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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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Programming Note: Minority Politics 2008

14 Jan

Two years ago this month, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives won a federal election with the narrowest minority government in Canadian history.

In that vote, the party took 124 out of 308 ridings, or 40.3 per cent of all ridings up for grab. Never before had a Canadian political party won power with such a small percentage of seats in the House of Commons.

In fact, the Official Opposition Liberals won only 21 fewer seats in the same election (with retirements, defections and by-election results, that gap has now grown to 30 seats).

Whatever you think of the Conservatives’ governing abilities, it is hard to deny their government’s surprising stability and longevity.

Compare it to Paul Martin’s minority reign, which immediately preceded Harper’s. That one lasted a year and a half by the skin of its teeth, lurching from one existential crisis to another.

Although the Conservatives have faced no shortage of threats to bring down their government, opposition barks have so far proven worse than their bites.

Why? Probably because public opinion polls offer very little motivation for any party – including the Conservatives – to risk going to the voters anytime soon.

It seems unlikely that the current Parliament will last until Oct. 19, 2009, now enshrined in law as Canada’s first fixed election date. But… two years back, no one thought it likely that the current Parliament would last as long as it has.

I am producing a televised discussion airing tonight (and available online sometime this week), which will look at the lay of the land in federal politics and try to spot some potential minefields for the government and opposition parties as the year goes forward.

Will an election be triggered by an economic downturn? By the Mulroney-Schreiber affair, soon coming to a public inquiry near you? By the Afghanistan mission? By something else?

Or not at all?

Don’t ask me. I’m just a TV producer.

Australian Rules Politics

24 Nov

The Liberal Party of Canada seemed particularly pleased about the defeat of the Liberal Party of Australia in today’s federal election down under. In a press release, Canadian Liberal leader Stéphane Dion hailed the victory of Kevin Rudd’s Labour Party as evidence that:

“Australians have embraced a progressive program of economic competitiveness, tax reduction, enhanced health care, and environmental sustainability”

Hmmm… sounds a lot like Dion’s three “peelars“, with an extra one thrown in.

But what most pleased Dion was probably the timing of the victory, coming as it did on the same day that Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood alone among all Commonwealth leaders in blocking a proposed action plan on climate change that called for binding targets on greenhouse gas reductions.

Actually, Canada only stood alone after the Australian election victory. Outgoing Australian PM John Howard was on the same side as Harper on climate change, but Rudd is not. That fact was duly noted lower down in Dion’s press release:

We join all those Canadians who, in their determination to restore Canada’s leadership in the global fight against climate change, will today celebrate Mr. Rudd’s victory, and Australia’s renewed commitment to environmental protection.

No doubt Dion has also been reading this blog and noticed my entry of a few months back, highlighting the headlines Harper got in Australia for his “unsubtle intervention” in partisan Australian politics in support of Howard.

For his part, Harper told reporters at the Commonwealth summit that he would be contacting Rudd to offer “congratulations on his victory.” Probably not as effusively as Dion.