February 7, 2006
Canada Steers a New Course with Cabinet PicksBy Paul Jackson
Canadian Conservative Leader Stephen Harper was sworn in as the nation's 22nd prime minister on Monday and immediately unveiled a cabinet line—up that is both 25% smaller than ousted Liberal prime minister Paul Martin's cabinet and gave a tilt in foreign affairs, defense and national security sure to make Washington happier with Ottawa than it has been in years.
Canada's new foreign affairs minister is Peter MacKay, a Member of Parliament (MP) from Nova Scotia, and the son of a top—ranking cabinet minister, Elmer MacKay, in Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's pro—American government of 1984—93. It was Mulroney and his cabinet who trailblazed the free trade agreement with President Ronald Reagan's government, and which now allows more than 80% of Canada's world exports to enter the United States.
The younger MacKay — age 41 — is a rugby—playing, former prosecutor, with four terms in the Canadian House of Commons behind him.
It's indicative Canada's Liberal—appointed ambassador to Washington, Frank McKenna, resigned within 48—hours of the Conservatives winning the Jan. 23 federal election, tacitly admitting the two countries' relations will take on a different tone under Harper.
American ambassadors to Canada have been begging — and hectoring — the nation to rebuild its defense forces and give national security a far higher priority in this age of world terrorism than it has.
Well, Harper has now signalled that will be the case.
The new defense minister Gordon O'Connor is a former brigadier in the armed forces, in which he served for 33 years. Outgoing Liberal defense minister, Bill Graham, also a former Liberal foreign affairs minister, never served in the armed forces and showed little interest in them.
Right now, Canada spends less of its GNP on defense than any other NATO country except the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Geographically the second—largest nation in the world, it has just 60,000 men and women in its armed forces and only 20,000 combat troops, many of these not equipped for an emergency. The state of the armed forces is such that Canada has had to lease heavy transport aircraft from the Ukraine in emergencies.
The nation's defense budget and its manpower were slashed by 25% by Martin when he was finance minister in the mid—1990s. The budget now stands at $12—13 billion (Cdn.) and Harper is expected to move swiftly to spend an extra $5 billion on defense. That doesn't include a $5 million (Cdn.) purchase of a new fleet of the much—needed heavy lift aircraft. The Canadian dollar is worth 85—cents U.S.
In Canada, the equivalent of Homeland Security is the 'public safety' portfolio which former deputy Liberal prime minister Anne McLellan handled hip—pocket fashion. McLellan was defeated in the Jan. 23 election. Harper has now given this full cabinet status and named rightwing Member of Parliament (MP) Stockwell Day to the post.
Day is an evangelical minister originally from Alberta, and a former finance minister in the provincial Progressive Conservative government there. He left provincial politics to become leader of the federal opposition rightwing Canadian Alliance party, which lost badly to the Liberals in 2000 after the Liberal—Left media ran a scare tactic campaign against him suggesting he would ban abortions, was homophonic, and believed dinosaurs walked alongside Adam and Eve. There is virtually no organized religious right in Canadian politics.
After leaving Alberta provincial politics, where he was something of a hero, and taking on the leadership of the Canadian Alliance, Day moved to British Columbia where he won a seat to the House of Commons. After the debacle of 2000, Harper ran against him for the leadership of the Alliance, won it, and then Harper worked assiduously with MacKay, who was then leader of the splintered federal Progressive Conservative party, to merge the two parties under the new Conservative banner.
The united Conservatives initially soared in popularity during the 2004 election campaign but in the final days the Liberals successfully used another scare tactic campaign against them.
Day had been appointed foreign affairs critic of the new party by Harper and is solidly pro—American, pro—Israel and pro—Taiwan. This contrasted sharply with the anti—American, anti—Israel and pro—Communist China stance of the Martin administration. Indeed, during the almost 10—year period when Jean Chretien was Liberal prime minister and Martin finance minister, the Liberal government backed 78 anti—Israeli resolutions brought before the United Nations by Arab sheikdoms and their supporters and stayed quiet on another 35 anti—Israeli votes. Not once in this era did Canada vote on Israel's side, although Martin promised to change that after the 2004 election when, under his leadership, the Liberal government fell to minority status. Martin had also pledged to rebuild relations with Washington.
America—Baiting by the Liberals
But Martin's promise of a new attitude to Israel never materialized, nor did his pledge towards Washington. Chretien had once suggested Americans brought the terrorist attacks of 9/11 on themselves because of their 'wealth, greed and power.' There was no statement quite as derogatory or inflammatory as that from Martin himself, although during the Jan. 23 campaign his party ran 'attack' commercials on television charging Harper would sell out Canada to U.S. interests and also suggested extreme rightwing interests in the U.S. had financed Harper's leadership campaign. Actually, the contributors to Harper's campaign were public knowledge and none were Americans.
The campaign to link Harper and the Conservatives to Bush and the Republicans — 'The election of Stephen Harper's Conservatives will bring a smile to George Bush's face' was the line of one of them — came after several top Liberal cabinet ministers and senators in Martin's government openly supported Democrat John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election. The Conservatives generally avoided publicly getting involved in U.S. domestic politics, though their sympathies were obvious. Under Martin, as under Chretien, the anti—American vitriol continued with renegade Liberal MP Carolyn Parrish declaring, 'Americans! I hate the bastards!' and charging those who supported Bush were a 'coalition of idiots.' Martin never censured Parrish over these comments, and only ousted her from the Liberal caucus when she attacked him personally.
There will be none of this behavior from any Conservative cabinet minister, senator or individual MP.
It's fair to say all Conservatives are pro—American, and many are pro—Bush despite the bad image the Liberal—Left news media portray of him here. The Conservative support varies, of course, from simply regarding the U.S. as a friend and ally deserving cooperation and respect to that of many in the province of Alberta who view themselves as akin to Texans.
Many American Conservatives insiders wanted to see Day win the foreign affairs cabinet post, particularly having been the spokesman in that field for the past 18 months. Day himself wanted the job. It's likely Harper gave it to MacKay fearing to give it to Day would hand the Liberals, and the socialist New Democrats, an issue to scaremonger with in Ontario, and to a smaller degree in Quebec. It would be alleged to be evidence the Conservatives truly were planning to sell out to Washington. There are 106 seats in Ontario, and on Jan. 23 the Conservatives, who had won only 24 in 2004, increased that number to 40. They are hoping to win another 20 in Ontario in, say, late 2007 or early 2008, when they are defeated in the House of Commons by the combined votes of the three Opposition parties, or decide the time is right and 'pull the plug' themselves.
Certainly, Day, though disappointed, understands why he did not receive foreign affairs, and will be quite content with Public Safety. He'll surely work with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and the Bush administration on mutual security concerns. Already there is talk the Conservatives will push ahead to arm the country's customs officers at border posts, a pledge that pleased the customs and border officers' union since they have been arguing for several years that not being armed — and with one officer often manning a border post alone — they could neither protect the border effectively or their own lives.
Coincidentally, the U.S., increasingly impatient over Canada's lackadaisical attitude to border security, has just announced it plans to use Black Hawk helicopters to patrol the Montana border where it meets the borders of Alberta and Saskatchewan. The Black Hawks will carry state—of—the art photographic and surveillance and electronic monitory equipment to track illegal immigrants, drug runners, escaping conflicts — and suspected terrorists.
In Canada, unlike the U.S., cabinet ministers are elected Parliamentarians drawn from the governing party's caucus, usually members of the House of Commons, but occasionally unelected members of the appointed Senate. While a U.S. president can bring in the best people from the worlds of business, academia, the military or the diplomatic service, a Canadian prime minister has no such choices. He must choose from the hand of cards the voters have dealt. Into this play comes geographic representation — making sure all provinces have some representation — and paying attention to the country's growing ethnic immigrant groups and increasing the representation of women in the cabinet. As noted earlier, religion plays a very little role in Canadian federal politics.
Public Works, Political Reform, and Quebec
In a surprise move by Harper, he went outside his elected members to appoint Quebecer Michael Fortier as minister of public works. Fortier is a Montreal lawyer and financier and a former president of the old Progressive Conservative party of Brian Mulroney. Since Fortier can't sit in the House of Commons to make statements and face questions about his department a 'semi—cabinet minister' — known as a Parliamentary secretary — will have to do that for him. It's likely Harper will quickly attempt to have some Quebec MP — maybe even a member of the separatist and left—leaning Bloc Quebecois — resign to open up a constituency in which Fortier could run in a by—election. Resigning Members of Parliament in this scenario are generally rewarded with some government post, although Harper has pledged to end a decade and more of patronage gone wild under the Liberals.
The public works department was perhaps the most scandal— plagued in the Chretien—Martin era. It doles out billions of dollars each year in federal contracts, and was at the center of the controversy that helped to bring the Liberal government down from majority to minority status and finally defeat. In one instance, it was found some $100 million of a somewhat secret $335 million slush fund to fight separatism in Quebec, by flying the Maple Leaf flag and boosting the federal image at various events, had been siphoned off to Liberal—connected advertising, public relations agencies and the Quebec wing of the Liberal party itself.
An inquiry by Quebec's Mr. Justice John Gomery found a pattern of corruption even including suitcases of dollar bills being handed over to Liberal party officials in restaurants. The unsavory revelations by Gomery shocked many Canadians who naively thought the federal government — and the Liberal party — were above this kind of conduct. Martin, who was the chief cabinet minister for Quebec, and who as finance minister signed the cheques for what is now known as the 'Adscam' affair, pleaded ignorance to the shady goings on. Investigations are ongoing, but one businessman who pleaded guilty to stealing $1.5 million of the taxpayers' money, Liberal Paul Coffin, was sentenced only to give lectures on ethics in business to university students!
The main reason for Fortier's appointment, however, will be to help shore up support for the Conservatives for the next election. In 2000 and 2004 the Conservatives won not a single seat in Quebec, but on Jan. 23, in a stunning surprise, polled 25% of the votes and elected 10 Members of Parliament. Once a bastion of Liberal support, Quebecers elected just 13 Liberal MPs and won fewer votes than the Conservatives The separatist Bloc Quebecois under leader Gilles Duceppe elected 51 MPs. The 'Adscam' affair turned off many Quebecers who felt the Liberals were simply trying to buy their votes and would sink to any level to do so.
Harper's Conservatives have also promised to look at Quebec's demands for more provincial rights — Alberta has been demanding the same — after years in which more and more provincial powers were taken away and entrenched in the federal capital of Ottawa. The French—speaking province also wants independent recognition and representation at various world events and congresses. If Harper can manage to negotiate these issues, and he likely can, it would seriously damage the separatist movement in Quebec — which almost won a referendum on independence in 1995 — and win him perhaps 30 seats in Quebec next time around.
Quebec is undoubtedly the faultline in Canadian federal politics, and separatist provincial governments have been elected in Quebec on three occasions. Currently, the Quebec provincial government flies under a Liberal banner, though it's premier, Jean Charest, is a former leader of the defunct federal Progressive Conservative party. Charest and Martin are not friends, despite their parties having the same name. Indeed, Charest tended to back the Conservatives during the election campaign.
Quebec has yet to sign the 1982 new Canadian constitution, designed by Leftish and anti—separatist prime minister Pierre Trudeau. The late prime minister, who admired Mao Tse—tung and Fidel Castro, was the chief architect of encroaching on provincial rights and centralizing power in Ottawa. In the past, several attempts have made made to 'bring Quebec into the fold' but they have all failed. Generally, English—Canada has balked at giving Quebec special designations, such as 'distinct society status' charging that with special status in the Supreme Court of Canada and in the Senate it has been asking for too much. Western Canadians have been particularly against such concessions.
That may now swing dramatically under Harper's stewardship, even though Harper represents a constituency in Calgary, Alberta, and Alberta was the birthplace of the breakaway movement from the Progressive Conservatives, with voters feeling they were too much like 'Liberal Lite' as it is scornfully known here. The Conservatives won all 28 seats in Alberta on Jan. 23, ousting the lone Liberal, McLellan. In Calgary and southern Alberta the Liberals haven't won a single seat since 1968 when they won two, only to lose them in 1972.
While the federal Liberals have often clung to power — or surged to power — claiming only they can keep Quebec in Confederation, and painting various Conservative parties as anti—Quebec bigots and racists — this may now be over. Western Canadians, particularly Albertans, have become increasingly frustrated at the growing centralization of power in Ottawa and the way Liberal federal governments have been using tax dollars to dictate to the provinces.
In an unusual turn of events, it now seems possible a Conservative federal government may be able to offer Quebec much of what it wants with the consent of English Canada, and astonishingly enough, the support of Alberta and British Columbia. As an aside, the complexity of Canadian politics can also be seen in that the most rightwing provincial government in Canada is the provincial 'Liberal' government of Premier Gordon Campbell in British Columbia. Campbell, a former mayor of Vancouver, has been a thorn in the sides of both Chretien and Martin since first coming to power in 2001.
Leaving the Liberals
Aside from the appointment of Fortier, another anomaly in Harper's cabinet is the appearance of former Liberal industry minister David Emerson as the new minister of international trade. Emerson was re—elected in his Vancouver constituency under the Liberal banner on Jan. 23 but to the utter amazement of just about everyone — except Harper and the new prime minister's closest aides — apparently decided in the past week or so to 'cross the floor' and join the Conservatives. A former provincial deputy minister in British Columbia for many years, and a business executive, it was reported he found the 'cut and thrust' of Parliamentary politics and the partisanship of it frustrating as he tried to run the industry portfolio under Martin. Crossing the floor to join another party at any time is a contentious event, but to do so just a week or so after an election is likely unprecedented.
However, while Harper's Conservatives won just 124 out of 308 Parliamentary seats on Jan. 23, the addition of Emerson was obviously welcomed, and there have been rumblings some other Liberal MPs of the Chretien/Martin era who sat on the party's rightwing — or what passes for rightwing in Liberal ranks — and who were only narrowly re—elected against their Conservative opponents — might be considering either supporting Harper in House of Commons votes on his legislative agenda or actually fleeing directly to the Conservative benches.
The Conservative promise to allow all MPs free votes in the House of Commons on any issue not involving the fall of the government contrasts deeply with the Liberal dictate of having to show total loyalty to the prime minister even when, as on questions such as abortion or homosexual marriage, it conflicts with a member's conscience or religious views.
If say 10 or 12 opposition MPs crossed the floor and joined the Conservatives it would mean not just 10 or 12 more votes the Conservatives would have, but 10 or 12 fewer votes for the Liberals, handing the Conservatives, theoretically 20 or 24 extra votes and changing their ghostly—thin minority substantially.
Harper and his new cabinet ministers face formidable political challenges in that each day when Parliament is in session it starts with 'Question Period' in which opposition MPs question the government on policies, programs or problems of the day. Obviously, the Liberals who had held power since 1993 know everything about government operations and have backroom knowledge denied the new administration. They are in a position to embarrass the new cabinet ministers, at last for a time.
It is also known the upper echelons of the federal public service have been politicized by the Liberals. That's unlike Canada's Commonwealth cousins of Britain, Australian and New Zealand where the upper bureaucracy is non—partisan and serves any administration assiduously whichever party is in power.
The Conservatives have to get their legislation passed by the unelected Senate, too, which is overwhelmingly dominated by Liberal appointees. The Senate is made up of 66 Liberals, 23 Conservatives, four old time Progressive Conservatives, five independents, and one socialist New Democrat. It is expected the Liberals in the Senate will try and thwart Harper and his cabinet all down the line — except when they know public support is firmly in favor of a Conservative policy.
Incidentally, the Conservatives are dedicated to reforming the Senate and making it an elected body as in the U.S.
All in all, though, the Conservative election win bodes well for U.S.—Canadian relations in many areas, and for a rebirth of traditional Canadian values in a nation with basically only the same population and economic size of California alone.
Paul Jackson is an award—winning journalist who has spent 40 years covering Canadian, American and world politics for many of Canada's metropolitan daily newspapers. He is now Editor Emeritus of the Calgary Sun, in Calgary, Alberta.