No Waves June to November, or
For the first time in about a quarter century, Canadians have opted for a minority government. Listening to people explain the dynamics of politics in this country means one is left with the impression that every four years or so the public shuffles to the polls to elect a dictator who governs unchecked until the next time a vote is called. At that point, citizens have the option of endorsing the tyrant, or giving the other contender a chance to rule. Complaining about majority governments is a national pastime, with most Canadians professing their wariness of unchecked power. However, what this latest election seems to be demonstrating is that while we complain about majorities, we feel uncomfortable in their absence.
If recounts, various judicial challenges, or renegade members opting to jump ship to join Prime Minister Paul Martin do not alter Parliament’s composition, the Liberals will be left with 135 seats, the Conservatives with 99, the New Democratic Party (NDP) with 19, the Bloc Quebecois 54, with one seat in British Columbia going to independent Chuck Cadman. What some see as a natural alliance between Liberals and the NDP falls just short of a majority in the 308-seat legislature. The Conservatives and Bloc, who agree more often than not, especially on issues of provincial rights and legislative free votes, have ruled out any formal coalitions, given leader Gilles Duceppe’s declarations about framing any action in terms of its impact on the Quebec electorate and society. Moreover, the Bloc favours many left-of-centre values, a point reflected in its stances on social policies, and disagrees with the Tories on foreign policy issues. Again, the Bloc’s stated mission is to always give primacy to Quebec interests within federal institutions.
An optimist may see great potential in this new legislature, noting that the fine balance will promote an atmosphere in which power-brokers and deal-makers will connive, convince, and pressure Members of Parliament (MP) on key issues. For the very first time, backbenchers will be empowered, and in theory, this practice could extend the life of parliament for a few years, if not longer. The realist may note that the legislature could stay intact from June until perhaps November, provided all contentious issues are either buried or skirted. By late autumn, one argument goes, the Liberals and the New Democrats will clash over budgeting, with the NDP demanding more for social policies, and the Liberals having to return to Martin’s traditional fiscal restraint. This could set in motion the chain of events that will do irreparable harm to the delicate political balance, force a vote of no confidence, ultimately triggering the dissolution of parliament.
While it is possible that the government could collapse before year’s end, that may just be unlikelier than perhaps many think. To be sure, several high-profile politicians, among them Paul Martin himself, described the 28 June result as merely ‘round one’, fuelling speculation that the next campaign is already in the earliest planning stages. Yet the Liberals have little incentive to go back to the polls in the near future, or at least any time before they can be absolutely certain of securing a majority mandate. And both the NDP and Bloc are savouring their electoral wins, also not in any hurry to appeal to the voters just yet. As for issues, they aren’t guaranteed to trigger the kind of rancor that might produce confidence votes, causing the minority to implode. The Liberals, over the past two years, have parted ways with their practices of fiscal restraint, and that alone may be enough to appease the NDP. As far as foreign policy is concerned, the parties, at least on specific issues, could in fact all find common ground. As long as the agenda consists of trade with the United States, and lumber and beef account for the bulk of the debating, there may even be unanimity, or something close to it. Certainly any comprehensive foreign policy review will have to be placed on the back burner. If the Liberals do decide they want much more to be spent on the military, or to redefine Canada’s role in the world, they might have to seek support from the Conservatives. However, working closely with the Tories may hurt the Liberal brand in any upcoming elections, making cooperation less likely, and a protracted foreign and military policy debate in the near future even more remote. If all the parties simply cling to a modest agenda, the average citizen may be hard pressed to explain how in practice this government has changed, if at all, from the status quo of the past two or three years.
Keeping a low profile on foreign policy issues may also be supported by developments in the international community. Certainly hostilities continue in Iraq, terrorism receives coverage in the daily news, and Afghanistan may need more soldiers as election date approaches in that country, but the kinetic pace that characterized responses to these problems is now moderated. Washington has stepped back from the Axis of Evil rhetoric. Now the suggestion is that diplomacy and measured politicking may supersede head-on confrontation. For example, ties have been reestablished with Libya, and realpolitik
necessity may be redefining reactions vis-a-vis
Iran. On 29 June even FOX News
“Some foreign policy analysts say Washington may find it difficult to fight back.
‘The costs of the Iraq war are higher than just the soldiers who are dying and the money we are spending’ said Joseph Cirincione, director of the non-proliferation project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq squandered much of the U.S. authority in the Middle East and may have damaged America's ability to get help from Muslim states to fend off threats from Iran, he said.” [cited in Experts: Iran Ready to Take It to the Brink
, by Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, 29 June 2004, FOXnews.com. Posted at http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,124072,00.html].
Police and intelligence agencies are also stepping up to suggest that some threats may have been overestimated. Interpol is now on record noting that the chances of a terrorist attack during or around the Athens summer Olympics are remote. Popular culture is also on message. Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, in his recently released Fahrenheit 9/11
, goes so far as to argue that much of the terrorist threat was manufactured to instill fear in a population that would react by being duped into supporting a war against Iraq.
Some Canadians may upset themselves worrying about the stability of the new government and about Ottawa’s ability to solve pressing problems, but I can hear him now. If Jean Chretien were still Prime Minister, he might just take time out this Canada Day to encourage Canadians to take a rest, enjoy the sun, get a tan, and maybe take in a few ballgames.
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Canada Election Campaign 2004
Campaign 2004 is winding down and the new parliament is likely to be very split. The Liberals and the Conservatives may win roughly the same number of seats, about 110 each, making inevitable not only the prospect of a minority government, but the fluid nature of any potential alliances as well.
It doesn’t matter which candidate from which party you ask, they’re all reading from their respective policy platform handbooks, taking extra care to never deviate from prepared speech when appearing in front of microphones or cameras. Canadians vote in days, and so far, and with only twenty-four hours of campaigning left, it remains unclear that anything said about foreign policy or international affairs can help me, the average voter, make sense of goings on outside Canada or to feel that politicians in this country can. Just what is going on in the world? How will Ottawa improve dealings with Washington? I know everybody seems to agree that our southern neighbours are important, but how will relations be defined? And by the way, are there any differences between the war on terror and what’s going on in and around Iraq?
Just take the Liberals. They say their priorities include peacekeeping and helping rebuild failed states. When talking about how or why the Canadian armed forces have been degraded over the past decade, they reference the economy, stressing military and security issues are investment options. They note that when they came to power eleven years ago, the federal deficit was out of control and the situation so grave, the World Bank was poised to take over the economy. A decade of Liberal rule produced balanced budgets, which now allows the country to revisit priorities, the military among them. Liberals also say that the Conservatives are bent on reckless adventurism, using any opportunity to say some alleged Conservative hidden agenda includes spending on aircraft carriers, a signal to the world community that Canada is preparing for war.
Conservatives counter by saying that Liberals misspeak when they just can’t come to terms with the differences between aircraft carriers, not on any Conservative agenda, and troop carriers, which would be purchased. Conservatives also spend much time denouncing what they claim is Liberal fiscal mismanagement, stressing that throwing funds at pet projects doesn’t solve any problems or improve the quality of life. They also say they would earmark over a billion dollars for the Canadian military, not making it clear how spending in that case differs from all other types of expenditures.
Leader Jack Layton claims that a New Democratic Party (NDP)-backed government should be adamant about keeping weapons out of space. Also, the NDP agenda would include turning NATO into a multilateral institution. The Kyoto Treaty must be supported, notes Layton. Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe agrees on almost every point. Duceppe is on record saying that no party that plans to oppose or scrap Kyoto will get his backing for any such move. During the televised leadership debates, held 14 and 15 June, both Duceppe and Layton also agreed that Canada needs to proceed with a comprehensive foreign policy review, then move to defense policy, and finally to questions of how much can and should be spent on the military to serve these foreign and defense policy priorities. Both Layton and Duceppe say that foreign policy and human rights issues cannot and must not be decoupled.
Duceppe and Layton may have much influence in the new parliament. In at least one scenario, both the Conservatives and the Liberals may just see their leaders taking turns forming government before the option of calling another election is exercised. If this does happen, just what can or will happen to any one vision of Canadian foreign policy?
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