudeau-Reagan will recall.  Nor has it really been persistently helpful to have obviously congenial relations, particularly not for Tory PMs, as Canadian distaste for Mulroney actually tended to heighten domestic anti-Americanism given his close relations with Reagan and Bush ’41.  The fact that these warm relations generated positive bilateral benefits for Canada, e.g., the Acid Rain treaty and NAFTA appeared irrelevant to Canadian voters.

On the other hand, it is difficult to say that the largely positive Chretien-Clinton relationship (that was almost a semi-secret, closet friendship) particularly benefited either country.  The eight-year (1993-2001) Clinton presidency was one largely of calm seas in both economics (NAFTA) and foreign affairs in a post-Cold War world when views were largely coincidental (Haiti, former Yugoslavia).  Conversely, Liberal leaders were never comfortable with “Dubya” Bush, and Liberal contempt was not even thinly veiled following the Coalition regime change in Iraq.  Still it is hard to detail specifics to any charges that the substance rather than the atmospherics of the relationship deteriorated.  The Harper-Bush relationship was very low key.  The Bush administration carefully avoided potentially toxic issues (missile defense) that might have damaged the prime minister and quietly appreciated Canadian contributions in Afghanistan.  The major bilateral benefit, however, was the elimination of previous Liberal rhetoric.

Thus the Harper-Obama relationship, still little more than a newly placed cornerstone, at least started collegially.  The absence of a U.S. ambassador (until October 2009) points up how smooth current relations are regarded (and the minimal priority given to our bilateral affairs).  Obama’s casual back pat for Harper during his February visit was his unstudied ritual approach; Obama is hardly a Canada scholar (recall that he thought Canadian senators were elected), but he has Canada ties with a half-sister and brother-in-law living near Toronto, and he made a point that he had Canadians on his staff (would a Canadian PM be so daring about employing Americans?)  For the near term at least (and perhaps for two terms), Obama will be globally charming; Canada under Tory or Liberal leadership (and Michael Ignatieff appears comparably compatible with Obama) can be part of our solutions rather than part of our problems–if it so desires.

The U.S. 2008 election simply pointed up more sharply the traditional bilateral reality.  The overwhelming U.S. presence—economic/cultural, political, military—severely limits Canadian options in any period of crisis.  Thus, for example, whether Canadians might prefer a “carbon tax” versus “cap and trade” to address the issue of greenhouse gas emissions (or even whether this is an issue that should be addressed) will be determined by what the U.S. decides.  And hence on this subject—and other economic “Great Recession” topics, e.g., auto company bailouts leave Canadians either marching in place or marching to the beat of the U.S. drummer.

Canadians have no essential objections to U.S. Administration action.  Still, being Canadian, they worry and hold their breath.  They are concerned over whether “Buy American” action by states and municipalities will weigh on Canadian exports (and mull over reciprocal restrictions for U.S. products in Canadian municipalities).  They were concerned that the long-anticipated enhanced border security requirements that came into effect on 1 June will have invidious effect on cross border trade and/or U.S. tourist visiting (early indications suggested no technical problems, but that may mean that the protracted, steep decline in U.S. visitors is accelerating).  They worry whether USG efforts to increase fuel mileage for automobiles and use “clean” energy will prove detrimental to Alberta’s “tar sands” oil exports.  They are unhappy that the U.S. health care debate often devolves into demonizing the Canadian single-payer model.

Nevertheless, in real terms, these are hypothetical rather than imminent concerns.  The enormous problems associated with U.S. domestic efforts to combat and reverse the Great Recession make the USG uninterested in opening unnecessary confrontations with an essential amenable neighbor.  Thus, despite campaign rhetoric suggesting reopening/rethinking the 1993 NAFTA agreement, it will not be happening–and a statement in October by Ambassador Jacobson underlined that reality.  At their joint press conference during his February visit, Obama pointed out that if the NAFTA side letters on labor and environment are meaningful they could be incorporated into the main agreement.  But here also the expectation was that such action would be done the way porcupines make love:  very carefully.  The Obama administration knows that its essential trade challenges are with Asia rather than within North America.  NAFTA works; don’t break it.  The auto industry is sufficiently imperiled without casting its future further into question by hauling a NAFTA review into the process.

Likewise, the assorted environmental issues need much sorting out domestically before they are ready for export.  Although the Obama administration is committed to “cap and trade” for green house emissions control, legislation remains stalled in Congress.  Thus, despite gusts of rhetoric, what will actually be done with energy/environment appears to be highly limited—certainly in the near term.  The commitment made during Obama’s Canada visit to a “U.S.-Canada clean energy dialogue” was really an agreement to begin to commence to start … something.  Inexpensive energy is a basic economic engine for prosperity.  With that truism as a given, the U.S. coal “pot” is not going to be damning the Canadian tar sands “kettle” as black.  President Obama said bluntly, that in dealing with climate change, we must make “sure that in the midst of a severe recession that it’s not having too much of an adverse impact on economic growth and employment.”  USG desire to reduce reliance on imported energy really means reducing reliance on energy from outside the North American hemisphere.  Yes, it would be nice if all energy could become pure as the driven snow (at an affordable price), but the political impetus regarding the environment as reflected in domestic polling has dropped—and with it the pressure to do something expensive in a time of economic recession.

Border Security
Perhaps the smartest words PM Harper spoke during his February press conference with President Obama were that “the view of this government is unequivocal:  threats to the United States are threats to Canada…let there be no illusion about the fact that we take these security concerns as seriously as our American friends.”  Yes, we can and should be concerned that a “thickening border” could inhibit trade and social interaction.  Yes, we can lament long lines of tourists and commercial trucking at border crossing points.  And, yes, we can devote some of our stimulus package to infrastructure designed to ease border transit.  But security still trumps trade and that reality should not be forgotten.  The regular apprehension of terrorist planning cells in both countries indicates that terrorism continues unabated.  So we can hope that some of the feckless Canadian rhetoric describing the 1 June enhanced border measures as an “invisible Berlin Wall” gets a reality check.

Americans have long recognized that Canadians think us paranoid about security when we should merely be neurotic—and consequently they have had to be dragged kicking/screaming into accepting procedures for greater document security and border control.  It is not that Ottawa hasn’t spent to enhance security, but media attention invariably battens on the poor souls denied entry through ludicrous error, communities divided by new fences, Predator drone surveillance of Manitoba, “privacy” issues regarding enhanced RFID non-passport documents, or discomfited citizens enduring holiday delays.  The impression conveyed is one of hard-hearted thugs in U.S. border guard uniforms harassing poor-little-me Canadians rather than a sophisticated effort to keep our societies secure from terrorism.

But zero defects border security must be primary for the Obama administration.  Reality politics demand that a President Obama be just as attentive to U.S. security as the most troglodyte Republican.  The reason is obvious; perhaps the only enduring domestic accomplishment of the Bush 43 tenure is that there were no further terrorist attacks on the United States following 9/11.  Whether such fortunate happenstance was the consequence of good luck, terrorist incompetence, draconian and secretive domestic intelligence operations, vigorous military operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere, or all of the above, it is a reality that certainly was not expected on 9/12/2001.  Should there be another assault on the United States, the Obama presidency will bear the politicized onus—and Ottawa should be hyper alert to avoid any possibility that such an attack originated in Canada.  Spending on security—even well beyond what might be technically required—combined with verbal reinforcement of Canadian concern will be cheap at the price.

We have a modus vivendi.  As of early November, the U.S. was finishing a comprehensive review of its policy toward Afghanistan—a review that ultimately may add upwards of 40,000 more troops to our forces and already has put over 17,000 in motion to the country.  We are well aware of the growing unpopularity of any Canadian military presence in Afghanistan and Canada’s 2011 term limit commitment to the country—but that is a commitment longer than most of the rest of the coalition forces currently in country.  So there is no need now to ask for any further extension—and we haven’t (at least in public).  If necessary, there will be quite enough time to request Ottawa to reconsider a commitment, at least in the development/training categories.

A substantial portion of the projected U.S. troop reinforcements will be based in conjunction with Canadian forces near Kandahar.  This collocation will reinforce professional collegiality and give both countries military forces renewed experience operating together in combat—a circumstance not really seen since the Korean War.

Summing Up
Sixteen years ago, with the end of the Cold War and the coincidence of a Democratic president and a Liberal prime minister, analysts could sanguinely conclude that the bilateral relationship was never better.  Subsequently, during the Dubya years, the “best friends like it or not” sobriquet describing the relationship was distinctly set in the “not” portion of the cycle.  We not only agreed to disagree, we frequently did so disagreeably.  At this juncture, with a new president consumed by domestic economic concerns while ducking and dodging hardy perennial foreign affairs problems (Iran, North Korea, Middle East, Russia), there is solid potential for what might be regarded as “new normal” relations.  To be sure, there will be the “events” that roil all predictions (a spike in Canadian deaths in Afghanistan, resurgence of “mad cow” disease, another episode of the SARS epidemic, and/or a virulent avian/”swine” flu causing economic and border problems), but albeit with fingers crossed we can anticipate a return to a bilateral relationship marked by managers rather than ideologues.End.

David T. Jones
David T. Jones

David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer and a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy.  During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving inter alia as a POLAD for the Army Chief of Staff.  He is coauthor of Uneasy Neighbo(u)rs, a study of American-Canadian bilateral concerns and has published several hundred articles, columns, and reviews on U.S.-Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy.


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