Parrish the Thought
Is Liberal member of parliament Carolyn Parrish on a mission? Is she closer to the balance of power than NDP leader Jack Layton, or the entire Bloc caucus? While these issues can certainly be argued, and I plan to do so in the next few paragraphs, what can’t be is that Parrish has discovered the simple secret to grabbing international headlines when one doesn’t have much formal authority, and when one is just a Canadian. The basic formula goes something like this: show up at a public demonstration, make a scene, sidle up to the microphones and/or cameras and tell the world the Americans are “idiots.” To make certain that your fifteen minutes of fame stretches out long enough to be timed with a calendar, use every afforded opportunity to retract the comment or apologize to do the exact opposite.
And so with this strategy, Parrish was able to entice even such venerable dailies as the Chicago Sun-Times
to run headlines like “Canadian Pol Doesn’t Regret ‘Coalition of Idiots’ Comment” [Chicago Sun-Times
, 30 August 2004. Posted at http://www.suntimes.com/output/news/cst-nws-idiot30.html
]. Indeed the Sun-Times
leads off its coverage of her remark made at a 25 August rally by noting “Parrish has rejected Prime Minister Paul Martin's request to withdraw her comment that the United States and other missile-defense supporters comprise a “‘coalition of the idiots’” [remarks posted at http://www.suntimes.com/output/news/cst-nws-idiot30.html
]. And to be fair to Parrish, never did she say all Americans were “idiots,” just those who support missile defense.
Canadians may be tempted to say Parrish really should be ignored. After all, she has next to no influence with Cabinet, and even far less with Prime Minister Paul Martin. Believing this would make one both right and wrong. Americans may be inclined to suspect that somebody holding office reflects public opinion, shapes policy, and may even determine national debates. Again, this would make one wrong, yet somehow right. Parrish is in no position to claim that her formal role and capacities in government are important, far from it. Yet at the same time, her influence may be more than profound, putting her in a position to impact government by exercising a pivotal role within the Liberal Party. Here’s why: only a few short months ago Paul Martin accomplished what many Liberals regard as a serious blunder. After taking office from the immensely popular Jean Chretien back in December 2003, all things seemed to point to Martin being able to call an election at his leisure, and simply to coast back into office, most average Canadians likely regarding voting day as the formality to his coronation and four more years of solid majority rule. When the best the Prime Minister could do was deliver a minority, many disaffected Liberals, and among them likely more than a handful of Chretien stalwarts, were quick to go public with the observation that Martin’s lackluster performance on polling day put him and his leadership very much on “probation” with the party. Parrish’s “idiots” crack serves to remind the PM that he remains very much under assessment within Liberal ranks.
Martin says what Parrish said was not constructive, and not likely to be helpful when policy reviews come up. In truth, Parrish’s comment may be far less about offending anyone, and much more about ensuring Canada doesn’t even start up any discussions or doesn’t further participate in missile defense. What is unknown is exactly how many sitting Liberal MPs share Parrish’s point of view, and if they are as committed to ideals as she appears to be, would they seize an opportunity to bring down a minority government on a no confidence motion if Martin opts to forge ahead with missile defense. If this issue can be linked to a confidence motion, Parrish just may be able to define her role as the leader of the caucus-within-caucus determined to stall foreign policy debates. Perhaps the Conservatives are well aware of such a scenario [see What White Paper on Defence?
below], and in response have stepped away from Liberal infighting, hoping the intra-party split will pave the way for elections in a year or so that produce a Tory government.
The Liberals have a long history of resisting any and all temptations to quarrel anywhere apart from behind very tightly closed doors. Thus at this stage both Parrish and Martin are unlikely to take any steps that could doom the Liberal regime. For Martin, does this mean foreign policy will not be on the docket at all, or at the very least buried until he can make a run at regaining a parliamentary majority? Maybe not. Most recently, about a week ago, Canadian forces took part in Operation Narwahl, the largest Arctic campaign in this country’s history. Could this be a signal from Martin that the international community should not be confused about his intent? That steering away from missile defense does not mean Canada will continue to remain bound by soft power and merely a grudging supporter of our North American allies’ military interests? One account describes the magnitude of Narwahl:
‘The $4 million exercise is the most prominent sign to date of Canada's intensifying effort to reinforce disputed claims over tens of thousands of miles of Arctic channels and tundra. Once nearly permanently frozen, forbidding and forgotten, the region is today seen by officials from Canada and competing nations as a potential source of both wealth and trouble.
Not all of Canada's vast claims to the Arctic are recognized internationally. The United States, the European Union and Denmark either contend that the region's waterways are open to all or have placed their own claims on parts where climate change is expected to increase access to the region's bountiful resources in coming years.’ [cited in Clifford Krauss’ “Canada Reinforces Its Disputed Claims in the Arctic,” New York Times, 29 August 2004].
So Narwahl may be an attempt at a compromise, an effort to signal to the world that even though Canada may not be in a position right now to be a vocal supporter of missile defense, the days of neglecting defence and foreign affairs are long gone. Parrish perhaps even supports the idea of Narwahl: it could appeal to all those who want to see national pride and patriotism advanced, but without any risk of an arms race in space. On the other hand, it may be the kind of exercise that even the most anti-military advocate could stomach. Canada’s armed forces have been in disarray for at least a decade, and no single Narwahl could ever change that reality. Some coverage may even suggest that investigators of the paranormal and aficionados of spontaneous combustion may benefit more from this exercise than anyone, with this foray into the Arctic getting just as much coverage for the fact that two soldiers, somehow inexplicably, managed to have an “adventure” after getting themselves temporarily lost on the tundra and an aging, rusting “Sea King helicopter was grounded after its engine caught fire. There were no injuries, but the helicopter was put out of commission until replacement parts arrived.” [cited in CP, 24 August 2004. See article posted at http://cnews.canoe.ca/CNEWS/Canada/2004/08/24/599010-cp.html
For Martin, the job now may be to keep missile defense and other defence and foreign affairs initiatives separate. Should exercises like Operation Narwahl ever, in any meaningful way, get to be linked with arms in space, the PM will likely have to give more than passing thought to what Carolyn Parrish might, and possibly will, say aloud.
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What White Paper on Defence?
Back on 21 July The Ottawa Citizen
noted that authorities were busy revisiting foreign policy. “The government is in the midst of an international policy review, focusing on better aligning foreign affairs and defence matters. Government officials have said they want the review finished by the fall. It has been suggested a new White Paper on Defence could emerge from the review,” the report said. In addition, observed was that Bill Graham, the new Defence Minister, planned to press for Canada to have a clear role in the American missile shield project: “Mr. Graham has vigorously defended the American plan to build the missile shield and brings with him his experience as foreign affairs minister. Earlier this year, Foreign affairs and defence officials entered into negotiations with the U.S. on a potential Canadian role in the Pentagon's system” [The Ottawa Citizen
, 21 July 2004].
Within three weeks, media announced “he’ll [Graham] forgo the defence white paper,” [The Ottawa Citizen
, 10 August 2004] and even quoted Graham saying the Liberals are “unlikely” to prepare a white paper on national defence during the current term [The National Post
and The Ottawa Citizen
, 10 August 2004]. I suppose the question at this point has to be: why the rapid turn-around? In less than a month the Liberals have gone from signaling that foreign affairs matters, while perhaps not at the top of the agenda, were not to be readily dismissed to what might be a full retreat from that position. The left-leaning New Democrats and Bloc would be likely to oppose any serious commitment to a firm deal on missile defence, and that is precisely what they did as soon as intention on the part of the Liberals became clear in late July. But what of the Tories? Surely the Conservative Party of Canada would not shy away from backing a commitment to the military and a more robust foreign policy? Even Tory strategist Hugh Segal, speaking within a day of polling, said Paul Martin could count on Stephen Harper’s unflinching support when it came to defence [see Stephen Staples’ piece in The Hill Times
, 19 July 2004, posted at http://www.oneworld.net/external/?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.polarisinstitute.org%2Fpolaris_project%2Fcorp_security_state%2Fpublications_articles%2Fdfence_policy_july_04.html
]. In fact, if anything, Stephen Harper is more Liberal than Paul Martin on such issues: “On military spending, the Conservatives’ campaign promise of $7 billion more over five years appears much higher that the Liberals' commitment of $3 billion over the same period. But voters may have forgotten that just before calling the election Paul Martin announced a $7 billion plan to purchase a long list of military aircraft, tanks and warships” [cited in ‘Martin’s Defence Policy Dilemma’, by Stephen Staples, The Hill Times
, 19 July 2004, at http://www.oneworld.net/external/?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.polarisinstitute.org%2Fpolaris_project%2Fcorp_security_state%2Fpublications_articles%2Fdfence_policy_july_04.html
What the Tories did was to remain almost silent when Graham and Martin crawled out on that limb to speak publicly about missile defence. Rather than offering up endorsements, Conservatives said the whole matter, particularly any Liberal policies, required more study, more investigation. Some may be tempted to speculate that the Tories have come, at last, to understand that missile defense is, at best, an issue that most Canadians don’t care about, or, at worst, one that is an anathema and will carry electoral costs for Conservative candidates in future. In reality, there is nothing in this affair to suggest the Tories have abandoned Paul Martin. This whole exercise may be entirely tactical, with Tories and Liberals groping for ways to back missile defense without making it appear that their relationship in this hung parliament is far too close. What may have been discussed between Liberal and Conservative brass off the record remains very much the mystery variable. And after all, does not going to the expense and effort of compiling a white paper really mean that defence and foreign policy must remain unaffected?
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Just a quick note to let you know that over the next few weeks I'll be updating the links page. For those interested, please keep checking back under the 9 May 2004 entry.