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In the Canadian vacuum, Obama victory pushes Harper to act

November 6, 2008

By former Canada’s World blogger Alexander Nataros

There were many reasons for Canadians to support Barack Obama’s historic campaign.

That the US– despite its economic crisis, unfathomable debt and prolonged wars– will strengthen their leadership in the world, is certainly up there. In a world where the competing alternative is China’s “business first” approach to human rights, this is a fundamentally good thing.

But the new administration will push Canadian politics and the Harper government to act on issues it has stalled on. With an uninspired and leaderless Liberal party that must learn from the Obama phenomenon and a NDP that refuses to embrace its role as the activist (witness Jack “I’m running for Prime Minister” Layton), we now enter an unparalleled period where the Conservatives find themselves across the line from a powerful Democratic house.

The Harper government, bound to its smallmindedness, has been unwilling or perhaps unable to inspire a vision for our country. Cutting– be it the GST, the Kelowna Accord, Childcare agreements, or green programs– has been the extent of it. Dion’s Liberals had their Green Shift, but were wholly ineffective (much as BC Premier Gordon Campbell has been in pushing through his shift) in communicating and adapting the policy. It remained just that, an uninspiring document written off as a carbon tax.

Barack Obama has vision in spades and it will smoothly fill the Canadian vacuum– he makes such uninspiring documents dance. Vision and a spirit of cooperation fosters post-partisanship; witness the embrace of Obama by many Republicans. Our Prime Minister and President Bush both have failed to embody this notion. Overnight many of those who’ve decried the movement of Canada towards North American annexation now yearn to call Obama their leader. Finally someone able to step beyond the partisan blinds and engage citizens.

Immediately we see the Canadian government trying to jockey itself into the position of ‘leader’ on climate change and the oilsands. The appointment of Jim Prentice– considered one of Harper’s strongest ministers– to the Environment portfolio was a mere anticipation of a dramatic US shift in policy. The vacuous megaphone of John Baird won’t suffice.

And on issues beyond the oilsands where Canada has been castigated, such as our opposition to banning the export of asbestos (we produce lots of it in Quebec!) or deep sea trawling, and our lacklustre willingness to ban cluster bombs, let’s hope that we’ll be pushed to act.

On Afghanistan, we will be challenged by the US to step up and stay beyond 2011. Let’s hope that, in the face of increased US forces and a renewed approach to rebuild Afghan civil society, Canadian politicians undertake an honest dialogue about our commitment.

At its best, Canada has led to ban landmines globally, solve a transcontinental acid-rain crisis and foster peacekeeping in the world. Until we regain our own leadership, Canada will be pushed and led internationally by President Obama.

Taking back our leadership starts, much as the Obama phenomenon did, with grassroots engagement here in Canada. We must see our environmental and social justice work as being complimentary to debating the policies and leaders that our political parties choose. The American democratic process finished on Tuesday, but the countless primaries and caucuses that drew millions of its citizens into debate were fundamental to the final product.

We must reinspire our political process and engage all Canadians in choosing the leaders of our parties.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Interested Observer permalink
    November 9, 2008 11:13 pm

    Across the board, Canadians need to install better leadership in those parties which have traditionally supported equitable opportunities for Canadian families. No wonder so many Canadians find themselves looking south, and wondering about the kind of leadership needed to fulfill Barack Obama’s promise of “spreading around the wealth”.

    The inability to effectively pursue and install policies driven by issues of concern shared by both centrist and left-leaning voters has come about because of a “divided left”. I too, have to agree that this is due, in not insignificant part, to the fact that the NDP has been encouraged by the aggressive posture of Mr. Layton to move away from their traditional activist role in Canadian politics.

    In the past in Canada, part of the process whereby Liberals were elected involved the willingness of NDP supporters to vote liberal when the Conservative Party seemed to poll especially high support in advance of an election, through so-called “strategic voting”. The side-benefit of this was that left of centre initiatives had the opportunity to come to fruition, under a liberal electoral mandate and with the encouragement of the NDP opposition.

    Mr. Layton’s approach of taking sides with the Conservatives against the liberals has weakened the Liberal Party and has enabled the Conservative Party to claim Canada’s political stage with the vote of only 22% of eligible Canadian voters, a situation also enabled by our first-past-the post system. On an ongoing basis, but particularly during the last liberal minority term, Mr. Layton repeatedly proved willing to make voting pacts with Mr. Harper, whose general ideological stance couldn’t be farther from that of virtually all NDP supporters.

    It appeared, to my eye at least, that this whole agenda was pursued by Mr. Layton for the sole purpose of having the opportunity to feel the flex of the muscles of political power. His choice seemed to be to dance with the devil. And the devil has manipulated him, mercilessly.

    Programs which were excellent ideological fits for both NDP and Liberal voters have completely collapsed as a result of these pacts, the most notable being the universal childcare system which had been finally hammered out with the provinces by then liberal Minister Dryden, to the point that the first cheques were in the hands of the provinces. I was floored on watching Mr. Layton choose to partner with Mr. Harper to vote the Liberal government down at that stage, instead of letting this very important social initiative get its legs at a time when Canada finally was in a financial position to initiate the program (after having run 5 years of healthy surplus budgets and having substantially paid down a once looming national debt).

    In that moment, Mr. Layton seemed to act with the antithesis of the type of admirable social leadership that Tommy Douglas before him had exercised in fighting for universal medicare. Instead of nurturing a potentially great social program, Mr. Layton shot it dead, even in the face of loud protests from Mr. Hargrove, another NDP icon.

    With Jack Layton at the helm, it may be a very long time, if ever, before Canada again gets a realistic opportunity for the establishment of a universal childcare program. Canadian families who can’t afford to compete in the high priced market for the extremely limited child care opportunities that are available as a result, are most often young and/or led by women.

    These less well-heeled of Canadian families have Mr. Layton to thank for the family malaise that is bound to flow, year after year, from this lost opportunity for timely and much needed wealth redistribution amongst Canadian society.

  2. November 8, 2008 2:06 pm

    2 birds (economy, environment), one stone (Obama’s US transition to a low carbon economy).

    Alex, great to read your post, and see you are taking the time to comment on this site on such a key and interesting development on our NA side of the world power pond.

    The developed world, and now many developing nations, are agressivly transitioning their economies by way of policy, venture capital flows, and incentives (like cap and trade schemes for GHG emission reduction units) towards low carbon intensive production while maintaining or increasing economic growth. This is done by pricing high carbon activities, and enabling low carbon activities. The economic diversity of these places (where GDP is being derived) is diversifying (German, Japan). Canada and the US have moved in the opposite direction – becoming more carbon intensive, and having less diverse drivers of GPD. Which path, US and Canada’s, versus the other leading developed nations, is the long term economic winner is clear to people like McKinsey and Company (the leading private sector economic thinker) and Stern (see stern report) – the leading public sector economic thinker. Canada is on the less favorable trajectory. Obama’s win will help change our path – because he vows to transition the US to an inovative, low carbon economy.

    Canada has a long journey ahead to arrive at a place where it is positioned to take advantage of the quickly arriving carbon constrained economy. IE: To a place where Canada overproduces clean energy, and where it is a leader in policy and technical/idea innovation on the economic mechanics and the ideas and policy behind a post carbon economy.

    Bottom line, Obama has vowed to align the USA policies with those of countries that are leading the global move to a carbon constrained economy (Germany, UK, France, Japan and the ongoing long list at which Canada sits at the near very back of). This might be a painful move for the US (but how to know this before it is tried – and if McKinsey and Company and the Stern report can be trusted – it should not be all that painful a transition), but it will be a powerful transition that will pull Canada, Harper, with it.

    It is a overwhelming positive in the sense that it will finally begin NA on its path to the type of economic and policy innovation that is driving positive economic developments in the rest of the developed world, and that will help reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases.

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