25 January 2006

Oh Canada

I don’t think any Canadians I know, with the possible exception of a couple elderly relatives, will be pleased with the outcome of this weeks election. A reborn version of the Conservative Party, once thought to be all but extinct, has taken the biggest share of the votes, and leftists on both sides of the border are bemoaning the result in typically phlegmatic fashion.

“Man, I didn’t vote myself, but everybody I know says this totally sucks,” says one message board poster. “Now Canada’s got its own George Bush.”

This is a common refrain, though just a bit over the top, considering that the Conservatives, with nowhere near a majority of the vote, barely have their foot in the door and can and will be overruled in Parliament if they try anything too drastic. Nor does the new Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, bear much resemblance to President Bush, though one could draw some uncomfortable parallels from his origins in the oil-rich province of Alberta, often referred to as the Texas of Canada.

Another parallel is the cultural backlash that seems to have been as crucial as any other factor in propelling the Conservatives into power. Pundits frequently cite the “corruption” endemic in the Liberal administration that’s held sway for the past 12 years, but the Canadian economy has been a roaring success under the Liberals, and voters are generally inclined to overlook a little dodgy dealing at the top as long as their pay cheques keep going up.

Which brings us to another uncomfortable parallel with the US: the economic record racked up by the Liberals compares favourably with that of the Clinton administration, including budget surpluses “as far into the future as we can see,” as one Canadian official bravely predicted while trying to explain to the BBC why prosperity would continue regardless of which party was in office.

The trouble was, I heard virtually those same words in the waning months of the Clinton presidency. The paradigm had shifted, we were told; America would never need to go back to deficit spending, and in a matter of decades, we’d have the entire national debt paid off. Even a doofus like George Bush wouldn’t be able to derail that economic engine.

A couple of swingeing tax cuts along with what’s beginning to look like the most expensive war in history, and the idea of budget surpluses or paying off the national debt sounds like the stuff of fairy tales. Could Canada go the same way? Incoming Prime Minister Harper says he has no intention of taking Canada into Iraq, and even if he did, the US would continue to bear the brunt of the cost. And although Harper plans to increase military spending, it’s very unlikely to become a huge drag on the economy, if only for the simple reasons that Canada has no realistic aspirations of being a superpower and can count on the Americans to defend them in the event of serious trouble.

But Harper also campaigned on the promise of tax cuts, most of which will probably benefit the oil and timber industries that helped bankroll him. Could that be enough to upset the applecart? Probably not, again based on the ability of the left-leaning parties to outvote anything too extreme.

But several commentators here have pointed out the resemblance between Canada’s conservative resurgence and the way that Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s conservative Coalition unexpectedly took power from a left-leaning government that people were beginning to assume would be around forever. Since then, Howard has steadily solidified his position, been re-elected three times, and completely transformed Australian politics.

Personally, I think the deciding factor in both countries was neither economic nor political, but cultural. The bulk of Canadians were just not as radical as their government became. Being a generally fair-minded lot, they were fine with national health care and workers’ rights legislation, but were never as anti-American or as “progressive” as the Liberals seemed to assume they were. It wasn’t a single tipping factor like gay marriage or semi-legalisation of cannabis or the bias toward “multiculturalism” and a massive increase in immigration that sent voters fleeing to the right, but all played their role in creating a general unease, a sense that this was no longer the Canada that they’d grown up with.

Even still, Canadians might have been willing to accept these changes had it not been for the perceived arrogance of the governing party. It was a classic case of left-wing elitism, the assumption that the common people couldn’t be expected to know what was good for them, so why bother asking? I’m reminded of Jim Sleeper’s excellent book Closest Of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race In New York, which describes how the administration of liberal Republican mayor John Lindsay, pursuing the laudable aim of racial integration, balkanised and destroyed New York’s working class neighbourhoods with a similar arrogance.

It seems to be a recurring problem with left-of-centre parties, and may also contribute to the sectarianism and factionalism that undermines most leftist parties sooner or later. Those committed to social justice and coalition-building end up butting heads with the legalise marijuana and dress up as endangered species crowd, and the ensuing conflict over which faction really speaks for “the people” allows the hard right to slip into power with a firmly committed – but united - minority of the votes.

It’s what happened in the United States (hello, Ralph Nader!), and while what’s just happened in Canada represents nowhere near such a seismic shift – yet – it could still play out that way in the long run. Left-wing baby boomers and their anti-globalisation acolytes need to get it through their heads that most people don’t see the 1960s and 70s as the cultural or political apex of modern times. Many of them, in fact, feel precisely the opposite, and believe that an important part of the political agenda should be to undo and roll back the excesses of that era.

Does that mean that we have to accept the most extreme demands of the religious right? No, of course not, though today’s Senate Judiciary Committee’s approval of Samuel Alito’s nomination to the Supreme Court (thanks again Ralph Nader and his “Republicans and Democrats are all the same” supporters) may well mean that women’s control over their reproductive lives is on its way out, along with some of the other personal freedoms we’ve come to take for granted. But until the moderate centre-left can find more in common with the moderate centre-right than with the libertines, hippies and nihilists of the hard left, that’s what’s likely to happen.


Colorado Health Insurance said...
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Steen said...

under attack for 3 days now

Danish newspapers and blog subject to islamic cyber attacks.
Would you spread this news in australia ?

with kind regards from WiedCopenhagen , Denmark