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Don't Cry for Canada | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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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."

John Nichols began covering Canadian politics in 1984, and has regularly reported since then on national and provincial elections for U.S. newspapers and magazines. His articles comparing U.S. and Canadian politics have appeared in a number of Canadian publications.


Book Note

In their new book, Tragedy and Farce John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney, two of the country's foremost media analysts and founders of the national media reform group Free Press, dissect the troubling trends in journalism that surfaced in 2004--the decline in resources and standards for political journalism and the organized campaign by the political right to control the news cycle. They show how government decisions made without the informed consent of the American people have led to a media system that undermines democracy. Click here for info on the book, including how to order copies online.

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