An expert observer and analyst brings American Diplomacy readers up to date on Canada's thriving economy, convoluted politics, and evolving foreign and environmental policies as well as on interesting developments within Quebec. Elections may be nigh. Ed.
Summary: As Canadians stand down from parliamentary politics throughout the country and prepare for their all-too-short summer, in many respects it is "the best of times." Canadian economics on federal and provincial levels would be the envy of virtually any government; the generations-old socio-political tensions between "Canada" and "Quebec" are in remission; and the most challenging foreign affairs concern (military action in Afghanistan) is largely off the stove following Tory-Liberal compromise in February. On the federal level, the parties will be maneuvering throughout the summer in what appears to be the run-up to a fall election. In Quebec the provincial Liberals have regained their "mojo" and may also be contemplating a trip to the polls.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has done the unexpected; he has managed to maneuver a minority in Parliament into two and a half years of governance. This accomplishment is both a remarkable success and a failure. The success is obvious (minorities usually last about a year, but he has out-maneuvered the opposition); the failure is more subtle (he has not generated enough popular support for the Tories to envision a majority).
First the failure. Canada is enjoying a "to die for" era of prosperity. The federal budget and all provincial budgets are balanced; the national debt is being paid down; inflation is low; unemployment remains close to record lows; taxes have been reduced; exports are rising steadily with Canadian energy reserves the most secure in the world so far as U.S. interests are concerned; and the Canadian dollar is trading roughly at par with the U.S. dollar the strongest level in a generation. If "it's the economy, stupid" is an axiom that plays in Canada, the Tories should have a majority in the offing. Moreover, the generation-long existential question of Quebec's sovereignty movement is in remission; the Opposition Liberals have a leader perceived as weak; and Canada's most significant international issue, its military commitment in Afghanistan, was taken off the stove by a Tory-Liberal agreement in February that the military commitment would end in 2011.
But the "numbers" haven't moved, and the Tories remain at essentially the same polling levels as they were in winning their minority in January 2006. It is a puzzlement to observers (not the least of them being the Tories), and several explanations are in play.
-- The Problem Is Harper. The prime minister is remarkably capable; he is intelligent, self disciplined, and an exemplar of "family values." He reassembled much of the old Tory party, merging his original Reform party with remnant Tories and creating the Conservative Party of Canada that now governs. He effectively muted the most ostensibly scary, i.e., social conservative, elements of his caucus and has retained very tight control over the "message" delivered by government, reducing ministerial prerogatives and strengthening the prime minister's office. It is almost as if the NSC were running the USG.
-- The Problem Is Structure. To some extent, Harper's problems are self-imposed; he is what he is and will never play "hail fellow well met" roles. Although he has become more comfortable with the baby-kissing element of politics and has lost weight to assist in photo presentations (and presumably also for health), he is not a "natural." His ratings among women, who theoretically might find a good family man who has augmented home-based child care and emphasized law-and-order anti-crime legislation attractive, remain low. Moreover, he is limited by the quality of his caucus. The exigencies of parliamentary governance require selection from all regions of the country and with rare exception ministers must be chosen from the elected Members of Parliament. For a caucus whose largest numbers and greatest talents come from Alberta (28 MPs), that means many who might be prominent in Cabinet had they been elected in Quebec languish in back-bench or subcabinet capacities.
As a consequence of misfits in portfolios, Canada has been treated to delights such as the dismissed-in-disgrace foreign minister Maxim Bernier (a Quebec Francophone) and his well-upholstered mistress; they gained international attention ostensibly when he left a classified briefing book in her apartment. More likely, Harper grew tired of Bernier's failure to master his briefs and displaying not just factual ignorance but undiplomatic honesty such as suggesting that an Afghan provincial governor should be replaced because he was corrupt thereby ensuring his continuation in office to demonstrate Afghan independence. Bernier obviously should never have been placed in such a high visibility portfolio; however, politics directed a promotion for him after success in a second-tier ministry.
Consequently, Harper has appeared to be an alpha male surrounded by some nasty attack dogs who concentrate on kicking a rather feckless Opposition leader (Liberal Stephane Dion) and picking fights with the provinces, especially Ontario, that appear purely partisan at worst and unnecessary at best. The result has been that Harper has been his own flak catcher; while he gives better than he gets in vituperative exchanges, he doesn't look prime ministerial during or after the mud throwing.
-- The Problem Is Systemic. Statistically, probably two-thirds of the Canadian electorate can be found to the left of center (including the Quebec sovereignist Bloc Quebecois); and the Liberals, the socialist New Democratic Party (NDP), and the Greens all contend for that segment of voters. Historically, the Liberals have been the most successful in this competition as reflected by the truism that the Liberals are Canada's "natural governing party." Still, it is a truism reinforced by the reality that Liberals governed Canada for much of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first until 2006. In political terms, however, it means that Tories govern only when the Liberals have totally exhausted their mandate, are immersed in economic hard times and/or a gag-a-goat scandal. The resulting Tory governance often reflects their inexperience in power, a tendency toward get-while-the-getting-is-good, four feet in the trough among individuals, and the eventual scandals, real or media manufactured, that afflict any governing party.
The consequence, however, is invidious for the Tories. Elected with limited experience (or a limited mandate as with the current minority government), they are unable to expand their domestic acceptability (or sustain it during occasions such as the 1984 and 1988 elections when they won a majority). In the end, one has the impression that the Canadian electorate desired to punish the Liberals in 2006, but seeks more to have them sit in the penalty box while reforming/rejuvenating/reflecting than to accord their fate to the Tories. Then the question becomes whether the next election will reflect a popular decision that the Liberals have been sufficiently chastened that they can be returned to their "natural" status.
So When Will There Be an Election?
And therein lies the rub. All three opposition parties, Liberals, Bloc Quebecois, and NDP, must combine to defeat the government. So an issue must not just be repugnant, it must be actionable, that is, it must be viewed by all opposition parties as likely to benefit them in the subsequent election.
With that prospect, Harper has created the successes of his minority government. He adroitly advanced measures inter alia on law-and-order, domestic security, copyright enforcement, and immigration that were substantially objectionable to traditional Liberal principles, but the Liberals (reviewing polling numbers) determined that they didn't want an election and allowed them to become law either by absenting themselves or not voting. To be sure, this strategy has been excoriated as cowardly by some Liberals and endorsed as adroit tactical maneuvering by others; it has simply amused the Tories, who depict the Liberal peregrinations as indicating the feckless waffling of a party that lacks the courage of its so-called convictions.
On the other hand, the Tories have refrained from presenting the type of resolution, e.g., "The Liberal Party should dissolve itself in compensation for its historic failures," that would force the Liberals to vote against it and bring down the government (assuming that the NDP and Bloc Quebecois didn't conclude it would be amusing to see the legal/constitutional ramifications of such a resolution passing). The Tories have no interest in an election resulting in another minority and, as polls suggest an undecided electorate at best, any election would involve substantial risk of defeat.
Nevertheless, although the polls are essentially unchanged, vested wisdom is leaning toward an election in fall 2008. On June 19, the Liberals presented a go-for-broke energy conservation/tax plan labeled "The Green Shift" (detailed below). They intend to spend the summer selling this proposal across Canada with the prediction that, regardless of the popular resonance for the plan's specifics, they need to regain the initiative politically or, in effect, wait until autumn 2009 when the government must hold an election.
In two words, "Stephane Dion." Following his selection as Liberal Party leader in December 2006, he has mangled his one chance to make a good first impression with Canadians. Or, as one Liberal put it, he has been on the public scene for 10 years, and his weaknesses persist unabated. Indeed, his strengths are his weaknesses. He is intelligent, creative, and stubborn. This also extrapolates into being arcane, obtuse, and inflexible. When he is correct in his judgment, as he was in pushing, against heavy opposition, for a "Clarity Act" that placed legal restrictions on achieving Quebec sovereignty, the stubborn aspect of his personality works well. After all there is no problem with having a one track mind if you are on the right track.
Dion has adopted a directive rather than a collegial approach to leadership. He has repeatedly resisted caucus preferences for an early election (and reported preference for not presenting The Green Shift energy plan/tax). At this juncture, the Liberals (who have never deposed a leader before he had a chance at winning an election) are in "bear it" (no grins) mode. Some say, "He doesn't know what he doesn't know."
As Liberal leader, however, his opponents for leadership at the December 2006 convention cannot help but be reminded that he finished fourth in the initial balloting, winning more by the process of his opponents eliminating each other than by his own virtues. Bluntly, they believe they could do a better job; their knives remain sharp albeit politely concealed. Dion remains highly unpopular in his home province of Quebec, where Liberals normally have clear advantages, and there are those who would prefer to lose an election (and be able to depose him as leader in the subsequent leadership review) than to continue with him.
Moreover, Dion's weakness in speaking English continues to handicap him with the three-quarters of the Canadian population for whom French is not their birth language. There are those for whom facility in a foreign language is not a personal skill, and Dion is one such individual. Repeatedly, English language listeners are left with a "What did he say?" reaction to a Dion response in parliamentary Question Period or a media query. He reflects his academic origins, speaking as if his audience consisted of students for whom what he is saying must be learned because an examination is in the offing. Thus the audience is often lost in convoluted subclauses a problem for him in French as well as English.
One should not overstate this limitation. A recent Liberal PM, Jean Chrétien, had no better English; however, Chrétien spoke in short declarative sentences with a relieving sense of self-deprecatory humor, and the audience easily grasped the points he made. Dion has no sense of humor, no "small talk," and is off-putting in personal encounters even with normally sympathetic individuals. Thus while PM Harper gains credit with French listeners for speaking French that is adequate rather than elegant, Dion does not get comparable credit with English listeners who, as the strong majority of the population, believe that everyone should speak good English to them and that those who do not are "stupid" rather than linguistically limited.
Each Party Maneuvers as Election Preliminaries Begin
Although there were doubtless thousands of individual success stories and residential schools overseen by intelligent, caring teachers and administrators, the societal conclusion has been that such a gruesome outcome needed massive compensation. Thus an initial apology 10 years ago by the appropriate Liberal cabinet minister fell flat, and the subsequent decade has focused on devising appropriate compensatory and exculpatory mechanisms. The upshot has been a complex, expensive compensation system for those attending residential schools; the prime ministerial apology; and a truth and reconciliation commission that will spend a year traveling Canada to prompt further testimony and revelation.
The tone of the apology, its staging (in Parliament with aboriginal leaders also present to address Parliament), and the subsequent positive public response presented PM Harper in a softer, more benign and human light. Unfortunately, for him the apology was virtually upstaged by a hither-to-fore unknown Tory backbencher who commented that the Indians needed less money and a better work ethic. The remark might have reflected the unexpressed views of many who tire of aboriginal demands that would be satisfied only by the departure of non-Indians from the continent, but certainly were not "correct" for the current political circumstances.
-- Mending Canadian Defense. Earlier in the spring, on May 12, the Canadian government presented its "Canada First Defense Strategy," outlining long term objectives for national defense and security policy. It put some flesh on this very sketchy initial design on June 20 after a variety of semi-snide "where's the beef" critiques. Since the government has been in power for two years, one can hardly argue that it has acted precipitously; nevertheless, in comparison with its predecessors, it is a model of alacrity. Again, the strategy document says the right things if you are a proponent of enhancing Canadian defense capability.
And the mission? Most prominent in the strategy is "sovereignty and security in the north" an objective that somewhat defanged predictable animosity from the NDP to all things military. Canada First describes expanded presence in the Arctic: a deep water docking and refueling facility in Nanisivik; more air surveillance; six to eight naval patrol craft; an enlarged contingent of Canadian Rangers; an Arctic Training Center; and the Arctic icebreaker. Also mentioned in passing is the continued defense association with the United States. Security problems are eased when there is a benign neighbor on one border and fish on the other three.
But will this come to pass? There is a tendency by outside observers to say, "better than nothing" or "maybe it will work out." Bluntly, however, an analyst must be skeptical given historical perspective. There has been a Canadian tradition of vast plans connected with half vast implementation. (One remembers the Mulroney era fleet of nuclear submarines that never floated beyond the planning stage.) The real costs of items such as the Arctic icebreaker(s) and the Nanisivik base may prove beyond fiscal justification. The projected increased funding (over 20 years, no less) is hypothetical based more on a continued Tory government than any bi- or multi-partisan commitment to significantly improved defense. Likewise, the equipment procurement (and the personnel increases) can be cancelled, just as the Liberals did for EH-101 helicopters after their victory in the 1993 election.
Indeed, although today's Canadians really don't do defense, today's Liberals don't do it with even greater vehemence. Their last prime minister with active duty military service was Lester Pearson in World War I. There has never been a Liberal prime minister who held the defense portfolio. There is no cachet to the defense ministry; even in good electoral times, Liberal incumbent defense ministers have been defeated. (Doug Young lost in the 1997 election, as did David Pratt in the 2004 election.) Another (Art Eggleton) distinguished himself by providing a research contract to a minimally qualified former mistress. And still another (John McCallum), although a brilliant economist, repeatedly demonstrated his ignorance of defense issues by being unaware of Canadian WWII action at Dieppe and confusing Vimy with Vichy. There seems to be no appreciation that the first duty of a welfare state is the security of its people.
And that leads to Canada's bilateral relationship with the United States to which Canada has implicitly subcontracted its national security. It is axiomatic that the Liberals want the worst possible relationship with the United States that will not result in direct retaliation. In contrast, the Tories want the best possible relationship that will not cost them the next election. Even more telling is the approach that Liberals have taken during recent election campaigns in which they maliciously tied prospective Tory defense/security policy to U.S. foreign policy. Thus we should not count unhatched chickens let alone project flocks before any eggs have been laid.
-- Mini Cabinet Shuffle. On June 25, PM Harper reshuffled his Cabinet; it was a switch of some lawn chairs rather than a comprehensive reorganization. The gaping hole in the Foreign Ministry was patched by giving it permanently to the capable International Trade Minister, who had been temporarily covering both portfolios. Two second tier Quebec MPs were moved up as well. There remains, however, a sense that attack dogs such as the Finance Minister have dulled their effectiveness from too much gnawing on opponents, and a kinder, gentler visage, perhaps combined with greater outreach to the skeptical female voter, would be appropriate. As the political buzz had predicted a July Cabinet shuffle, this tweak may be a precursor rather than a conclusion.
Liberals Bet the Farm on Being Greener than Thou
In so doing, Dion has bet the next election and probably with it his party leadership on convincing the Canadian electorate this summer that he is taking a principled, visionary approach that will balance short term sacrifices against long term gains. It is the right approach to take, not only as Canadians, but as concerned global citizens.
But is it what Canadians want and are willing to vote Liberal to obtain?
It will be a hard sell. Dion has set aside his previous commitment not to support a "carbon tax," and it will fall heaviest on energy producers, especially Alberta, whose oil/gas exports have been sustaining the Canadian economic boom. Analysts note that it makes no calculation of indirect costs that taxes on energy will have throughout the Canadian economy, how it will integrate with provinces that already have energy/tax plans (Quebec and British Colombia), and how it will adjust for imports from countries without such energy taxes such as the United States. Other analysts profess that a "cap and trade" approach has less publicly visible economic costs while eventually resulting in the desired reduction in carbon use.
And in the nuisance category, the Liberals also are being threatened with legal action for copyright infringement by the "Green Shift" environment group that has operated under that name for 10 years.
Faced with an initiative of this nature, the government had three choices: tout a plan of its own; co-opt elements of the Liberal proposal; or attack it flat out. Essentially, the Tories are, if not climate change deniers, at least skeptics forced to toss sops to the Canadian Cerberus, as the public has proclaimed climate change as a concern. While there is serious question whether a "concern" equals willingness to pay more for the same product when the predicted disaster is neither near term nor visible, the Tories have touted an environment/energy plan to reduce "intensity" of energy use. However, the preferred approach to The Green Shift appears to be direct assault combined with ridicule. Well before its release, the Tories proclaimed the forthcoming "carbon tax" to be a "tax on everything." Upon its release, PM Harper, in rather over-the-top comment, labeled it "crazy" and "insane" and, in discussions in Alberta, declared that it was even worse than the Trudeau era National Energy Plan that was designed to "screw the West" as the Green Shift would "screw everyone." More analytically, Tories have noted the proposal would result in price hikes for electricity, food, and home heating and that it is a social program designed to raise money for Liberal social welfare plans. Or they cite the likely requirement for a massive new bureaucracy to oversee and implement such a plan and suggest that it would be as unlovely as managing the much-reviled national Goods and Services Tax.
The upshot will be a national campaign throughout the summer during which Dion will compete with vacation lethargy and Tory commercials for popular acceptance. If successful and the polls tilt toward the Liberals, one can anticipate the Liberals will bring down the government and force a fall election. If not, and the population proves resistant to Liberal blandishments, Dion will be "shift out of luck" and can expect the Tories to force the election.
Thus as summer begins, Canada appears to be on the cusp of what could be a defining autumn election with energy, environmental, and economic consequences that would redound in the United States and potentially even affect the U.S. presidential campaign.
Quebec: A Summer of Contentment
As if to characterize this circumstance, one political observer termed Quebeckers as "fat and happy" (and Quebeckers are heavier than the Canadian average). Others continue to note that the generation-long obsession with "whether or not" independence for the province has faded. In contrast to the expectation a decade ago that sovereignty would grow in strength as aging Anglophones died and more young Francophones arrived on the scene, sovereignty has proved to be more "not their father's Oldsmobile" than the political vehicle they wish to drive into the twenty-first century. They seem more confident that French language and culture are securely walled off in Quebec and can survive in the English language/culture sea characterizing North America.
Hard core sovereignists have not given up, but they have realized that now is not their time. They take comfort in polls suggesting that 40 percent of the electorate still wants a sovereign Quebec; however, the desire for still another referendum is minimal. Appreciating this reality, the new Parti Quebecois leader, Pauline Marois, has announced that the PQ program upon election will no longer include a near-term referendum on sovereignty. In effect, the PQ has retreated to approximately the position occupied by Lucien Bouchard, PQ premier following the failed 1995 referendum, of waiting for "winning conditions" (which never eventuated) before calling a referendum. Consequently, the PQ's objective is now minimalistic. As the third ranking party in the National Assembly, following its shocking defeat in the 2007 provincial election, it seeks first to return to the status of Official Opposition. While Marois and the PQ will certainly campaign for victory when an election is called, it will be content with moving to second place, arguing 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 Quebec electorate that voter fatigue with the Liberals will ultimately return to power.
The "Reasonable Accommodation" Commission
On the other hand, the government has not demonstrated significant interest in implementing the commission's 37 recommendations, including restrictions on juridical and security officials from wearing religious symbols and officially endorsing interculturalism in a statute or National Assembly declaration. Conversely, the National Assembly unanimously rejected the commission's recommendation to remove the crucifix from over the Speaker's chair. The report seems headed for the dusty bookshelf.
Rejuvenated Provincial Liberals
Perhaps equally important, however, is that Action Democratique Quebec (ADQ), which surged to second place in the 2007 election, has failed to impress. Despite winning 41 seats in the election, it remains more a one-man band than a coherent political party. Headed by Mario Dumont, who at 38 has been politically prominent since 1992 and is termed "the oldest young man in Quebec politics," the ADQ was maladroit in attempting to defeat the government in November 2007 on an obscure point concerning the status of school boards. Subsequently, Dumont's remarks regarding immigration into Quebec were attacked as intolerant, prompting the extended study of what "reasonable accommodation" should be made for cultural and religious minorities in the province. The ADQ, which in 2007 was regarded as an alternative for Liberals who were repelled by Charest's broken promises and Pequists repelled by their cocaine-using "metrosexual" leader, has now sagged to 17 percent support in a recent poll.
The primary beneficiary from the ADQ implosion has been the Liberals, but the PQ also has resurged under new leadership. As the first woman to head a major Quebec provincial party, Pauline Marois appears to have recovered voters that deserted the PQ in 2007 partly by downplaying the sovereignty elements of the party platform and concentrating on promising good government.
Thus while the Liberals are a minority government and the last election was little more than a year ago, Charest could be tempted to create circumstances for his government's defeat and force an election that could give him the poll-predicted majority. Whether the ADQ would cooperate in prompting an election that prospectively would be very damaging would be the principal question.