Rethinking the Canadian Exit Strategy

Rethinking the Canadian Exit Strategy

For years, disenchanted US progressives figured they could always move to Canada. But Canadians, stuck with a conservative government, may now be eyeing America.


Editor’s Note: The final three paragraphs of this story were added December 2 to reflect political developments in Canada.

Over the past eight years, in the face of intractable wars, flagrant violations of the Constitution and the worst financial turmoil since the Great Depression, a half-joking refrain has given comfort to American progressives: “If things get any worse, we could always move to Canada.” It is time to reappraise this Canadian exit strategy, and not merely in light of the possibilities for change affirmed by the election of Barack Obama. Though the United States is poised to stagger back towards the political center, a rightward-shift may be under way across the Canadian border.

On October 14, Canadians voted to keep the Conservative Party in power and granted it nineteen new seats in the federal Parliament. The center-left Liberal Party, which enjoyed decades of electoral success on a socially liberal and fiscally centrist platform, won only 26 percent of the vote, one of the worst outcomes in its history. Though roughly 62 percent of Canadians voted for a center-left or left-wing party, the modest electoral success enjoyed by the social-democratic New Democratic Party, the separatist Bloc Québécois, and the emerging Green Party cannibalized support from the Liberals more than it hurt the Conservatives. “If…US voters are hungry for change, Canada’s election locked in a status quo that already seems out of date,” concluded journalist David Beers at a Globe and Mail online forum October 15.

The re-election of Prime Minister Stephen Harper demonstrated his success at “masking his extreme right positions” and reflected his party’s shrewd commitment to voter outreach among burgeoning immigrant constituencies in Central Canada, says University of Toronto political scientist Stephen Clarkson. But it also proved that “the economy…is always the number-one issue” in Canadian elections, observed Norman Spector, a Globe and Mail columnist and former chief of staff to Brian Mulroney, the last Conservative Prime Minister to win re-election. Though Canadian banks remain stable and wages have been growing, the global financial crisis has sparked acute anxiety among working-class families. As voters gathered to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving during the week before the election, the CPAC-Nanos polling firm recorded a five-point swing over the dinner table towards the Conservatives.

While the crisis in global capitalism has sparked a resurgent left in other Western democracies, Canadian voters issued a withering indictment of Liberal leader Stéphane Dion’s capacity to shepherd the country through economic turmoil. Dion has said he will step down as leader next year and, in Spector’s view, the Canadian center-left “will have to find its own Stephen Harper”–an assured and decisive leader to stand up for the country’s progressive majority.

Aside from his talents for realpolitik, Harper is hardly a model for Canada’s progressive leadership to emulate. His imprudent slashing of the country’s general sales tax has taken some $12 billion a year out of government coffers, gutting the fiscal surpluses he inherited when he came to power in 2005. Leading economists now predict annual deficits.

As he once explained in a speech before the ultraconservative Council for National Policy, Harper views Canada’s progressive social programs as the trappings of “a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term.” The Conservatives have scrapped an ambitious national childcare policy proposed by their Liberal predecessors, as well as a historic accord struck with native Canadians and the provinces to bring aboriginal living standards up to the national average. On domestic policy, Harper has established himself as Canada’s “first true neo-liberal Prime Minister,” says Jim Stanford, an economist at the Canadian Auto Workers, the country’s largest private sector union.

Harper’s impact has also been felt in foreign affairs. The Conservatives have reversed Canada’s longstanding support for the Kyoto Protocol and are currently the only Western government allowing one of its citizens to be held at Guantánamo Bay. Defying public opinion at home and around the world, “Stephen Harper’s foreign policy has largely supported George W. Bush,” notes Stephen Clarkson.

Where Conservative governments have historically adhered to Canada’s progressive center, Harper confessed on the campaign trail that his long-term goal is “to pull the center of the political spectrum toward conservatism.” This hope for a new political consensus buoyed the Conservatives’ post-election policy convention earlier this month. Party activists voted to support a sweeping “tough on crime” agenda, including a resolution to broaden charges in crimes that result in the death of an unborn child. Critics argue this proposal could reawaken the country’s long-dormant abortion debate if introduced before Parliament.

It is unclear whether Canadians will conform to Harper’s vision for the country. Most remain firmly committed to the Canadian welfare state, and they associate its benefits with the Liberal Party, which held office for the greater part of the twentieth century. Given that Harper increased his party’s popular vote by only one percentage point on October 14, it is not hard to imagine a scenario in which a continued economic downturn and a change in leadership on the center-left could threaten both his future in government and his grandiose plans for conservative realignment.

In the meantime, Canada’s progressive center will be threatened less by Harper’s hubris than by excessive partisanship on the center-left, says Jim Stanford. “Because we don’t have proportional representation, and the center-left is split four ways, the system is failing to reflect where Canadians are at,” he explains, pointing to electoral districts across the country where vote-splitting allowed Conservative candidates to eke out narrow victories.

Strong leadership and coalition building among the progressive parties in Parliament would narrow the chances of a more enduring rightward shift, says Norman Spector. Though Spector believes that Canada will stay a center-left country in the short-term, he argues that “governments are very powerful and the longer [Harper is] there the more the center can shift.”

“The march of conservatism is not triumphal–rather, it is covert but none the less significant,” concludes Stephen Clarkson. While the Canadian center “is now much further to the right than it used to be and our left is far more centrist and less radical than it once was,” Clarkson emphasizes that “both these would still look quite far left to most Americans.” Polls show that nearly seven in ten Canadians supported Obama on November 4.

Over the next few years, Canada will likely remain locked in stasis, saddled to political representatives who do not reflect the progressive values of its citizens. Since “the United States seems to be going back towards the middle,” Clarkson predicts the Harper administration will be increasingly “out of step, continentally speaking.” Canadians may find themselves in the unusual position of having a government that is well to the right of its American counterpart on issues like trade, energy and the environment.

It’s a situation that may have progressives in the United States rethinking that Canadian Exit Strategy, after all. “In a way,” concedes Jim Stanford, “Obama’s victory…could actually make America the more exciting place to be.”

In a sign that Canada’s progressive opposition may be coming to life, the leaders of the country’s three opposition parties presented a plan to topple Stephen Harper’s minority government at a press conference in Ottawa late Monday afternoon.

Following the government’s proposal to ban civil-service strikes for three years and eliminate a $1.95-a-vote subsidy for political parties, the leaders of the Liberal Party, the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Québécois publicly signed a coalition accord and sent a letter to Governor-General Michaëlle Jean saying the opposition has lost confidence in the Conservatives. Ms. Jean must now determine whether or not a viable alternative to the current government exists within the current Parliament.

Harper is expected to encourage Jean to call an election in the event of a defeat in Parliament, which could send Canada to the polls for the second time in three months. For more on this developing story, read this report in the Toronto Globe and Mail .

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