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As Scott Brown Wins In Massachusetts, Canada May Need To Develop A Mind of Its Own

January 23, 2010

The American political scene is usually among the last places I’d look for delicious irony, but the special Senate election in Massachusetts this past Tuesday was a spectacular exception. Many Canadians will have heard that the Republican Scott Brown defeated the Democrat Martha Coakley, and that Brown’s victory brings the number of Republican senators to the critical value (41, for the record) needed to block legislation by means of that most absurd of congressional ploys, the filibuster.

Wherein lie the ironies? Well, the main one is that the first major piece of legislation the Republicans can be expected to block is the painstakingly negotiated package of health care reforms. This is ironic because the whole point of the election was to replace the late Senator Edward Kennedy, a towering liberal figure who had made health care reform one of his signature issues. The second irony is that Massachusetts is supposed to be one of the “bluest” states in the Union, so a Republican victory in Kennedy’s old seat shoud have been more or less unthinkable. And the third irony is that this major setback for the Democratic Party occurred the day before the anniversary of President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

All this is pretty funny, and perhaps it should also be taken by Canadians as an object lesson in the instabilities that can result from having an elected Senate. For the sake of my American friends, though,  I acknowledge that Brown’s victory is also in some ways regrettable. My eyes sort of glaze over whenever I try to read about the details of the proposed health care reforms, but in principle they sound like the kind of thing that might begin to help the numerous Americans with inadequate health insurance or none at all.

Now I suppose there’s little chance of the bill passing except in a badly mutilated form, and it was mutilated enough to begin with. And of course, it will also be difficult for the Democrats to get any other ambitious legislation through the Senate unless and until the balance of power shifts again. The US is probably doomed to a period of even tighter legislative gridlock, at a time when challenges abound. Canada’s parliament may be dysfunctional these days, even when it’s not prorogued, but at least it isn’t virtually paralysed.

However, I must admit that my interest in the composition of the American Senate is rather detached. As a Canadian living in China, I don’t care in any deep visceral sense whether America fixes its health care system, or whether Obama can keep other parts of his legislative programme on track. However, Thomas Walkom, in the Toronto Star, sees it differently. He predicts that Brown’s victory will derail economic reforms in the US, undermining Canada’s biggest export market; derail American plans to tackle climate change, which will prompt our government to “match” American non-efforts by continuing to ignore the problem; and prompt Obama to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy, for instance by attacking Yemen or deciding “to raise the ante further in Pakistan and Afghanistan, with immediate effect on Canadian troops there”.

Well, maybe. The health of the US economy is only partly dependent on government action, and if it continues to sputter perhaps Canadian businesses will finally get more serious about courting alternative markets in Europe, Asia and elsewhere. It’s high time in any case. My attitude to climate change is similar: Canadians do recognise the problem, and continued American foot-dragging would might just open a space for us to push the government into creating a sensible made-in-Canada approach.

On the foreign policy front, the Obama administration does pick some very odd fights, but the state of the economy should discourage any adventures ambitious enough to have real disaster potential. Even if Obama does “raise the ante” in Pashtunland and create an unholy mess, our troops can always leave. Canada does not have to be a passive spectactor, relying on America to solve every problem and set the terms of every conflict.

The editorial board members of the National Post do not seem to share my conviction that Canada is capable of thinking for itself. They recently wrote:

Had it not been for the miraculous defeat of Ms. Coakley, President Obama would have continued with his expensive and expansive social programs, taxes and budget deficits, and Canada would have been dragged along behind, like a boot attached by a string to the back of a wedding car.

For one thing, I’ve actually got nothing against social programmes and the taxes needed to fund them. But for another… A boot attached by a string to the back of a fucking wedding car? If the editors of one of Canada’s leading newspapers see our country in such humiliating terms, something is rotten indeed.

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