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The NDP: What Might Have Been…

12 May

In the alternate Bizarro universe of Canadian politics, we are into the fifth month in power of the current coalition government, led by that most unexpected of Prime Ministers, Stéphane Dion.

The reviews are mixed. The controversial way the government took power has divided Canadians along geographic and partisan lines. It’s also still unclear how well its fiscal plan will help alleviate the country’s economic crisis. But on the foreign affairs front, Dion’s good relationship with like-minded American President Barack Obama has had a positive effect on our country’s relations with the United States, with new bilateral agreements in the works.

Of course, the government has been helped immensely by the complete chaos on the opposition benches. Conservative leader Stephen Harper is facing open internal revolt over his leadership, after letting power slip from his hands into those of Dion, mere weeks after the Tory election victory. The Official Opposition has been giving the government a much freer ride than expected, as it sorts through its own divisions and ponders its newly shaky future.

For their part, Bloc Québécois MPs have been absolute pussycats, content to bask in the glow of their success in helping to bring this new government into being, and showing no sign of breaking the agreement that will keep the coalition in power – and the Bloc in its influential kingmaker role – for many months to come.

As for New Democrats, they have never been in a better political position, experiencing Parliament from the government benches for the first time in party history. NDP leader Jack Layton, Dion’s prominent Industry Minister, is up every day in the House of Commons answering questions about his sweeping auto industry bailout. Layton is enjoying unprecedented influence in Canadian politics and heightened attention from news media, while the NDP learns lessons about the discipline of power that will serve it well in election campaigns to come.

Okay… it’s not called the alternate Bizarro universe of Canadian politics for nothing.

Back here in our own dimension, things have unfolded quite differently over the past few months. Stephen Harper remains Prime Minister and maintains a firm grip on the Conservative Party, despite that party’s precipitous drop in the polls.

Stéphane Dion is long gone, replaced as Liberal leader by Michael Ignatieff, who put the kibosh to the coalition and saw his party’s popularity rise above the Tories’.

As for Jack Layton… well… what happened to Layton anyhow?

To some extent, every party leader rolled the dice somewhat during the coalition drama last fall. But it was the New Democrats who arguably had the most to gain – a place in government for the first time ever – and who also took the biggest risk in pushing for a coalition.

The idea, in fact, was hatched by the NDP, and Layton was its most emphatic proponent.

“Prime minister, your government has lost the confidence of the House,” Layton said on the day the coalition agreement was signed, “and it is going to be defeated at the earliest opportunity.”

That, of course, wasn’t to be.

In the fallout from the coalition’s collapse, some observers say the NDP has become somewhat marginalized in national politics. It is down in the polls, with a diminished role in Parliament. This despite the fact that Ignatieff has moved the Liberals farther to the right, theoretically leaving more room for New Democrats on the left side of the political spectrum.

“The New Democrat caucus tried to do a big thing – tried to replace the government. And it didn’t happen,” said NDP strategist Brian Topp in a recent interview with the Globe and Mail. “Undertakings that don’t succeed don’t build support.”

So what will rebuild support for the New Democrats? Some suggest a return to the party’s more traditional role as a principled opposition voice from the left. The eternal conundrum for NDPers, of course, is to what extent they should play the political game at the expense of compromising their principles. In the last election, Layton played power politics, explicitly running for Prime Minister.

But despite Layton’s modest electoral success in comparison to his predecessors, some think the party has been more influential as a kind of pressure group from the opposition benches, rather than as a pretender to the throne. There are even some whisperings that for the party to move forward, Layton may have to step down.

It’s a far cry from the alternate universe that might have been, where flowers grow high, the sun always shines, and New Democrats sit in cabinet.

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Ottawa… it rhymes with Obama… sort of…

16 Feb

Greetings, and welcome to beautiful Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, the second coldest capital city in the world.

After Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

Well, the third coldest really, ever since Kazakhstan moved its capital north a dozen years ago, from balmy Almaty to freezing Astana (you remember that big move, don’t you?).

Of course, some put Ottawa all the way down at seventh on the chilly capital city list, after Ulaanbaatar, Almaty, Moscow, Helsinki, Reykjavik, and Tallinn, Estonia.

But still. We’re cold. Really cold. Top Ten cold.

So cold we’re cool.

And we do have the world’s longest skating rink.

Well, we DID have the world’s longest skating rink. Until last year, when Winnipeg’s River Trail knocked the Rideau Canal out of the Guinness Book of World Records, thanks to a few hundred metres of extra shoveling.

But Winnipeg’s skating trail – as long as it may be – is a scrawny, emaciated thing, the width of three or four skaters. Dozens of Ottawans can fit across the Rideau Canal. Hundreds, in some sections.

So we still have the world’s LARGEST skating rink.

Does that make you feel better?

And we remain the world headquarters for Beaver Tails. And maple baseball bats. And Canadian politicians.

If you want any of those things, you know where best to find ‘em.

Right here in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

Did I mention how cold it gets?

Years ago, I interviewed a number of ambassadors to Canada who had arrived from warmer corners of the globe. I asked them about their experiences serving in the second… or third… or seventh coldest capital city on earth.

Some of them struggled to maintain a diplomatic demeanor. The ambassador from Barbados seemed near tears when describing his first Ottawa winter.

New Zealand’s High Commissioner to Canada was much more cheery. He explained his country was so small that he had to serve simultaneously as envoy not only to Ottawa, but also to the capitals of a number of Caribbean island nations.

As chance would have it, he always had to do his annual tour of Jamaica, Trinidad et al. in January, February and March.

He always made sure to brag about his winter travels to his fellow ambassadors back in Ottawa. Diplomacy can be a vicious business.

The New Zealand emissary didn’t seem too fazed about leaving Ottawa in February and missing Winterlude.

Too bad for him, no? Because Winterlude is… cool.

In fact, Winterlude can be added to the list of Things Ottawa is the World Capital Of: Beaver Tails, maple baseball bats, etc.

Let’s see Barbados try to host an outdoor ice sculpture competition.

So… why am I bothering to go through this list? Why am I trying to hype the wintertime charms of my adopted hometown?

I’m doing so with one person in mind:

Barack H. Obama.

The new American president, you may have heard, will be visiting Ottawa this week. It will be his first trip outside the United States since his inauguration, restoring a longstanding tradition that was broken by George W. Bush, who visited Mexico first.

Bush eventually did show up in Ottawa for a full state visit, complete with a lavish dinner at the Museum of Civilization, a courtesy call to the Governor-General, and hundreds of riot police holding back thousands of protestors.

When Bill Clinton visited Ottawa as president in the winter of 1995, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton went for a skate on the canal and a taste of Beaver Tail.

But word is that Obama will not be doing any of those things, despite the fact his visit coincides with Winterlude.

He won’t be addressing Parliament (he may be saving his first major address on foreign soil for the Muslim world), he won’t be meeting the public, and they may keep Air Force One’s engine running at the Ottawa airport, because he won’t be in town for more than a few hours.

It’s a bit of letdown for Obama’s many Canadian fans. He’s more popular here than any Canadian politician.

But there may be time to change his mind and get him out on the canal. Despite a Hawaiian background, Obama – who cut his political teeth in Chicago – is a cold-weather fan.

A few days after becoming president, he was already scolding the residents of Washington, D.C. for closing down local schools on account of a bit of snow.

No doubt Obama’s aides will be perusing this blog to prepare for his trip north.

So… have I mentioned how delightfully cold it gets up here?

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.

Kicking Ass in Post-Partisan Politics

11 Nov

A friend of mine used to be a major partisan of a major political party.

Come election time, there were few lawn signs bigger than his. He would tirelessly canvas for his chosen candidate and take it pretty hard if that candidate did not triumph. The ebbs and flows of his party’s fortunes would influence his own frame of mind.

He would socialize among fellow members of his party, enthusiastically devote large chunks of free time to party activities, and view most public issues through a partisan lens.

Although I never asked him this question, I’m reasonably certain if someone had told him to state five adjectives that best described himself, one of those adjectives would match the capitalized name of his  party.

As a journalist, I zealously follow partisan politics, and have covered it for many years. But I’ve never been a member of – or loyal to – any political party. Although I find party politics fascinating, and admire the passion and commitment of many of its practitioners, I’ve never quite been able to understand what it’s like from the inside. Or what it’s like to want to be on the inside.

From my comfortable perch as an outside observer, I can see a parallel between the fervor of party members and that of … say… sports fans. A potent brew of dedication, single-minded enthusiasm, hope and faith seems to drive both groups of people. Is the Toronto Maple Leaf fan whose perennial belief that his team is finally going to win the Cup any different in temperament, loyalty and optimistic outlook than the NDP partisan who believes Jack Layton will become the next Prime Minister?

Just as dedicated Leaf fans will have trouble appreciating the talent and superior appeal of the Montreal Canadiens, so too will partisans have a tough time conceding that any other party may have a better approach than their own on any given issue.

That element of partisanship is the double-edged sword of political life. It helps parties to mobilize, focus and compete for power. Unapologetically partisan Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella titled his guide to doing all of the above “Kicking Ass in Canadian Politics” because he argued that doing so is a necessary precursor to implementing the vision that brings anyone into politics in the first place.

On the other hand, the hyper-partisanship of political parties is probably one of the root causes of voter cynicism, apathy and low election turnout in the population at large.

Recently, my once-partisan friend started a new job that requires him to be unaffiliated with any political party. During last month’s federal election campaign, there was no lawn sign in front of his house. I asked him if he found it hard to stay out of the fray, and was surprised to hear him say he didn’t.

His job keeps him engaged with political issues and the political process, but he said that being outside partisan politics gave him a perspective he didn’t have before. Now, when he hears party members react to any given issue in a fiercely partisan way, he smiles and thinks “I used to be like that”.

Is my friend onto something? Certainly in the recent American presidential election, one of the big buzzwords was “post-partisanship”. The victory of president-elect Barack Obama was not only historic because he is set to become the first African-American president in history, but also because of the way he achieved his triumph.

He mobilized voters and contributors like no one else had ever before, through grassroots efforts and over the Internet. Most notably, he appealed to younger voters with his inspiring talk of hope and change, and his unwavering message of unity across party lines and demographic groups.

“There is no red state, there is no blue state, there is only one United States of America,” Obama thundered at campaign rally after rally. The message resonated with post-partisan young voters. Early indications are that voter turnout among youth was higher than in any other American election except that of 1972, the first election after the voting age was lowered to 18.

Does Obama’s win mean we’re in a new political era? Hard to say. Obama himself muddied the waters when he appointed as his chief of staff congressman Rahm Emanuel, who has a reputation – say his opponents – as one of the most hyper-partisan Democrats in Washington.

An acknowledgement, maybe, that even in a post-partisan world, there are still political benefits to kicking ass.

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?