A retired senior American diplomat, the author held the position of minister-counselor for political affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa for four years and has followed the Canadian scene closely since then, writing frequently for American Diplomacy. In this analysis he proffers an answer to the question: Is the issue a dead dog, or is it only sleeping? Ed.
Paul Martin has been prime minister for a year; whatever honeymoon may have fleetingly existed is long gone with criticism now both pointed and direct on his substance and style. The opposition in Ottawa is feisty and confident; moreover, in Quebec the separatists are stronger than they have been for several years Nevertheless, the ruling Quebec Liberals do not face an election until at least 2007, and with President Bush having taken his long deferred official visit to Canada, the first element of fence mending has been taken. Both political sides are taking a second opportunity to make a first impression. For Canada the prospect of "four more years" in Washington may be galling, but neighbors can be business partners without being buddies -- and that arrangement may be our near term future.
There is the old adage of being careful for what you wish because you may get it.
Canada under the much desired, much anticipated Prime Minister Paul Martin now seems to be musing over whether it has a dud At a minimum, among all but the hard-bitten Martinite loyalists, there is a sense of disappointment The man with a plan to fix, transform, act, etc has morphed into "Mr. Dithers." The disappointment is a function of the combination of self-delusion on the part of those infatuated by the Martin mystique, over promising by Martin, and the changed political circumstances of a minority government
Self-Delusion Jean Chrétien's decade of rule (1993-2003) as Liberal prime minister saw a popular "little guy from Shawinigen" transform himself into a thoroughly unlovable political "boss," who brooked no opposition and accepted neither advice nor criticism The structure of Canadian government offers the prime minister a degree of centralization and authority that is unprecedented in U.Sterms; however, Canadian prime ministers prior to Chretien had not pushed these limits Chretien did, and, ultimately, he found himself locked in a political contest with Martin, then his Finance Minister, over leadership succession Chretien ultimately fired Martin in June 2002, but it proved a Pyrrhic victory
The effort to remove Chretien was not so much difficult (over the years Martin had gained control of the Liberal Party organization) as it was protracted In the long half-life of the final year of the Chretien government, those waiting for Martin to become PM attributed him with virtually mythic potential He would win a crushing majority in a quick election and then move into a wide range of politico-social action improving everything from health care to the armed forces at no increased cost to taxpayers
Over promising In the process of waiting for his ascension and the resulting political campaign, Martin did nothing to reduce expectations His style is accommodating; his willingness to listen--and thus to give the impression that the problem being presented to him is "very important" and will be addressed positively--reinforced the vague February 2004 Throne Speech and the Liberal campaign platform The realists knew that there would be disappointments, but even political realists hoped that the disappointments would fall upon others Still, the average citizen, Liberal voter did not discount the promises sufficiently.
Underperforming Consequently, a year having passed, Canadians measure what has been accomplished against what was promised And indeed, there have been accomplishments, notably an agreement with the provinces on health care that while purchased at significant price and interim in nature, is still an agreement There were two generally respectable Supreme Court nominations A much/much delayed decision on a heavy helicopter to replace the ancient and decrepit Sea Kings was announced And there has been tentative progress in "getting to the bottom" of various financial scandals tarring the Liberals
In foreign affairs, Martin has offered some interesting, albeit self-serving ideas in advancing the concept of an "L-20" with leaders of major states meeting regularly to address pivotal problems He has traveled extensively, if somewhat randomly to spots as far apace as Haiti, Moscow, Darfur, Libya, and tsunami-affected Asian states His bilateral relations with the United States have lifted perceptibly from the Chrétien era nadir Nevertheless, the foreign travel may be confusing motion with movement and domestically the gruel has been judged to be thin
The Rigors of Minority Government. Canada has not faced a minority government since the short-lived Tory/Clark government of 1979, and the Liberals have not operated within one since 1972 Consequently, it is all terra nova for Martin and, since the Liberals when combined with the New Democrats (their most obvious allies) still fall short of a majority, Martin must take special parliamentary care to avoid the collapse of his government The result has been a very slow motion Parliament with little parliamentary action since the June 28 election and an extended holiday recess.
Is Martin Weak?
The image of indecision is associated with the absence (or much delay) on ostensibly simple files such as appointments for major agencies such as Canada Post, the International Development Bank, ViaRail, and the growing number of senatorial vacancies The latter are normally filled with a steady stream of worthies (naturally all Liberals) but the pile up, which reached 15 by the end of January 2005, has generated feckless speculation whether Martin has some grand plan either to reform the Senate with constitutional action or to let it wither on the vine by avoiding further appointments
The major substantive file has left hanging been Canadian participation in continental missile defense (MD) In some ways, it would appear a "no brainer" type decision: the United States is committed to build such a system and it is being built; other NATO allies have endorsed it and Russian criticism no more than perfunctory; the United States will provide all funding; operational control can be exercised through NORAD; there are potential benefits for Canada in the term of contracts, intelligence sharing, and coordinated continental defense Consequently, many observers think the Liberals should just "do it"--it means more to the United States and bilateral relations than it does to Canada But MD has become a litmus test for all who oppose U.S. action (or the existence of the United States) and cooperation with the Washington (otherwise known as the anti-Christ equivalent) is anathema. Martin does not need parliamentary acquiescence to join the MD effort; however, he has put himself in the position of saying that Parliament will be consulted Although there are elements in the Liberal party that oppose MD, as do the socialist NDP and the Quebec separatist Bloc Quebecois, the Conservative Party would doubtless vote in favor--if only to prevent an early collapse of the minority government But Martin continues to delay defining action, leaving the lightweight Defmin Bill Graham to make the positive arguments for MD, and each day of delay encourages greater resistance By mildly but clearly expressing interest in Canadian participation in MD during his November 30-December 1 visit, President Bush focused attention on the issue--perhaps forcing it toward debate and decision.
The great unknown--equivalent to the pile of elephant dung in the parlor that all are determined to ignore--is the steady grind of juridical investigation on "Adscam." Unveiled in early 2004 by the Auditor General, this complex investigation turns around the inability of a series of major advertising firms to account for upwards of $100 million in contracts designed to present federalism positively in Quebec following the 1995 sovereignty referendum The culpability of senior Chrétien Liberals and the suspicion that substantial amounts of this money was kicked back either to individuals or to party campaign coffers cost the Liberals over 20 seats from Quebec backlash and with it their electoral majority With so much smoke, the heat continues to rise, and while Martin personally may be asbestos clad, further dramatic legal connections could be fatal for the Liberals in the next election.
The Opposition in Ottawa
To this object, the Opposition has constructed a rough tactical concord forcing the Liberals to agree on some minor bureaucratic and financial points following the Throne Speech review The Opposition cooperation was a "shot across the bow" type warning that the Liberals could not assume they can operate as if they hold a majority In fact, at least in the near term, no one wants an election Each of the opposition parties has either financial, organizational, or policy issues (and sometimes all of the foregoing) to compel tacit support of the government A capsule summary would conclude:
The Conservatives The results of the June 28 election were both satisfying and frustrating The Liberals were reduced to minority status, but despite monumental obstacles managed to cling to power (One commentator noted the electorate feared the Conservatives more than it loathed the Liberals.) At their most hapless and inept in 20 years, the Liberals were not even able to defeat themselves.
Somewhat ruefully Conservatives have concluded that "we weren't ready for prime time," but while laying blame for defeat in multiple directions, they remain upbeat about their next chance They want the Liberals to remain in power for the short run and are convinced that PM Martin looks older, more confused, and more inept with each passing day They have retooled their caucus front bench, hidden their more Neanderthal MPs, and sharpen their knives daily on Liberal ministers during Question Period At least one long time political observer concluded that their caucus is the strongest since the Pearson minority government of the early 1960s
Party leader Stephen Harper gets strongly positive, but somewhat mixed reviews He is credited with keeping a disparate caucus coherent and integrating a bevy of new members Intelligent, articulate, intellectually creative--Harper has significant pluses But others believe he is not sufficiently using his caucus, assuming that all substantive policy must originate with him, and prone to spinning out bright ideas without fully assessing their political ramifications For example, he suggested in an outreach speech in Quebec that Belgium's management of linguistic communities could be a model for Canada--a suggestion generating derision from those who think that Belgium is at best a model for waffle making.
Consequently, despite tremendous success in knitting together the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives, winning a challenging leadership battle, and running a strong national campaign against much experienced opposition, Harper is facing a "win or else" challenge for the next election There are those who reject his principled conservative views (conservative only in Canadian terms; in the United States he would be a liberal Republican) believing that no Albertan can lead the Conservatives out of their Western ghetto There are others who doubt his "fire in the belly" since he makes clear that he has a "life" with family beyond politics The result is a tendency by some to look past Harper to a "who's next" without any identifiable "who." In short, the wantabees for Conservative leadership are in short supply Former Tory leader, Peter MacKay appears terminally "light;" the earlier much bruited about New Brunswick premier, Bernard Lord, irritated potential backroom king-makers by twice turning down a leadership run; Belinda Stronach, Harper's 2004 leadership opponent, still seems no more than a (very) pretty face Beyond these are a bevy of MPs with personal virtues but a total absence of profile 100 meters from Parliament Hill.
The result is that the Conservatives remain a work in progress A party conference in March 2005 is scheduled to give them a manifesto/platform They need time to organize in Ontario, find some traction in Quebec for a chance at a handful of seats (not being a Quebecker is for Harper a permanent liability), and create a mechanism to persuade the Atlantic provinces that their hidden agenda is not to eliminate unemployment insurance
The Socialists The New Democratic Party (NDP) disappointed itself in the June election At 19 seats, it came nowhere close to its inflated objectives and is not even a credible parliamentary partner for the Liberals since the combination of their available votes does not provide a majority NDP leader Jack Layton, the "energizer bunny" of Canadian politics has generated considerable buzz, but no one appears to be listening
The NDP has been relentlessly shrill over missile defense, albeit not particularly knowledgeable or interested in the facts During the president's visit, Layton belabored Bush, then-SecState Powell, and SecState-to-be Rice on the topic and was politely dismissed The party's role in the government vs. the premiers health care summit was marginal. As a result, the NDP has seized itself with marginal issues such as banning transfats from food products sold in Canada -- ostensibly a worthy medical cause but one which could have been devolved to market rather than government forces.
Indeed, a number of observers suggest that come the next election, the NDP will decline further, particularly as it is being pushed from the left by Greens, who obtained a sufficient percentage of the June vote to secure official election campaign funding.
The Separatists The Bloc Quebecois (BQ) and their leader Gilles Duceppe had a career year From being regarded as road kill awaiting the Liberal vote sweeper, they finished the June election matching their highest MP total (54) ever Duceppe (delightedly by Quebecois and grudgingly by Anglophones) was regarded as having won both the French and English leaders debates He ran a strong, effective campaign exploiting the outrage Quebecers felt over Adscam. The strong reaction went beyond the intimation that federalists were attempting to buy Quebec loyalty with its own tax dollars but was particularly virulent since, when caught, federalists attempted to suggest that it was business as usual for Quebec
Now Duceppe is sitting pretty So far as Quebeckers are concerned, the BQ is the official opposition He has no interest in early elections; most observers believe the BQ has peaked (Duceppe does not) Moreover, he is unconcerned over Conservative efforts to develop a Quebec foothold; instead, the BQ argues that the Tories would take votes only from the Liberals and tip a handful of additional seats to the Bloc Thus an extended delay in the next election--as long as until June 2006--would suit BQ interests as federal party funding and the support for local riding offices of MPs could be devoted to promoting separatist objectives in Quebec
Regarding Quebec sovereignty, Duceppe has embarked on a charm offensive across Canada An early November speech in Toronto adroitly defanged a bumbling BQ MP's refusal to provide a Canadian flag to a Quebec war veterans group prior to Remembrance Day Duceppe expressed respect for sacrifices by Canadians and suggested that it was time for both Canadians and Quebeckers to stop interfering in each other's destiny That, in effect, it was quite possible for them as two countries to enjoy cordial and mutually profitable relations By avoiding inflammatory rhetoric along the lines of Bouchard's "Canada is not a real country" or comparable commentary attributed to other separatists, Duceppe has hardly changed minds but may have reduced animosity--and even in a few instances made reluctant converts.
The primary complication arises from the half submerged leadership battle in the Parti Quebecois Current leader (and defeated Quebec premier) Bernard Landry is under challenge from various PQ disaffected The most obvious alternative would be Duceppe
Quebec: Is Separatism on the Rise Again?
In any event, following the (barely) failed separatist referendum in 1995 and the subsequent federal "Clarity Act" which laid down stringent requirements for any legal referendum or separation by a province, sovereignty has been in remission Measured in polls against the 1995 referendum question, the "yes" (pro sovereignty) position remained in the 40 percent range throughout the mandate of the Parti Quebecois (PQ) Interestingly, the attraction of sovereignty appears to fall when the party most willing to move to independence is in power--but rises when the PQ is in opposition.
And so it has been throughout 2004 The Quebec Liberals, led by Jean Charest, assumed power in April 2003 The PQ, seeking a rarely granted third mandate and struggling against an unpopular decision to merge a number of urban areas, was thoroughly trounced On the other hand, Charest had, to put it mildly, a difficult year He found himself immediately at odds with Quebec unions over privately contracting for public services He found himself waffling over a commitment to permit the de-merger of metropolitan areas that the PQ had forced together His views on spending and taxation were more conservative than the average Quebecker anticipated The result was a virtually unprecedented plunge in popularity for a first year in office.
Nevertheless, if the first year in office was spent in a swamp, recent months have suggested Charest is finding firmer footing During the October premiers' conference on health care, he is largely regarded as having emerged a winner with Quebec getting its full share of federal money with marginal accountability requirements to Ottawa The long submerged phrase "asymmetric federalism" (roughly interpreted as a special deal for Quebec) returned like a bad dream for Trudeau-era federalists Although the Liberals subsequently lost a couple of by-elections to the PQ and the Democratic Alliance of Quebec (ADQ), these were not regarded as important defeats In November Charest traveled to Mexico with the French prime minister and, somewhat to the chagrin of Ottawa federalists, was accorded equivalent protocol status by the Mexicans
Consequently, there are those who believe that Charest has finally become a "real Quebecker" and no longer with the mental mindset of a federal politician He is no longer the "Captain Canada" who helped win the 1995 referendum for the federalists He is now closer to being a "Captain Quebec" able to push PM Martin effectively for maximum benefits for his province within a federal Canada.
And the PQ? Needless to say, this is not the PQ view They suggest instead that Charest had a momentary blip in the polls following the health care conference in Ottawa, but that uptick quickly receded They contend that increased money from Ottawa is no better than what the PQ had been able to obtain and that Charest will not be able to cover his campaign spending promises and his concurrent tax reduction commitments.
Instead, the PQ points, inter alia, to a steady rise in support for sovereignty, both on the basis of the 1995 question premised implicitly on association with the rest of Canada and for harder questions including "independence" as part of the phrasing Thus at selected points during the autumn, "yes" has reached 50 percent for the 1995 question Interestingly, Quebeckers concurrently reject holding another referendum with upwards of 70 percent opposed Faced with that conundrum, the core sovereignists have a simple answer: Hold a referendum and they will come--and vote for independence
For the next several years at least, however, the question is moot There is no expectation of an election until 2007 and, if the polls are negative, the Liberals could push an election into 2008 Consequently, the PQ can only fulminate--and plan--for the best approach both to win the election and hold a successful referendum
Leadership Is the Issue For the PQ, the question is leadership. Is former premier and current PQ leader, Bernard Landry, the continued choice as its standard bearer? After its nasty electoral defeat, the PQ can either say "he saved the furniture" or "he burned the house." For the moment, Landry has beaten down open opposition and cowed others considering a direct challenge. The next generation of PQ leadership may have decided better later than now
A name that continues to play in the Quebec spectrum is Lucien Bouchard, the iconic BQ/PQ leader whose charisma almost drove the 1995 referendum to victory Bouchard quit the premiership and PQ leadership in 1991 in what retrospectively appears like exhausted pique over party infighting and turned to private law and high profile labor conflict mediation Could he return to the PQ? Not a chance Still termed "the deserter" by bitter Pequistes, other sovereignists maintain their linkages with Bouchard in hopes he will be their secret weapon come the next referendum.
For his part, Landry has indicated no interest in returning to academic life or spending full time entertaining his grandchildren Instead, he has voiced continued commitment to winning the next provincial election and, preferably in the first 2 years of his new mandate, holding a referendum that will make Quebec an independent country Like the old Lombardi Green Bay Packers, there is no question about the plays being called--just a question of whether they can be stopped.
ADQ Remains Irrelevant The consensus remains that Mario Dumont and his ADQ are not yet players They remain locked out of Montreal ridings and, if their polls have risen, the impression is that this support is ephemeral--"parked" votes awaiting real decision between the PQ and Liberals when the campaign next begins.
Canada and the United States: A Second Chance to Make a First Impression
More essentially, Canadians (as persistently reflected in the polls) take positions that in effect declare that the United States has no right to make decisions that are not endorsed by the United Nations On economic issues, despite running a $70 billion surplus, Canadians focused obsessively on U.S. prohibitions of Canadian live cattle based on "mad cow" condition detected in four Canadian-origins cows and U.S. tariffs on softwood lumber While these are doubtlessly important economic portfolios, they are highly politicized (think also of Quebec dairy supports) It has been cheaper to hire battalions of lawyers to fight the problem than to spend the money, e.g., test every export cow, to solve the problem
Although many of the senior personalities in the Canadian government changed with the advent of Prime Minister Martin in December 2003, a root and branch hostility to USG policy was still easy to discern It was not just the marginal backbencher Ms Carolyn Parrish stomping with jack boots on a Bush doll for a TV show but the expressed preference for Senator Kerry by senior ministers Joe Volpe (Human Resources) and Stephan Dion (Environment) Passed off as an exercise in free speech by the prime minister, it could more easily be understood as implicit Liberal Party preference.
To his credit, PM Martin has avoided personalizing bilateral differences And, in that regard, the November 30-December 1 presidential visit may permit each side to take a deep breath and turn the page Canadians and Americans fall into the "best friends, like it or not" category; for 4 years, we have been in the "not" portion of that cycle Although Bush's most memorable sound bites during his visit may be his pleasure at those Canadians who waved "with five fingers" and his observation that we shared a common vision of resumed NHL play, there was a serious "reach out" effort by the president
Courtesy Call To a degree, this was a share-a-cup-of-coffee courtesy call A review of the bidding between neighbors over the socio-economic equivalent of one family's dog digging in the other family's flower bed And, yes, it was also clear that neighbors differed on how we had punched out Mr. Saddam down the street over his "attitude." So a trip that had been cancelled in spring 2003 when PM Chrétien's cranky criticism of U.S.-Coalition action in Iraq generated a "we don't need this" White House response, finally took place Subsequent to the trip cancellation, the only significant business of the Administration became its re-election (and management of the Iraq mess its second priority) That the Administration would concentrate on its survival rather than neighborly visits is hardly surprising (and PM Martin certainly did not urge an immediate Bush visit.)
The result was a butter-wouldn't melt-in-the-mouth exchange of pleasantries in Ottawa A serious foreign policy address by President Bush in Halifax laid down some markers Here, he developed three goals: defending U.S. security multilaterally if possible, but unilaterally if necessary; promoting democracy in the Middle East; and fighting global terrorism by relentlessly taking the fight to the terrorists For this latter objective, Bush's adroit researchers unearthed a pertinent quote from Canada's longest serving prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, to the effect that one could not await attack but had to "go out and meet the enemy defeat him before he attacks us." There was not even a touch of that famous smirk when delivering those words Consequently, Canadians can take credit for instructing Americans on the utility of preventive military action.
There are also a series of complex foreign affairs issues on the horizon Beyond Iraq where it would be nice, but not expected, to have serious Canadian participation on the ground, there are major challenges in Iran, North Korea, Ukraine, and Haiti to name a few The President reportedly discussed such issues with the Prime Minister, and we will be observing the outcome of these discussions during 2005, perhaps from scheduled meetings/reports by U.S. and Canadian officials by June 2005.
One can conclude that Bush is offering Canada (and the world generally) a second chance to make a first impression He previewed in Ottawa/Canada what he will re-emphasize in Europe in February 2005 Bush is extending a hand of friendship and cooperation, but is hardly going to let its arm dangle loose for an extended period Outreach must come from both directions.