Wayne O'Leary

Canada Sips the Tea

In early May, while Americans were busily occupied high-fiving one another over the long-awaited demise of Osama bin Laden, a barely noticed but significant event transpired north of the border. Canada, holding its fourth general election in seven years, opted to award controversial Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s ruling Conservatives an outright majority, expanding on the governing pluralities grudgingly granted in 2006 and 2008.

At the same time, Canadian voters installed as official opposition the left-wing New Democrats (NDP), the perennial third-place finishers led by Jack Layton.

Equally shocking, they wiped the separatist Bloc Quebecois off the political map in the process. Meanwhile, the proud, once-dominant Liberals, the historic party of Laurier, MacKenzie King and Trudeau, recorded their worst showing ever — an embarrassing 34 seats nationally to the Conservatives’ 167 and the NDP’s 102; it remains to be seen if they can survive as a viable entity.

There are various ways to interpret what on election night was being called a transformative realignment, a watershed moment in Canadian national politics. Foremost, it’s obvious the voting public was sick of the instability, bickering, and constant electioneering that accompanied a decade of minority government (the downside of multi-factional parliamentary democracy), during which no party was able to reach the 50% threshold in seats needed for unchallenged governance. Harper, an unloved but clever politician, maneuvered his opponents into passing a no-confidence vote against him, prompting an election he could then turn into a majority victory by calling for the political stability of one-party rule; a campaign-weary public was eager to comply.

There was no guarantee, of course, that Harper’s Conservatives would be the beneficiaries of (in effect) a referendum on majority versus minority government, but they held most of the cards. The alternative Liberals, Canada’s version of America’s centrist Democrats, have been adrift for years in search of their identity; they have, by turns, been small-l liberals and moderate conservatives, seeking consensus and the middle of the road. Along the way, in the post-Trudeau period, they became a sclerotic party so used to winning and governing that they no longer saw the creeping corruption in their ranks.

The Liberal establishment sealed the party’s fate two years ago by circumventing the normal procedure of holding a leadership convention to replace the ineffectual Stephane Dion, who lost to Harper in 2008, instead allowing party officials and sitting MPs to arbitrarily pick a successor. That turned out to be Michael Ignatieff, a reliably centrist ex-journalist and public intellectual with (as it turned out) stunningly poor political skills. Ignatieff, a stiff and awkward campaigner, managed to lose his own seat in the May debacle.

Surviving for the Liberals are Bob Rae, Ignatieff’s capable and more left-leaning rival, who was passed over for the party leadership because of past NDP associations, and Justin Trudeau, son of Pierre and a political comer.

Either might have fared better against Harper, himself a less than scintillating performer on the hustings, but the Liberal old guard had already cast the die.

This left the Conservatives with relatively clear sailing. The Canadian economy (7.6% unemployment) is in better shape than ours and was less affected by the financial crash because of stringent banking regulations earlier put in place, ironically enough, by the Liberals. Harper, personally unpopular, also benefitted from a successful economic stimulus forced upon him by the other parties. Canadians could plausibly conclude that things could be worse; that their economy, while certainly not robust, was at least not the horror show they saw playing out in the US. A half-decade of Conservative stewardship had successfully lowered public expectations.

From a progressive perspective, the election’s most heartening development was the performance of the NDP, the party responsible for Canada’s single-payer healthcare system; once Fabian socialist, it can more accurately be described these days as social-democratic. Canada’s official opposition will now be a genuinely populist, labor-based party in favor of higher corporate taxes, more social spending, green energy, and a swift withdrawal from Afghanistan. Without doubt, the NDP’s emergence marks the symbolic high point for the Left in Canadian federal politics.

Nevertheless, the hard truth is the Conservative party will rule the Dominion unimpeded for the next four years, and there are ominous signs ahead. This is not the moderate Progressive Conservative party (PCP) of pre-2000, the party of the “red tories” (red as in leftish), but rather a more virulent, Americanized manifestation of Canadian prairie conservatism.

One of the curious characteristics of Canadian politics at the federal level is its imitative nature with respect to US election cycles; Canada faithfully tracks American political trends with a built-in lag time. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker (elected 1957) was the Canadian Eisenhower, following “Ike” by five years; Pierre Trudeau (elected 1968) was the Canadian Kennedy, following JFK by eight years; Brian Mulroney (elected 1984) was the Canadian Reagan, following the Gipper by four years; and Jean Chrétien (elected 1993) was the Canadian Clinton, closing the copy gap to one year.

To date, there has been no Canadian Obama. Perhaps there will be in time. In the interim, the fear for those wishing Canada well is that Stephen Harper’s majority government may signal the arrival on the Canadian scene of a northern variation of America’s tea-party movement.

Early on, Harper was a Bush clone, a business conservative and foreign-policy hawk who supported George W.’s Iraq invasion. He remains the corporate Right’s kind of guy, a favorite of the Wall Street Journal editorial board for his dedication to tax cutting, budget slashing (defense excepted), and market panaceas.

But as a founder of the radically rightist Reform party that merged with and then displaced the PCP, Harper also carries the mutant gene associated with tea-party extremism. His stances on social issues, civil liberties, and potential “reform” of Canada’s Medicare system were carefully downplayed throughout the campaign, the better to secure his majority. Now, he’s fully in charge and unencumbered.

The silver lining in this storm cloud is that Harper won with barely 40% of the popular vote against a divided center-left opposition; his is still, in a very real sense, a minority government. As Mark Twain might have said, hyped media reports of “the death of liberal Canada” are greatly exaggerated.

Wayne O’Leary is a frequent visitor to Canada and a longtime observer of its politics. He writes in Orono, Maine.

From The Progressive Populist, July 1/15, 2011


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