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2006-01-27 21:59:09 (UTC)

Don't Cry For Canada

Published on Thursday, January 26, 2006 by The Nation
Don't Cry For Canada
by John Nichols

After the 2004 presidential election in the United States,
a lot of liberal Americans looked longingly to the north.
Canada, the theory went, was a social democracy with a sane
foreign policy and humane values that offered a genuine
alternative to the right-wing hegemony that the U.S. was
about to experience.

But, this week, U.S. television networks and newspapers
declared: "Canadians Tilts Right" and "Conservatives
Capture Canada."

As shorthand for the election results that saw Canada's
Conservative party outpoll the governing Liberal Party for
the first time since Ronald Reagan served in the White
House, those headlines may be useful.

But the claim that Canada has lurched far to the right is
anything but accurate.

Of course, that has not stopped conservative spin doctors
in Washington, and their echo chamber in the U.S. media,
from announcing that last Monday's election results from
Canada represent a seismic shift to the right for the North
American continent. David Frum, a former speechwriter for
President Bush, was peddling the line that Canadians had
rejected "anti-Americanism" -- fostering the lie that the
Liberals, who had worked closely with the U.S. government
on issues ranging from the occupation of Afghanistan, in
which Canada is a major player, to free trade, which the
Liberals support, was somehow at war with the U.S. Equally
disingenuous was Bob Morrison of the Family Research
Council, a Washington-based group that opposes reproductive
freedom and gay rights, who announced that: "We are glad to
see that Canadians have values-voters too. We can be
optimistic about the end of the social engineering as
driven by the (Liberal) government."

U.S. conservatives, who can point to little in the way of
positive political news from around the world these days,
are entitled to their fantasies. But no thinking American
should buy into them.

As is the case with most right-wing "analysis" coming out
of Washington these days, the truth is a lot more complex
than the right-wing spin doctors would have Americans

In fact, the Canadian results ought to be read as a warning
signal for U.S. Republicans.

Here's why:

* The Canadian election was held early because the Liberal
Party government of Prime Minister Paul Martin had been
rocked by a major corruption scandal, which involved the
misuse of public funds to promote the government's position
on issues involving the relationship between the province
of Quebec and rest of the country. All of Canada's major
opposition parties ran anti-corruption campaigns, and the
first promise of the Conservatives was not a rightward
shift in public policies, but rather the restoration of
honest and accountable government. In the United States,
where corruption scandals have shaken the Republican
leadership in Congress -- forcing indicted House Minority
Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, to surrender his position of
power -- Canada's vote-the-bums-out response to government
wrongdoing ought to be heartening to progressives who would
like to see a similar response in November to the corrupt
practices of this country's governing party. The results
from Canada indicate the power of a reform message.
According to a poll conducted for the Canadian Broadcasting
Corp., 54 percent of Canadians who voted Conservative did
so because they thought it was time for a change, while
only 41 percent said they favored Conservative policies.
* In order to achieve viability in a country that has
repeatedly rejected social-conservative policies,
Conservative leader Stephen Harper radically restructured
the message and the manifesto of his party. He deemphasized
issues such as abortion and gay right, and promised to
protect and improve popular social-welfare programs,
including Canada's national health care system. As Arthur
Cockfield, a well-regarded commentator of legal and
political issues who teaches law at Queen's University,
noted, "Stephen Harper has moved closer to the center of
the political spectrum to broaden support for his party.
With plans to help working families, promote access to day
care, and bolster the public health-care system... Harper
no longer proposes any truly radical changes, but has
signalled that he plans to tackle a number of policy
priorities that could benefit lower- and middle-income
Canadians." In the days following the election, Harper
moved quickly to assure Canadians that his Cabinet would
include leading moderates, and that his policy agenda would
reflect the promises he made during the campaign to govern
from the middle rather than the right.

* Harper and the Conservatives kept U.S. conservatives at
arms length. Harper repeatedly emphasized his independence
from the Bush administration, and his differences with the
American right, during the course of the campaign. And,
according to reports published in a number of Canadian
newspapers, Conservative activists asked U.S. conservative
leaders not to cheer their campaign on. A headline in the
Calgary Sun read: "SSH! U.S. conservatives asked to keep
mum." A pre-election email circulated to conservative
activists in the U.S. by right-wing firebrand Paul
Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation warned that, "Canadian
voters have been led to believe that American conservatives
are scary and if the Conservative party can be linked with
us, they perhaps can diminish a Conservative victory."

* Even with their move to the center, the Conservatives did
not win anything akin to a majority of the popular vote.
Infact, the Conservatives won only 36 percent support.
Almost two-thirds of Canadians cast their ballots for more
left-wing alternatives. In democracies with proportional
representation voting systems, which better represent the
sentiments of the voters, the Conservatives would not be in
a position to form a government. Because Canada, like the
U.S., maintrains a single-district, "first-past-the-post"
voting system, the Conservatives prevailed over a divided
opposition. But Canada has a multi-party political system
at the federal level; the U.S. does not. If only 36 percent
of American voters back conservative Republicans this fall,
Democrats will dominate Congress more thoroughly than they
have at any time since the Watergate era and perhaps since
New Deal Days.

* The Conservatives did not win a governing majority. Of
the 308 seats in the Canadian Parliament, the Conservatives
will hold only 124. The remainder will be held by Liberals,
with 103; the social democratic Bloc Québécois, which is
the dominant party in the province of Quebec, with 51; and
the social democratic New Democrats (NDP), with 29. An
independent from Quebec holds the final seat. Thus, a
Conservative government will have to rely on parties of the
left to get anything done. A Toronto Star analysis provides
the honest assessment that, "This precarious situation
raises real questions about which of the Conservative
policy priorities... could realistically get through the
Commons... That leads to the bigger question too of how
long this government could last and when another election
could be unleashed on the country."

* Two parties made sighificant gains in Monday's voting:
the Conservatives and the New Democrats. While the
Conservatives increased the size of their parliamentary
delegation by around 25 percent, the New Democrats
increased the size of their delegation by more than 33
percent. In fact, for the first time in years, the New
Democrats won more seats in the western province of British
Columbia than the Liberals, and the NDP made significant
inroads in urban centers such as Toronto. Even though they
were operating in a political system that tends to drive
voters toward the larger parties, the New Democrats
dramatically improved their position by running as an
explicitly anti-war, anti-corporate free trade and anti-
corruption party. NDP leader Jack Layton explained after
the election, in which his party achieved its best showing
in decades, that: "While Canadians asked Stephen Harper to
form a minority government, they also asked the NDP to
balance that government."

The bottom line is this: Canadians have chosen to remove a
scandal-plagued government that went by the name
of "Liberal." But they only did so because
the "Conservatives" promised not to be too conservative.
And they voted in a team of left-wing watchdogs to assure
that those promises are kept. If that gives U.S.
conservatives some small measure of comfort, so be it. But
U.S. progressives need not be traumatized by these results.
Indeed, they can look forward to the day when voters in
their country might choose to throw out a scandal-plagued
government that goes by the name "conservative."

John Nichols began covering Canadian politics in 1984, and
has regularly reported since then on national and
provincial elections for U.S. newspapers and magazines. His
articles comparing U.S. and Canadian politics have appeared
in a number of Canadian publications.

© 2006 The Nation