John Buell

Lessons from North of the Border


Canada has just elected Stephen Harper to head a minority government. Like President Bush, Harper also ran as a kind of compassionate conservative. Whether he can take his nation as far to the right on social and economic issues remains to be seen.

The lasting message of this campaign may be growing disillusionment with politics, something to which US citizens can relate. In the first days of the campaign, CBC conducted a poll that asked whether each of the party leaders would be likely to return a wallet he found on the street. New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Jack Layton won, though only 24% of those polled believed that he had more honesty than a petty thief. Despite a massive get-out-the vote campaign, only about 65% of the electorate voted. This represented a higher percentage than in the last election, but Canada achieved much higher levels of voter participation from the mid '60s through the mid '90s.

Both major parties offered little besides fear of their opponents. Stephen Harper emphasized the arrogance and corruption of the Liberals. Their late '90s attempt to forestall separatist referenda in Quebec through sponsorship of a PR campaign had morphed into kickbacks to party friends. Prime Minister Paul Martin portrayed Harper as out of tune with Canada's liberal society, a follower of George Bush and indebted to an economic right that would eventually destroy the Canadian healthcare system.

Both efforts were at least partially disingenuous. Martin's portrayal of himself as defender of the Canadian welfare state stands in sharp contrast to his years as Finance Minister in the government of former prime minister Jean Chretien. Martin's draconian cuts in social spending had pushed Federal budgets to levels of surplus unprecedented among major industrial democracies. More recent reductions in the federal unemployment program were especially resented in Quebec and provided ammunition for Bloc Quebecois (BQ) leader Gilles Duceppe. Fiscal conservatives may admire these reductions in social programs, but the nation's social and physical infrastructure suffered unnecessarily. In the process, a healthcare system far more efficient than its Southern neighbor's was unfairly given a black eye.

Steven Harper promised tax cuts for ordinary Canadians, but his GST (Goods and Services Tax) changes would amount to about $2 a week for low-income Canadians. GST reductions for low-income Canadians would pale in comparison with the benefits the wealthy would receive from his program. Both Harper and Martin promised to "guarantee" Canadians timely medical care. Neither, however, devoted much time to the ways that privatization experiments in some Canadian provinces have robbed the public system. Nor did they address alternative means of improving the efficiency of the public system.

Both Harper and Martin took refuge in a parliamentary system that is biased against third parties. Canada lacks either instant runoff voting or proportional representation systems. This electoral system leaves the center-left NDP with far fewer seats than its popular support would merit.

For its part, the NDP retreated to a shallow centrism. It promised in effect merely to be more honest liberals. In addition, its strident endorsement of Canadian nationalism left it unable to make inroads in Quebec.

Social and foreign policy issues followed a pattern curious by US standards. Conservatives did propose increases in military spending. They also raised -- and exaggerated -- the crime issue and promised to allow a free vote on gay marriage. Nonetheless, the Liberal incumbent played the nationalism card to the hilt even as he defended multiculturalism and gay marriage. Martin promised to stand up to both Quebec separatism and US bullying. US intransigence on the soft wood lumber dispute may have been one of the few blessings Martin enjoyed.

Outsourcing and the loss of good manufacturing jobs are issues as great in Canada as they are in the US. Paul Martin has been a strong supporter of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Both of Canada's major political parties (and even paradoxically the BQ itself) are heavily beholden both financially and ideologically to multinational business. They are committed to a corporate trade agenda that threatens its welfare state. Both promised in varying degrees to defend that state, which, despite a quarter-century of conservative attacks, remains popular.

Yet rhetorical defense of the welfare state is accompanied by fiscal and regulatory steps that continue to undermine it, thereby fueling further privatization initiatives. Periodic bashing of the US thus stands in for systematic reexamination of a trade structure that requires these compromises and evasions.

Americans lack the social democratic heritage shared by many Canadians, but they are not dogmatically opposed to government initiatives to repair market imperfections, equalize opportunity or lay the foundations for sound growth. By large majorities, Americans now support fundamental healthcare reform. Smaller majorities worry about corporate trade initiatives and job displacement. Success on one side of the border aids efforts on the other side.

Yet here as in Canada, neither major party effectively articulates or addresses public grievances. Perhaps collaboration by labor and social justice movements across borders can build pressures on ossified political processes and manipulative agendas. Absent such pressure, Canadians may face more sporadic but largely symbolic US bashing, low voter trust and turnout, and perhaps renewed secessionist impulses in Quebec.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2006

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