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A nation must think before it acts.
October 19, 2016 will mark the first anniversary of the Liberal triumph in the Canadian federal election. It was a stunning victory for Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party, which held a weak, third-place status in the Canadian Parliament coming into that election.
The strong majority victory (184 of 338 seats) puts the Liberals in firm command of Canadian politics at least until 2019. And, as the electorate often accords a second mandate to the party that wins an initial victory, the Liberals could govern Canada until 2023.
Prime Minister Trudeau has enjoyed a remarkably extended “honeymoon” year. There is persistent “Trudeau mania” throughout Canada—reflected in sky-high popularity, and more than a touch of this “mania” has become international. Much of the party’s decisions are directed at dismantling the Tory legacy and in laying groundwork for implementing complex political and economic promises. A good deal of these “promises, promises” may be delayed, deferred, or, ultimately, deemed impossible to implement.
Currently, the Liberals benefit also from a disorganized, confused, and essentially leaderless opposition. Such will not last forever, but it will probably persist through 2017.
And for one of the few times in modern Canadian history, Quebec is irrelevant so far as national unity is concerned.
U.S.-Canadian bilateral relations are also in honeymoon “bromance” from reciprocal state visits. Totally consumed with domestic presidential campaigning, the U.S. government is, essentially, paying no attention to north-of-the-border. Nor are the Liberals pressing for decisions on any high-profile subjects. With a new president of whatever gender, there will be an extended “sorting out” period—either greater or lesser—depending on the gender of the victor.
Retrospectively, the Liberal victory may have been unexpected, but it was not unpredictable:
Thus, there was some reality to the hoary maxim that governments are not defeated; they defeat themselves. But there was more than that traditional reality in 2015—the Liberal party unleashed its new leader, Justin Trudeau, on the electorate. And they loved him.
Moreover, the leader of the socialist New Democratic Party (NDP), Thomas Mulcair, although heading the second-ranking party in Parliament, misread the electorate. Believing that the NDP had a good chance at victory, he moved the party platform/policy toward the center leaving the “left” of the Canadian spectrum open to the Liberals. And, they pounced. The NDP lost its leftist supporters to Liberals, but did not gain center-right support to compensate.
But that is yesteryear’s news.
The circumstances of the past year have been almost equally puzzling.
One expects a period following an election where opponents avoid direct assaults on the new government and leadership. This concept of a “honeymoon” has increasingly been more honored in the breach than honored, but Trudeau and the Liberal government have enjoyed almost a year without substantive challenges (or media criticism other than from predictable conservative elements).
Indeed, Prime Minister Trudeau has morphed from being a Canadian political rock star into being an international political semi-phenomenon. He has been characterized as “the selfie PM” due to his proclivity for posing for “selfie” photos with any and all desiring a photograph. Indeed, it seemed, at times, as if there was no international conference at which he wasn’t present, voicing his mantra “Canada Is Back.” (Nobody bothered with the rejoinder, “We hadn’t noticed you left—and it didn’t really matter anyway.”)
These events included the Paris Agreement at the 2015 UN Conference on Climate Change to which Trudeau brought the largest delegation of all participants (larger than the United States and UK combined). He attended the NATO Alliance Summit in Warsaw on 8-9 July. He participated in the G20 conference in Hangzhou, China on 4-5 September. Most recently, he skipped the opening of Parliament to address the United Nations.
He even benefited from a three-day state visit to Washington in March 2016, the first such Canadian visit since 1997—an honor which President Obama stiffed PM Harper—and wowed DC audiences (or at least distracted them for several days from the already poisonous presidential political campaign).
It is not as if Trudeau has presented stunning new ideas or policies. Reportedly, the Liberals passed only 10 pieces of legislation in their first parliamentary year. Largely, it has been sufficient that he was not former PM Stephen Harper. Domestically, he has traveled throughout the country meeting with aboriginal leaders, environmentalists, gay pride activists, and citizens of all manner. He even generated media attention when he accidentally “photo-bombed” a wedding in August displaying his shirtless torso.
It was only in August-September 2016 when some of the gloss began to dull. Media reported a minister hired a limo from a Liberal Party supporter at disproportionate costs. Two Liberal staffers received household goods shipment compensation for moving from Toronto at respectively $126,000 and $80,000. Embarrassed by the outcry, they promised to refund part of the payment. And the media kvetched over the costs of aircraft services for Trudeau’s staff at the G20 conference. Small potatoes, but they are being played as indicative of historical Liberal fast-and-loose attitudes toward public money.
Promises/Promises. The Liberals came to power toting a laundry list of promises. One commentator suggested between 150-300 “depending on how you count them.” For more information about the Liberal Party’s 2015 election platform, visit the party’s website or read its official platform document. Among the most obviously important (and their consequences) were:
Separately, on 27 September, the government approved a liquefied natural gas (LNG) pipeline to bring the product to an export facility in Prince Rupert, British Columbia. It will be a massive undertaking (and remains vigorously opposed by environmentalists and selected First Nations) with a slew of restrictions and conditions. It suggests, however, that Trudeau/Liberals will approve at least one pipeline project—and Trudeau expressed support for Keystone in the past, reportedly raised it during his March visit with Obama (to no avail), and presumably is awaiting the new U.S. administration to see if there is any flexibility. Others believe that he is more likely to approve a pipeline to the west coast.
And a couple of easy ones:
And others essentially “pending:”
Stephen Harper Has Left the Building. The man who dominated Canadian politics both out of and in office for much of the past 20 years has departed. Quietly, as is his want. He did not dash away in a snit (as was the case for Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, who following his 2011 defeat, immediately resigned his parliamentary seat and the Liberal Party leadership, and decamped for the United States). Harper took his seat throughout the subsequent parliamentary session ending on 29 June (when President Obama addressed Parliament), voting but not speaking. On 26 August, in Calgary, he announced that he was resigning his parliamentary seat. Moving into private life, he has taken up some business offers and launched his own consulting firm. And, in a typical Harper action, rather than fly on the official prime ministerial jet to the funeral for Israeli leader Shimon Perez, he flew commercial.
History will treat him better than his contemporaries. Excoriated by opponents as planning to transform Canada into a social-conservative bastion, he instead worked at the margins, reduced taxes, attempted reconciliation with First Nations through a formal apology for the native residential schools and a reconciliation commission, and had Canada punching above its weight in NATO/Afghanistan/Iraq/Libya, and never took off his shirt in public.
Harper’s departure has not devastated or even really disconcerted the Tories. As the Official Opposition with 99 seats, the party is well-positioned to challenge the Liberals. Members vigorously attacked the government in the opening parliamentary session. A new Tory leader will be selected on 27 May 2017, and currently, there is no dearth of candidates. As of early October 2016, 10 candidates have put themselves forward, including a full range of sitting MPs, “formers,” and outsiders. The interim party leader (Rona Ambrose) is prohibited from running.
Perhaps of greatest interest are the former Tory heavyweights who have declined to run. Most prominent among these are Jason Kenney, formerly Minister of Defense and Multiculturalism, who once was depicted as an odds-on favorite for Tory leadership. Instead, he has elected to try to unite Alberta conservatives and become premier in the next provincial election. Also noteworthy is Peter MacKay, once head of the Progressive Conservative Party (which combined with Stephen Harper’s Canadian Alliance Party to form the Conservative Party of Canada) and then Foreign Minister, Defense Minister, and Justice Minister under Harper. He noted that he continues to prefer private/family life.
Indeed, the reality of the plethora of second-string level candidates suggests the grim reality of successfully combating PM Trudeau/Liberals for over three years before the 2019 election, which currently is “odds against” a Tory revival. Men, such as MacKay, Kenney, John Baird (former Foreign Minister), and Jean Charest (former Quebec premier,) have a “been there; done that” attitude. Venturing once again to campaign in church basements, eat endless chicken dinners, raise campaign funds, and be without family for much of this effort clearly is not appealing to anyone other than the profoundly masochistic.
The New Democratic Party Is Adrift. Heading into the 2015 election, the NDP was the Official Opposition benefitting from an unprecedented 2011 election surge orchestrated by then-leader “Smiling Jack” Layton. Layton died abruptly after the election, and his successor, Thomas Mulcair, despite substantial organizational skill and adroit parliamentary performance, was simply not Layton. Mulcair often projected a grim, “angry Tom” aspect in speaking and campaigning. The NDP’s electoral collapse (falling from 103 to 44 seats) infuriated party regulars who concluded that Mulcair’s effort to move toward the center to appear more acceptable to Canadians only cost them their normal supporters on the left of the political spectrum without gaining them centrist voters.
In a mandated party review, on 10 April, they took revenge. Mulcair was brutally rejected, not even getting 50 percent support (he received 48 percent). While he has stayed as interim leader pending selection of a new leader in October 2017, the NDP has no obvious successor. Indeed, as of early October 2016, 17 individuals (federal and provincial MPs, formers, union activists, and the widow and son of former leader Jack Layton) have indicated interest.
The NDP is also engaged in an examination of its existential political role. A primary alternative to its traditional positions is the “LEAP manifesto,” authored and endorsed by prominent Canadian leftists, e.g., Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis, filmmaker grandson of former NDP leader David Lewis. The “LEAPers” call inter alia for restructuring the Canadian economy and ending use of fossil fuels. Delegates to the 2016 NDP Convention approved a resolution referring the manifesto to local riding associations for discussion. LEAP is a sure path to political irrelevancy.
Other Opposition. The other two parties with MPs (the Greens with one parliamentarian) and the Bloc Quebecois (BQ) (10 MPs) do not have sufficient representation to be rated as official parties within Parliament. The Green’s sole representative, Elizabeth May, gets considerable public attention as an avatar for environmental causes. Recently, however, she considered resigning as her party conference, against her vigorous objections, endorsed “BDS” (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) against Israel. Although she rescinded the threat, her status with the Greens is now parlous. And for the first time in a generation, the BQ is irrelevant lacking a significant leader and without a strong base in Quebec. (See below regarding Quebec.)
Defense. Canada has always struggled with funding defense. Realizing that it could never defend itself against an aggressive United States (and simultaneously appreciating that anything sufficiently dangerous to threaten Canada would also threaten the United States—and prompt a U.S. reaction), Canada has elected since World War II to spend very little on defense. Monies not spent on defense can be spent on social services, making Canadians more comfortable.
Historically, the Tories have been somewhat more willing to promote defense/national security. During the Harper government, major sums were designated for defense, notably for revamping the rusting-out navy and for designating a replacement for the CF-18 fighter fleet. But transforming budget into ships and aircraft has proved exceptionally slow—even in Canadian terms. Canada has not launched a new deep water naval combatant in a decade; its sole supply ship is de facto nonoperational; its submarines rarely leave harbor. It probably does not qualify as much more than a coastal defense force. While such may change if/when the vessels in embryo come to fruition, there are not many positives for the immediate future.
Nor are the circumstances better for CF-18 replacement. Supposedly, the F-35 was a “done deal” as the replacement aircraft; however, issues over lifetime costs and questions over lack of competition for the F-35 made the selection process an election issue. Now, timelines for any decision are unclear, and Ottawa appears poised to purchase Boeing “Super Hornets” to supplement the CF-18 fleet while it ruminates over a replacement for the FC-18 (and tries to avoid either purchasing F-35s or contesting a massive lawsuit that would inevitably be the consequence for cancelling the commitment).
The only service that has emerged essentially undamaged from these controversies is the Army, which is still benefitting from upgrades and combat experience garnered during its protracted Afghan commitment. It, however, anticipates personnel reductions. And the Army may be tossed willy-nilly into “peacekeeping” expeditions that will be particularly challenging, especially if they are in Africa.
At the opening of its administration, the Liberal Party announced a “blue ribbon” panel to undertake a comprehensive review of defense policy—supposedly to be completed at year’s end. In the meantime, the Liberals deferred $4 billion in defense spending (but Canadian Forces do not bet on it being restored). Former Chief of Defense Staff, Rick Hillier, intimated that Canadian defense is about to enter a new “decade of darkness”—his previous characterization of Canadian defense under the Chretian/Liberal years.
Nevertheless, despite a nudge from President Obama that Canada should adhere to the NATO objective of spending 2 percent of its budget on defense/security, that benchmark is unlikely to occur under the Liberals. The “blue ribbon” panel was stacked with advocates for peacekeeping level defense implicitly making an expanded Navy or an F-35-level Air Force an unnecessary luxury.
The Trudeau foreign policy has been directed at dismantling Tory policies. If Harper/Conservatives sneered at and disdained the United Nations as an anti-Israel “talk shop” (Harper didn’t even bother addressing the UN General Assembly between 2010-14 and then spoke to a sparse audience), Trudeau has embraced it. Clearly campaigning for a seat on the Security Council in 2021 (which Canada was denied in 2010 when Portugal was selected), Trudeau appears poised to return Canada to a significant role in UN-sponsored “peacekeeping” (where previously its major commitment had been in Afghanistan).
In late August 2016, Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan returned from a tour of Mali, South Sudan, Central African Republic, and Democratic Republic of Congo. His travel gave the impression of a desperate search for a peacekeeping option where Canadian military personnel will not get killed and return home to national acclaim. Saijan and other ministers, including Global Affairs Minister Stephane Dion, announced that Canada will commit 600 troops, including engineers and medical personnel with ancillary helicopters and other aircraft, along with increased peacekeeping funding.
But there was no announcement as to where they would go and when, although Mali and Central African Republic have drawn the heaviest hints with commitment by year’s end.
To some degree, while Trudeau has been skeptical of NATO, he has committed to NATO-related operations. Most prominently, Canada will lead a multilateral battalion in Latvia starting in spring 2017 to reinforce NATO solidarity with Baltic States against Russian pressures. And, although Ottawa has withdrawn from bombing attacks in Iraq, it has continued to operate aerial support missions (refueling/reconnaissance) and train Iraqi forces, particularly for the offensive against Mosul. Canada has also continued to support Ukraine sanctions, but FM Dion spoke with his Russian counterpart in July 2016 for the first time in two years (Tories had suspended such discussions until Russia withdrew from Crimea). Additionally, Ottawa will discuss Arctic issues with Moscow in November 2016—another potential breakthrough in an area where the Tories claimed Russia was acting aggressively with air and sea incursions.
Quebec as an issue for Canadian national unity has almost been forgotten. In the 2015 election, both the Tories and the Bloc Quebecois increased their electoral strength, but neither party is playing a significant “Quebec card” in the federal parliament. Trudeau as a Quebec “native son” is popular (as in the rest of Canada) but hardly revered.
Currently, Rheal Fortin, a newly elected MP, heads the BQ as interim leader. Long time BQ leader, Gilles Duceppe, having twice been defeated in his traditional riding, has withdrawn from politics. The Bloc, however, is in no hurry to select a permanent leader. It has drifted through the year with vague discussions of selecting a permanent leader in 2017; at present, it is attempting to right itself with a new focus on locating strong candidates for future federal elections and supporting its provincial analogue, the Parti Quebecois.
The interesting political action in Quebec was the selection of a new Parti Quebec (PQ) leader; its charismatic but loose cannon leader, Pierre Karl Peladeau, resigned on 2 May after a year heading the PQ. Peladeau was roundly blamed for the PQ electoral collapse in April 2014 for touting the need for an independent Quebec—sooner rather than later—and upon resigning, he announced his desire to concentrate on “family” and presumably resume leadership of Quebecor, a massive Montreal-based media corporation.
The PQ leadership campaign (and the party more generally) emphasized existential differences:
(a) the role of “identity politics” as epitomized by a “Charter of Values” espoused by the PQ in the 2014 campaign and attacked as a code/cover for anti-Anglophone/immigrant views; and
(b) when to hold a referendum on Quebec independence.
In a multi-round/elimination voting process on 5-7 October, Jean-Francois Lisee won the PQ leadership with 50.6 percent in the second round. Lisee, a scholar-journalist-intellectual-political advisor turned full time politician (he is a member of the Quebec National Assembly), ran a come-from-behind campaign against initially favored Alexandre Cloutier. Lisee concluded that the PQ lost the 2014 provincial election not because of the “Charter” but due to popular fear of a near-term sovereignty referendum. Consequently, he touted in slightly veiled terms “identity politics” while promising there would be no referendum until a second PQ term in office. Separately, Lisee came to U.S. attention with his scholarly analysis of U.S. attitudes toward Quebec sovereignty following the 1976 referendum with In the Eye of the Eagle, published in 1990 and drawn from U.S. government documents obtained from Freedom of Information Act requests.
The PQ is notoriously fractious, and Lisee will have to work hard to unify a party following this contentious campaign. With excellent English, Lisee, however, will be able to reach out to English-speaking Quebeckers—despite the unlikelihood of them listening to blandishments over the virtues of Quebec sovereignty.
In theory, the PQ has a strong chance to win the 2018 election. Liberal Premier Philippe Couillard, a neurosurgeon by training and a medical faculty professor, is not dynamic, and a recent poll indicated 59 percent dissatisfaction with his government. Moreover, the Liberals pull only 25 percent of the Francophone vote—but the Francophones are divided between the PQ and smaller factionalized parties with incompatible socio/political objectives.
PM Trudeau’s “sun” is still in ascendancy, while President Obama’s is setting. And the ongoing presidential campaign has absorbed virtually all political oxygen leaving little devoted to bilateral U.S.-Canada issues.
That said, our current issues are not of overweening import. There is a rolling laundry list of tertiary problems that are always in play: some get solved; new ones emerge; others just drag on indefinitely. We are, for example, likely to re-engage in dispute over import/export of softwood lumber since the 2006 agreement expired in October 2015, opening the way to unlimited export of Canadian lumber. We continue to struggle over the balance between facilitating access and augmenting security at our borders. Despite some high profile terrorist activity (e.g. attack on Parliament by a lone gunman in October 2014), Canadians and particularly the Liberal government are reticent to the point of indifference about implementing tighter controls on immigrants.
Obviously, Trudeau would appreciate an Obama endorsement of the Keystone Pipeline. Such, however, is as likely as the sun rising in the west. The United States would comparably appreciate a sustained Canadian commitment to greater defense/security spending. Such is as likely as the sun setting in the east.
There is a sense that we are in an inter-act: a passage between administrations since the U.S. presidential election will change in tone if not in substance. Any such change in administrations, even if the “takeover” is by the same party, virtually freezes significant action and/or initiatives for upward of a year. The ambassador will change; senior officials throughout the U.S. government will change; action officers will pause awaiting new instructions. One can conclude, however, there will not be a wall built along the border if Republican candidate Donald Trump triumphs (nor will disgruntled U.S. citizens flee northward). A victory by Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton would continue the basic collegiality that marks bilateral relations when Democrats and Liberals respectively are in power.