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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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The Curse of the Democratic President (on Canadian Conservatives)

4 Nov

All around the United States… all around the world… millions of people await the results of tonight’s historic American election. The anxiety and anticipation levels are palpably apparent even here in Ottawa, where people are talking about little else.

As in every other national capital, officials in Ottawa have been gauging the implications of the anticipated election results in the U.S. and preparing their government for future relations with the new American administration.

The anxiety level may be especially high in the office of Stephen Harper, the newly re-elected Prime Minister of Canada. For this country, no other international relationship comes close to approaching in importance the one Canada has with its southern neighbor.

If polls are accurate, the PMO will have to adjust to the new international priorities of a Barack Obama administration, which are certain to be markedly different from those of George W. Bush on such important files as Afghanistan, the environment, trade, and border security.

Harper may also have to do some damage control with Obama over the so-called NAFTA-gate incident from earlier this year, when a Canadian diplomatic leak made Obama look as if he was being hypocritical on re-opening NAFTA and may have contributed to his loss to Hillary Clinton in the Ohio Democratic primary.

Finally, Harper – a keen student of Canadian political history – may be anxious about an interesting phenomenon that has affected a number of his Conservative predecessors. Call it the Curse of the Democratic President.

Conservative Prime Ministers don’t come to power all too often in Canada, but on three separate occasions, dating back to the Great Depression, the inauguration of a Democratic President in the U.S. has served as a harbinger of a Conservative defeat, leading to an extended spell on the opposition benches.

The most recent example came in 1993, when Bill Clinton was sworn in as U.S. President at the tail end of Brian Mulroney’s reign as PM, in the midst of an economic downturn. Within ten months of Clinton’s inauguration, Jean Chrétien’s Liberals had taken power north of the border, and wound up keeping it until Harper became PM in 2006.

When John F. Kennedy was inaugurated President in January, 1961, his prime ministerial counterpart John Diefenbaker was leading the largest majority government in Canadian history up until that point. A year and a half later, Diefenbaker – who never got along with Kennedy all too well – squeaked back into power with a minority. But in April 1963, the Liberals began a string of election victories that would keep them in office for the next 16 years.

The curse began during the prime ministership of R.B. Bennett, who had the misfortune of governing during the Great Depression. He had been in office for 2.5 years when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn into office in March, 1933. Bennett tried to follow Roosevelt’s lead by introducing a Canadian New Deal, but it couldn’t save his political career. The Liberals took power a year and a half after Roosevelt became President, and stayed in office for more than 21 years, well into the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

A Democratic President taking office during an international economic downturn? It’s enough to keep a Canadian Conservative Prime Minister up at night…

Where have I seen this before?

5 Jun

Does this inevitable Republican Party ad…:

…take its inspiration from these Canadian Conservative Party classics?:

…but would you want your sister to marry a Canadian?

26 Mar

Is America Ready for a Canadian President?

Heroin for Political Junkies

6 Feb

For raw political spectacle, nothing beats a good old-fashioned brokered leadership convention. Here in Canada, it is the traditional way our political parties have selected their leaders.

Delegates come from across the country to a hockey arena or convention centre in a major city and, over a couple of days of speechifying and balloting and convincing and cajoling and backrooming, they figure out who will be the next leader of their party. Often enough, the final result is unpredictable and the process to achieve that result is drama-laden.

In 24 hours and four ballots, Stéphane Dion climbed from fourth place to first and became the unexpected leader of the Liberal Party at their last convention 14 months back (a convention I attended as a journalist and blogger.) In 1976, Joe Clark rode a similar path to victory as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party. And then there was the famous written agreement that ended the very last convention of the PC Party in 2003 and made Peter MacKay the very last leader of that party – a job he held onto long enough to break the agreement and dissolve the party.

A dramatic brokered political convention picked Canada’s longest-serving post-War Prime Minister. Another one picked Canada’s first-ever female Prime Minister. And another one set off the feud that would dominate Liberal Party politics for 15 years.

Whether these conventions pick the best leader, or are sufficiently democratic, are open questions… and beside the point, which is – again – that they are like heroin for political junkies.

In recent years, some political parties have opted for different methods of picking leaders. The current governing party, for instance, used a byzantine system of point allocations and preferential ballots to elect Stephen Harper as leader in 2004. He won on the first ballot, the results of which were announced at a glorified press conference.

Yawn.

American politics play out on a bigger stage than those of Canada. The leadership conventions of the two major U.S. parties are big, glitzy, expensive affairs, with massive media coverage. But in modern times, they are also scripted events with predetermined outcomes. Adlai Stevenson won the last brokered convention in the U.S. more than half a century ago.

The convention results are predetermined because it usually doesn’t take too long into the winter primary season for the major party front-runners to be sorted out and guaranteed first-ballot victories months before the summer conventions begin.

This year, of course, offers the best chance in a long time for a brokered convention on the Democratic side. Or at least a more interesting one.

Most likely, the Democratic Party nominee will get sorted out before it comes to that, but in a way the drawn-out, uncertain, exciting primary season itself has served as an extended brokered convention, offering thrill-a-minute jolts to political junkies – no jolt bigger than last night‘s Extra Super Duper Tuesday fight-to-a-draw.

Warning: If you are a Canadian political junkie, standing too close to the U.S. border may give you a contact high.

(Programming Note: I am co-producing an hour long televised discussion on Super Tuesday and the American Presidential race, which will air tonight and be available for online viewing here within a day or two )

Abortion Anniversaries

31 Jan

As January draws to a close, it’s worth noting that twenty years ago this month, the Supreme Court of Canada released R. v. Morgentaler, its landmark decision decriminalizing abortion. By coincidence, it was exactly 35 years ago this month that the U.S. Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, that country’s landmark abortion case.

There’s a difference between the two decisions that may explain why the debate over abortion has been somewhat less politicized on the northern side of the border. In the United States, it seems as if all candidates for office and judicial appointees must declare their views on abortion as a matter of course.

In Canada, the debate is no less contentious, but it doesn’t seem to dominate political discourse nearly as much as in the U.S.

Maybe that’s because R. v. Morgentaler came 15 years after Roe v. Wade.

At a recent lecture at the University of Ottawa, law professor Daphne Gilbert explained that the Canadian court made its decision to declare unconstitutional the old law governing abortion “on a minimal basis, probably learning a lesson from the politicization of Roe v. Wade.”

Where the American decision explicitly made reference to a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion, the majority decision in the Morgentaler case struck down the old law on the very narrow definition that the law endangered the health of the pregnant woman. It did not make any reference to a woman’s personal autonomy.

Except in Justice Bertha Wilson’s concurring opinion, where she wrote:

“The decision whether to terminate a pregnancy is essentially a moral decision, a matter of conscience. I do not think there is or can be any dispute about that. The question is: whose conscience? Is the conscience of the woman to be paramount or the conscience of the state? I believe… that in a free and democratic society it must be the conscience of the individual.”

Bertha Wilson’s argument did not win the day and the decision did not enshrine the principle of choice in Canadian law. But by striking down the old law, the court created a de facto legalization of abortion. In fact, in the last twenty years, Canadian politicians have been unwilling or unable to pass a new law governing the procedure.

Pro-choice advocates say that is a good thing: A new law is not needed to govern a medical procedure. But they also argue that choice in Canada is limited by a lack of access to safe abortions in many places across the country.

Many of those opposed to abortion would like to see a new law, and the 1988 Supreme Court decision certainly left the door open for one. Indeed, the minimalist decision “could, at first, have seemed like a boon to the anti-abortion movement,” said professor Gilbert.

“But that political movement has not benefited from it in 20 years.”

Two decades later, the debate goes on, mostly outside of the Parliament of Canada.

In fact, I produced a televised debate on this topic just a few days ago. You can watch it online here.

Who do you love Part 2 (Presidential candidates… Dutch edition)?

15 Jan

Here’s another handy-dandy web-quiz that will let you know which American presidential candidate’s views most closely resemble your own.

It doesn’t have as many bells, whistles or cute cartoons as this one does, but it has more questions and it’s available in both English AND Dutch, for those of you who would like to bepaal uw positie in het polieteke landschap voor de Amerikaanse presidentsverkiezingen.

By the way, if you pick the most pinko lefty answers to all the questions, you will be ranked as closest to Barack Obama. And if your answers are all red-meat redneck, the site will rank you as a Fred-head (as in Thompson).

Enjoy, and don’t worry, dat duurt slechts enkele minuten.