Political Pilgrims

16 Jan

A Toronto friend of mine began putting together her travel plans back in November. Good thing she did. Tickets and hotel rooms are at a premium. If she hadn’t booked early, she may have missed out completely on the chance to take the trip…

Journalist colleagues from across the country have lobbied their bosses for weeks to send them on the same trek for work…

Over a late December dinner in New York City, some American pals said how much they’d love to make the journey and mused about putting together travel plans of their own. They had less than a month to pull it off, so I’m not sure if their plans came together…

Just a few days ago, a Facebook friend in California reported that he bought a last-minute plane ticket on a whim and was traveling across the continent for the big event. Hope he’s able to find a last-minute place to stay…

It’s not often that so many people are inspired to drop everything in their lives and travel great distances just to witness a political event.

Then again, it’s not often the Canadian federal government delivers a budget in January.

So… no surprise to find so many out-of-towners of my acquaintance planning trips to the nation’s capital to hear the finance minister’s big speech and to luxuriate in the nasal-passage-freezing chill of mid-winter Ottawa.

Okay, you’re right. You caught me.

Just kidding about the Ottawa stuff.

But all of the above anecdotes are true. Instead of Ottawa, my friends’ dream trips involve January pilgrimages to another nation’s capital – Washington, DC – to witness next Tuesday’s inauguration of the first-ever African-American president.

Barack Obama’s inaugural address will likely be discussed more among future historians – and for much longer – than will finance minister Jim Flaherty’s upcoming budget speech.

But the two events are related in many ways.

For one thing, with Obama coming to power, Stephen Harper finds himself in an odd historical position for a Canadian Prime Minister: The American head of government is more popular among Canadians than is he.

Jean Chrétien never had that problem with George W. Bush. Neither did Harper himself.

Although Obama faces an unfathomably difficult financial crisis and plans to put his country into an unfathomably big deficit to deal with it, he also has a great surplus of political capital to spend.

Harper and Flaherty frittered away a big store of their own political capital during last fall’s Parliamentary drama, with their ham-handed attempt to use a fiscal update in recessionary times as a blunt political instrument with which to beat down their opponents.

When opposition parties formed a coalition to try to take power, Harper’s humbling trip to the Governor-General to seek a Parliamentary prorogation was the only thing that kept him in his job into this new year.

The upcoming earlier-than-usual budget will be another attempt to save the government.

Not to mention the country’s economy.

The Canadian Prime Minister is probably hoping that some of Barack’s Magic will rub off on him when Obama makes his first foreign trip as U.S. President to Ottawa, where he’s expected to address Parliament.

The Harper government’s press release announcing the as-yet-unscheduled visit seemed positively giddy, especially in comparison to the Prime Minister’s previous reluctance to appear too close to George W. Bush.

When Bush visited Ottawa several years back, the downtown streets were clogged with angry protesters. If public polling is any predictor, Obama’s visit will more likely clog this city’s streets with star-struck well-wishers.

While the new U.S. president may provoke some political excitement among Canadians, it is his economic plan that will have a more lasting effect.

Indeed, economists say that the success or failure of Obama’s policies may have a bigger effect on Canada’s economy than will Flaherty’s upcoming budget.

Will Obama follow through with campaign promises to re-open the NAFTA accord? How will his environmental policies affect Alberta’s energy industry? Will he loosen Bush-era border controls to allow Canadian goods to flow more easily into the United States?

Most importantly, will his domestic plan succeed in reversing the economic slide of Canada’s biggest trading partner?

If it doesn’t, the best-laid plans of our own government will do little to shield us from sharing the Americans’ pain.

So if you find yourself down in Washington for the new president’s swearing in, or waving a welcome banner at the Ottawa airport when he lands here, let him know we’re counting on him.

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