What's the matter with Canada?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Sept. 12 2008 11:17 AM

What's the Matter With Canada?

How the world's nicest country turned mean.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Click image to expand.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper

Last Sunday, news came that Canada—sensible, quiet, some would even say boring Canada—will hold an election on Oct. 14, its third in four years. Those outside the country may wonder what the problem is; in Canada, after all, health care is free, the dollar is strong, same-sex marriage is legal, and the government had the good sense to stay out of Iraq. You might think of Canada as the un-America, where the only debate ought to be whether to spend the country's growing oil wealth on faster snowmobiles, bigger hockey rinks, or Anne Murray box sets.

But beneath the calm exterior, Canada's political system is in turmoil. Since 2004, a succession of unstable minority governments has led to a constant campaign frenzy, brutalizing Canada's once-broad political consensus and producing a series of policies at odds with the country's socially liberal, fiscally conservative identity. Canada is quietly becoming a political basket case, and this latest election may make things even worse.

Just scan the headlines. In June, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warned that Canada—for years the only G8 country to post regular budget surpluses—was likely to fall into deficit this year, thanks to a reckless cut to the national sales tax. In February, the government proposed denying funding to films and TV shows whose content it deemed "not in the public interest," sparking cries of censorship from a sector that has historically received public support. In 2007, a member of the governing Conservative Party proposed a bill that would reopen the debate over abortion, a topic that governments both liberal and conservative have avoided for decades.

The country is projecting its uncharacteristic behavior abroad as well. After decades of encouraging countries to increase their foreign-aid spending, Canada cut its own, from 0.34 percent of GDP in 2005 to just 0.2 percent last year. Long a beacon of human rights, Ottawa announced last fall that it would stop advocating on behalf of Canadians sentenced to death in other countries. And Canada is now the only Western country that still has one of its citizens held in Guantanamo, but Ottawa has refused to press for his release.

But nowhere is the rift between the old and new Canada more apparent than with regards to the environment. Canada was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the fight against climate change, and as recently as 2005 it was the Canadian environment minister who helped broker an agreement to extend the Kyoto Protocol beyond 2012. Then last December, at a U.N. conference in Bali to negotiate a successor to Kyoto, Canada executed a neat 180-degree turn, trying to block an agreement that set a target for future cuts to greenhouse-gas emissions. Of the 190 countries at the conference, only Russia supported Canada's position.

Left-leaning Canadians blame the country's predicament on the current Conservative government, which was first elected two years ago. They're right, to a point. The Conservative Party, formed five years ago in a merger of the country's two right-wing parties, is Canada's first experience with an anti-government, socially conservative party in the mold of Reagan-Bush Republicans. Its leader, Stephen Harper, who is now the prime minister, once called Canada "a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term."

But the Conservative Party wouldn't be in power, let alone willing to risk such divisive policies, were it not for the collapse of the country's most formidable political institution, the Liberal Party of Canada. The Liberals have been Canada's left-wing standard-bearers since the country's independence in 1867. And just as Canada's right-wing parties were coming together, the Liberal Party was coming apart.

In early 2004, Canada's auditor-general found that under the Liberal government, public funds intended to promote the federal government in the province of Quebec had been diverted toward advertising companies connected to the Liberal Party in the form of inflated payments. In response, the prime minister called a public inquiry, which only prolonged the controversy.

In the 2004 election, the Liberal government was reduced from a majority to a minority. Nineteen months later, it lost power entirely, and the party's leader resigned. The Liberals then embarked on a long, fractious leadership campaign—leaving the party exhausted and broke, and tempting the governing Conservatives to introduce ever more draconian policies with little fear of the consequences.

As the Liberals work on rebuilding, Canada's other left-wing party, the New Democratic Party, has grown at their expense; the Green Party, long a fringe movement in Canada, gained its first member of parliament when an independent MP joined the Greens; and the Bloc Québécois, which shares many Liberal positions but advocates for Quebec's independence, remains a force in that province. The Conservatives may not represent the views of most Canadians, but with four parties fighting for the left-wing vote, the Conservatives might win simply by sliding up the middle.

Italians and Israelis may have learned how to function under minority governments, but Canadians are still working on it. If the current election ends in a third consecutive minority government, the polarization of Canadian politics will continue, and with it the brutal, zero-sum politicking that has left the country in convulsions.

If the last week is any indication, that polarization is only getting worse. On Sunday morning, Prime Minister Harper began the race by predicting "a very nasty kind of personal-attack campaign." Two days later, his party briefly released an ad that showed a bird defecating on the leader of the Liberal Party. So much for Canadians being nice.

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