1.28.2006

view from the southleft

John Nichols is an American writer who has been covering Canadian politics for more than 20 years. In his blog in The Nation, Nichols reassures progressive US readers who fear Canada is now joined at the neocon hip with the US. His conclusion: "Don't Cry For Canada".
After the 2004 presidential election in the United States, a lot of liberal Americans looked longingly to the north. Canada, the theory went, was a social democracy with a sane foreign policy and humane values that offered a genuine alternative to the right-wing hegemony that the U.S. was about to experience.

But, this week, U.S. television networks and newspapers declared: "Canadians Tilts Right" and "Conservatives Capture Canada."

As shorthand for the election results that saw Canada's Conservative party outpoll the governing Liberal Party for the first time since Ronald Reagan served in the White House, those headlines may be useful.

But the claim that Canada has lurched far to the right is anything but accurate.

Of course, that has not stopped conservative spin doctors in Washington, and their echo chamber in the U.S. media, from announcing that last Monday's election results from Canada represent a seismic shift to the right for the North American continent. David Frum, a former speechwriter for President Bush, was peddling the line that Canadians had rejected "anti-Americanism" -- fostering the lie that the Liberals, who had worked closely with the U.S. government on issues ranging from the occupation of Afghanistan, in which Canada is a major player, to free trade, which the Liberals support, was somehow at war with the U.S. Equally disingenuous was Bob Morrison of the Family Research Council, a Washington-based group that opposes reproductive freedom and gay rights, who announced that: "We are glad to see that Canadians have values-voters too. We can be optimistic about the end of the social engineering as driven by the (Liberal) government."

U.S. conservatives, who can point to little in the way of positive political news from around the world these days, are entitled to their fantasies. But no thinking American should buy into them.

As is the case with most right-wing "analysis" coming out of Washington these days, the truth is a lot more complex than the right-wing spin doctors would have Americans believe.

In fact, the Canadian results ought to be read as a warning signal for U.S. Republicans.

Here's why:

* The Canadian election was held early because the Liberal Party government of Prime Minister Paul Martin had been rocked by a major corruption scandal, which involved the misuse of public funds to promote the government's position on issues involving the relationship between the province of Quebec and rest of the country. All of Canada's major opposition parties ran anti-corruption campaigns, and the first promise of the Conservatives was not a rightward shift in public policies, but rather the restoration of honest and accountable government. In the United States, where corruption scandals have shaken the Republican leadership in Congress -- forcing indicted House Minority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, to surrender his position of power -- Canada's vote-the-bums-out response to government wrongdoing ought to be heartening to progressives who would like to see a similar response in November to the corrupt practices of this country's governing party. The results from Canada indicate the power of a reform message. According to a poll conducted for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., 54 percent of Canadians who voted Conservative did so because they thought it was time for a change, while only 41 percent said they favored Conservative policies.

* In order to achieve viability in a country that has repeatedly rejected social-conservative policies, Conservative leader Stephen Harper radically restructured the message and the manifesto of his party. He deemphasized issues such as abortion and gay right, and promised to protect and improve popular social-welfare programs, including Canada's national health care system. As Arthur Cockfield, a well-regarded commentator of legal and political issues who teaches law at Queen's University, noted, "Stephen Harper has moved closer to the center of the political spectrum to broaden support for his party. With plans to help working families, promote access to day care, and bolster the public health-care system... Harper no longer proposes any truly radical changes, but has signalled that he plans to tackle a number of policy priorities that could benefit lower- and middle-income Canadians." In the days following the election, Harper moved quickly to assure Canadians that his Cabinet would include leading moderates, and that his policy agenda would reflect the promises he made during the campaign to govern from the middle rather than the right.

* Harper and the Conservatives kept U.S. conservatives at arms length. Harper repeatedly emphasized his independence from the Bush administration, and his differences with the American right, during the course of the campaign. And, according to reports published in a number of Canadian newspapers, Conservative activists asked U.S. conservative leaders not to cheer their campaign on. A headline in the Calgary Sun read: "SSH! U.S. conservatives asked to keep mum." A pre-election email circulated to conservative activists in the U.S. by right-wing firebrand Paul Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation warned that, "Canadian voters have been led to believe that American conservatives are scary and if the Conservative party can be linked with us, they perhaps can diminish a Conservative victory."

* Even with their move to the center, the Conservatives did not win anything akin to a majority of the popular vote. Infact, the Conservatives won only 36 percent support. Almost two-thirds of Canadians cast their ballots for more left-wing alternatives. In democracies with proportional representation voting systems, which better represent the sentiments of the voters, the Conservatives would not be in a position to form a government. Because Canada, like the U.S., maintrains a single-district, "first-past-the-post" voting system, the Conservatives prevailed over a divided opposition. But Canada has a multi-party political system at the federal level; the U.S. does not. If only 36 percent of American voters back conservative Republicans this fall, Democrats will dominate Congress more thoroughly than they have at any time since the Watergate era and perhaps since New Deal Days.

* The Conservatives did not win a governing majority. Of the 308 seats in the Canadian Parliament, the Conservatives will hold only 124. The remainder will be held by Liberals, with 103; the social democratic Bloc Québécois, which is the dominant party in the province of Quebec, with 51; and the social democratic New Democrats (NDP), with 29. An independent from Quebec holds the final seat. Thus, a Conservative government will have to rely on parties of the left to get anything done. A Toronto Star analysis provides the honest assessment that, "This precarious situation raises real questions about which of the Conservative policy priorities... could realistically get through the Commons... That leads to the bigger question too of how long this government could last and when another election could be unleashed on the country."

* Two parties made sighificant gains in Monday's voting: the Conservatives and the New Democrats. While the Conservatives increased the size of their parliamentary delegation by around 25 percent, the New Democrats increased the size of their delegation by more than 33 percent. In fact, for the first time in years, the New Democrats won more seats in the western province of British Columbia than the Liberals, and the NDP made significant inroads in urban centers such as Toronto. Even though they were operating in a political system that tends to drive voters toward the larger parties, the New Democrats dramatically improved their position by running as an explicitly anti-war, anti-corporate free trade and anti-corruption party. NDP leader Jack Layton explained after the election, in which his party achieved its best showing in decades, that: "While Canadians asked Stephen Harper to form a minority government, they also asked the NDP to balance that government."

The bottom line is this: Canadians have chosen to remove a scandal-plagued government that went by the name of "Liberal." But they only did so because the "Conservatives" promised not to be too conservative. And they voted in a team of left-wing watchdogs to assure that those promises are kept. If that gives U.S. conservatives some small measure of comfort, so be it. But U.S. progressives need not be traumatized by these results. Indeed, they can look forward to the day when voters in their country might choose to throw out a scandal-plagued government that goes by the name "conservative."

16 comments:

Marnie said...

Thanks for that, Laura. I'll be passing it on to some American friends.

Andrea said...

interesting read

lenny said...

That reminds me why The Nation is one of few US publications I bother reading.

L-girl said...

That reminds me why The Nation is one of few US publications I bother reading.

It's the best, especially the columnists.

Trevor said...

i hope something scares the neofascists down here...

Granny said...

From California

Trevor, you can't hope it any more than I.

Carrie said...

It's a great article and I'm very happy to see it in American media. What I've read this weekend, on other American blogs, was really disheartening.

The only point I disagree with him on is that the U.S. Republicans were and are being kept at arms length from our Conservatives. It's been printed in articles that Harper spent lots of time in the USA, learning from the masters of spin in the Republican party, how to manipulate Canada and it's political system. I know I know...you want links to articles. LOL I can't remember unfortunately. But I'll try to find it. It wasn't that long ago that I read it, but that's not to say that the article wasn't old ;)

Anyway, this is why I am so scared of Harper. To treat him as a lightweight or a non-threat would be a huge mistake. When Reagan was elected, we all laughed and thought "they picked an actor for President? well, what harm could he do?" See what happened? That's what I'm afraid of ... I honestly view Harper as orchestrating the same changes in the same way. He's got Mulroney behind him and Mulroney is soooo connected to the Bushes and other bigwigs, it's scary.

L-girl said...

It's a great article and I'm very happy to see it in American media.

The Nation is from the US, but it's not exactly American media. It's an old-line, leftist magazine.

Harper spent lots of time in the USA, learning from the masters of spin in the Republican party, how to manipulate Canada and it's political system.

I know how you feel about this, Carrie, so I hope I don't offend you when I respectfully disagree. Not that he did or didn't do this -I wouldn't know - but that it portends such evil. He still has a minority government, he still has to work within the Canadian system. He can't suddenly remake Canada.

When Reagan was elected, we all laughed and thought "they picked an actor for President? well, what harm could he do?"

I assure you that no one in the US was laughing. Perhaps you were not political at the time, or perhaps the view in Canada was extremely different. Liberal Americans took Reagan very seriously, and were suitably afraid and appalled.

But Reagan won with a gigantic electoral landslide. Old Democrat stalwarts lost their Congressional seats, replaced by Republicans that rode on Reagan's coattails. It was the American equivalent of a strong majority government.

I honestly view Harper as orchestrating the same changes in the same way.

I know you believe this, but how? How can he do this?

He's got Mulroney behind him and Mulroney is soooo connected to the Bushes and other bigwigs, it's scary.

Again, this may or may not be as strong a connection as you think, I couldn't say. But even if it is, what exactly are you afraid of? I mean, something concrete, not just "he'll be another Reagan" or "he's in with the US". What are you afraid of that he'll get away with in Canada? I'm really trying to understand.

L-girl said...

The only point I disagree with him on is that the U.S. Republicans were and are being kept at arms length from our Conservatives.

I think his point is that the only way Harper could get elected in Canada was to keep the US Conservatives at arms' length during the campaign. (Whether or not they are really at arms' length is another story, I know your beliefs on that.)

He's directing this at Americans who are worried that Canadians have just willingly voted in W-style neoconservativism, telling them that Harper had to downplay his connections to the US in order to get even his minority advantage.

Trevor said...

Granny -- I gained some hope and some despair from this week's SF Bay Gaurdian (frankly, not my favorite alt-weekly in the world, but at least they tackled the 'I-word')
http://www.sfbg.com/40/17/cover_impeach.html

On a lighter note, I was happy to hear that Chriac laughed when he realized that was a prank call from a Calgary radio station and not Stephen Harper. Someone's got a sense of humor anyway. :)

Lone Primate said...

He still has a minority government, he still has to work within the Canadian system. He can't suddenly remake Canada.

Yeah... let's have a little perspective here. Mulroney's the big boogeyman? Okay -- let me remind everyone that Mulroney DID have a big majority in the late 80s and early 90s. And even he, with all that, could not remake Canada in his own image. Try as he might, he did not have the oomph to do it when the rest of the country said "no". This is a federal system, and powerful as the role of prime minister is within it, it's counter-balanced by a thirteen other governments whose majority -- and sometimes unanimous -- consent on changing the basis structure of this country is required. And anything that can be changed merely at the legislative level by one parliament can by changed back by the next. I'm not saying Harper won't try to take us in directions some of us do not care to go... I'm just saying that even if he had all 308 seats in the Commons, he is still not the god of this country. There are plenty of other stores of thunderbolts in this land than Ottawa's.

L-girl said...

Thanks LP. I know you are not exactly prone to pollyanna-ish optimism (au contraire), so your perspective is very welcome.

Well, all our opinions are in. Now we can only monitor events.

Carrie said...

But even if it is, what exactly are you afraid of? I mean, something concrete, not just "he'll be another Reagan" or "he's in with the US". What are you afraid of that he'll get away with in Canada? I'm really trying to understand.

Cutting social programs. Cutting healthcare or worse, privatizing healthcare. Buying into the nuclear war weapons thing.

Canada is a peaceful nation. I do not want us to end up like the USA (no offense). I do not want us to lose what our country has been founded on from day one.

As for Mulroney not being so bad...holy God, I can't believe Lone Primate said that! Granted he is not God. Nobody is. But the USA didn't have God leading it either and look what happened over there?

I feel that if we ignore the details in these leaders, Mulroney, Harper et al, then we risk not being able to stop the change from the Canada we know (or used to know) to USA lite.

L-girl said...

Cutting social programs. Cutting healthcare or worse, privatizing healthcare. Buying into the nuclear war weapons thing.

Yes, absolutely, we don't want any of those things. However, my question was addressed to how he could do this with a minority govt. It's my understanding - which, as I am a newcomer, is tenuous, and could very well be wrong - that he would need the strong support of other parties to do these things. If the other parties give him that support, then the Tories are not the only bad guys in town, eh?

I do not want us to end up like the USA (no offense).

You're nice to be so polite, but "no offense" is amusing, given why this blog exists. :)

I do not want us to lose what our country has been founded on from day one.

And if not day one, at least for the last 40 years, which is saying something.

Echo Mouse said...

I totally got stuck in life stuff so I'm very late back to this. Not sure if you'll even see this.

Okay, one of the interesting things I remember from past minority governments...when a party has been decimated practically, all of a sudden they agree with the ruling party just to save face with Canadians. That's why I'm worried. The NDP has already said they'll back Harper. The Bloc is probably going to back Harper. The Liberals need to restore themselves in the eyes of Canadians so ... what will they back? See what I mean? It's happened before. And that's why I'm scared.

Even if he can't get certain things passed, he can put this country into turmoil and financial despair making us all revisit these issues. Mulroney did it, several times. The money it cost us was frightening. And in the end, nobody wanted it, which he knew from the beginning. By the end of his reign, we were so far in debt and serious worry that the Liberals had to cut a lot of stuff just to restore Canada. So today I feel like, Crap, here we go again! I am so frustrated that Canadians refuse to learn from this stupid cycle. And Harper is the scariest thing we've ever elected in the history of this country.

Okay, now i'm done. I hope that helps explain myself better. And I dearly hope LP or Wrye can remember the details of what I'm trying to say because I cannot unfortunately.

L-girl said...

Not sure if you'll even see this.

Comments are emailed to me, so I see everything. People frequently leave comments on some of my earliest posts (from more than a year ago). I see all. :)

Thanks for the further explanation, I appreciate it. I see where you're coming from. I understand your anger, too, because I've been there. I hope you can get past it, to focus on what is happening, as opposed to what you fear might happen.

The NDP has already said they'll back Harper.

That's not really what they said. Layton was asked about his ability to "work with" the Conservative govt, he said that they would try, not automatically block everything, but work for compromise. They're not giving Harper a blank cheque. At least there's no need to assume they will.

I do know what you mean, though, overall.

I am so frustrated that Canadians refuse to learn from this stupid cycle.

Most politics are cyclical. The cycle is what most people want, unfortunately.


P.S. You might consider posting with only one name here. Most people wouldn't know that Echo Mouse = Carrie. It could be confusing for these kinds of conversations. Just a thought.