From Russia With, Well, Could it be Love?
What comes to mind if somebody mentions a legislature where party ties really don’t matter all that much? How about an assembly where issues of substance meet up with symbolic votes? Under such circumstances would you reminisce about totalitarianism? Would you think maybe that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin woke up this morning, overcome by nostalgia for the bad old Soviet days? Well, none of the above, if you can follow where I’m going. I’m thinking of Canada in October 2004.
The past four weeks have been busy for Prime Minister Paul Martin. He spent some time on the road, visiting with leaders in France and Russia. As is customary, most of the domestic media either underreported the trip, or mentioned it only in passing. No sooner had Martin returned to the Great White North than headlines exploded with what many got confused over, assuming the whole thing amounted to some foreign policy issue of much gravitas. On 18 October 2004 news broke that the Prime Minister had agreed to hold a Commons vote on the prospect of Canada’s role in the missile defense project [and all citations that follow are from various Canadian Press, CP, reports of 18 October 2004]. Immediately there was speculation that this might constitute some milestone in Canadian foreign affairs. Few seemed, at least at first, to take Martin at his word when he said any such vote would be symbolic in nature, and not really of much importance. To his credit, Martin did say, very clearly, “I think if you look at my own speech in the House on that issue [missile defense], I essentially said that we're very open to a debate.” Observant reporters also did acknowledge that any such vote in the legislature could not bind Cabinet, which has the exclusive right to accede to treaties.
So what was the whole issue with the missile defense vote all about? On the surface, it may appear an effort to salvage the minority government in the face of opposition pressure and reluctance to accept the recent Throne Speech. There were threats that an early election would be forced if concessions weren’t made to the opposition parties. The Tories demanded five key points, and seemingly won. They required that:
“The Commons human resources committee propose ways to ensure that all future use of the employment insurance program be for the benefit of workers and not for any other purpose;
Further reduction of the tax burden on low and modest income families, consistent with the government's commitment to balanced budgets and sound fiscal management;
The Commons finance committee propose independent fiscal forecasting for parliamentarians and that any resulting advice be considered;
The Commons House affairs committee recommend a process for citizens and parliamentarians to examine and review options to the current electoral system;
Parliament consider all public information and then vote on a proposed ballistic missile defence agreement with the United States.”
So after meeting with officials from the New Democrats, the Bloc, and the Conservatives, did the Liberals just cave in whenever the Tories expressed their desires? No, that’s far from the case, though perhaps first appearances suggest that did occur. First, Martin is not unsympathetic to Canadian participation when it comes to missile defense, and even suggesting there is a chance that a Commons vote may take place sends the signal to Washington that the United States need not worry about political isolation when the discussion is about projectiles in space. Second, and perhaps key, this whole affair is of great importance for what did not happen. That is, disaffected Liberal Member of Parliament Carolyn Parrish failed to grab media attention. Does this, then, suggest that the PM is now closer to isolating if not eliminating the cadre of pro-Chretien holdovers that continues to dog him? This is very likely. If you are Parrish, and at this point have not formed an alliance with, say, more than a few dozen or so like-minded MPs, why raise your voice? Your ability to destabilize an accord with the Tories is, at least at present, nonexistent. Martin, with maybe a hundred loyalists and the tacit support of most if not all the members of the Conservative caucus, can govern, and for some time. Periodic concessions in the form of funding social policy initiatives may have to be made to placate critics and public opinion, but as long as the Bloc can be soothed with promises of autonomy for the provinces, spending can be restrained.
In short, seeming to collapse in the face of the Tories’ five-point plan was all about domestic politics, though missile defense got the attention. Martin was able to consolidate his influence over the current Liberal caucus, and his ability to work with Stephen Harper showed there are far fewer, if any, differences between Paul Martin and the Tories than may have existed between ideological conservatives and Liberals when Jean Chretien was PM.
Does what happened in October mean that voters should inform themselves of how the ideological dynamic in this country has shifted under Martin’s guidance of national affairs? Will a vote for the Liberals in any upcoming election be a symbolic ballot for Stephen Harper? If most of the public divides its interest between the Liberals and Conservatives, will the very act of voting become symbolic?
So in closing, I’m grateful that when Martin and Putin met, there were no toasts to Beria, and for the fact the leaders resisted any possible temptation to pay homage to Matt Monro. While the legacy bequeathed by former PM Brian Mulroney, US President Ronald Reagan, and their smiling Irish eyes is safe, for now, the same cannot be said for Canada’s relevance on the world stage. How Martin’s trip abroad exposed Canada’s weakness shall be explored within the next few weeks.
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