February 17, 2006
Canada's Foreign Policy Turning Pro-AmericanBy Paul Jackson
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has forcefully made clear his pledge to improve relations with the United States by appointing a pro—American business executive and former Conservative politician as the country's new ambassador to Washington and firing the nation's Liberal—Leftist ambassador to the United Nations and replacing him with a non—partisan career diplomat.
'Strong Canada—U.S. relations are a priority for my government,' said Harper in announcing Wilson's appointment, and the change at the UN.
Wilson was both finance minister and international trade minister in Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's 1984—1993 pro—American government and a chief architect of the free trade pact between the two nations. Under the pact, more than 80% of Canada's world exports are now sold to the U.S., and one out of four Canadian jobs depends directly on those exports.
One of Wilson's first public comments after his appointment was confirmed was that he 'knows his way around Washington' and that since relations between the two nations have been 'rocky in the past' there is clearly a need for improvement with a 'proper tone.'
No one doubts that at all.
Former Liberal prime ministers Jean Chretien and Paul Martin angered the Bush administration with their policies and anti—American vitriol, both by themselves and by their senior aides. It's been a long time since a Canadian prime minister and ambassador to Washington spoke so positively and optimistically about the Canadian—American relationship and where it is going.
Wilson grew up in Toronto's upper class Rosedale district and went to the nation's most prestigious private school, Upper Canada College. He became a Bay Street stockbroker — Bay Street is Canada's equivalent of Wall Street — and then spent 14 years in the House of Commons as a Progressive Conservative Member of Parliament. He was on close terms with many in President Ronald Reagan's government, particularly Secretary Treasure James Baker. He knows George H.W. Bush well, but has never met George W. Bush.
There will also be a sea change in Canada's stance at the UN.
As an example, during the Chretien/Martin years the Liberal government backed 78 anti—Israeli resolutions put before the assembly by Arab Sheikdoms and their allies and quietly abstained on another 35 anti—Israeli votes. The Conservatives tend to be very pro—Israel.
Communist China is Canada's biggest foreign aid recipient, even though it has made multi—billion dollar bids for Canadian companies. Again, the tendency of Conservatives is to support Taiwan. In the whole, Canada is now likely to support U.S. initiatives in the UN, unless those initiatives would be counter to specific Canadian interests.
Rock was both justice minister and health minister in the Liberal government of Chretien. He is most infamous in Canada for putting into law a gun registry he said would curb crime and cost only $25 million (Cdn.). The cost has now ballooned to $2 billion (Cdn.), an enormous sum considering Canada's population and economy is about as large as that of California. Farmers and hunters claim they have been made to feel like criminals in having to register their rifles, while other critics charge not a single criminal has ever gone to a police station to register their gun. Statistics show that gun crimes have actually skyrocketed since the gun registry was set up.
The Conservatives plan to dismantle Rock's gun registry and use the money for workable law enforcement programs.
Strangely, after the Jan. 23 election, Rock proclaimed he hoped to keep his UN ambassadorship under the Conservatives. Considering he was one of the most Liberal—Left cabinet ministers and openly taunted Conservative values and policies it's hard to see how he could even vaguely hope this possible. He was also a proponent of using 'soft power' — diplomacy — rather than hard power — the military or sanctions — to being rogue nations to the table and understanding.
Wilson, now 68, as finance minister, was the architect of Canada's widespread federal sales tax — the Goods and Services Tax (GST) — that is largely credited with destroying Mulroney's government in 1993. The 7% tax on virtually all goods and services replaced the selective hidden Manufacturers' Sales Tax (MST) that had crept up to 13.5% under Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Mulroney and Wilson's theories were the MST hindered Canadian manufacturers in selling their products abroad, and that a wider, but smaller, and open sales tax would level the field and let Canadians realize the true taxes they were paying. It could also never be secretly raised as was the MST.
But the two were never able to sell the idea to the public, and Mulroney resigned prior to the 1993 federal election when his government fell from a hefty majority status to just two seats in Parliament. The Liberals had promised to abolish the tax when they won power, but never did. Coincidentally, Harper's government plans to cut the GST to 5% from 7%. That plank was a major factor in allowing them to win the Jan. 23 election.
Wilson, now 68, once took a run for the old Progressive Conservative leadership but finally handed his delegates over to Mulroney. After leaving politics in 1993, he returned to Bay Street, eventually taking on the chairmanship of UBS Canada, subsidiary of the Swiss—based UBS GA, an international investment banking and asset management group.
He faces six main challenges in his new position, with most, even all, of them being easily met:
Both he and the prime minister must build friendly personal relationships with Bush and his cabinet members. Chretien and Martin seemed to almost purposely antagonize the president and his administration at every touch and turn. Since most Canadians regard Americans as friendly neighbors, the Chretien/Martin strategy was hard to understand. It's often said Mulroney was so close to Reagan and Bush. Sr. he could get concessions for Canada at the snap of a finger. Harper, fighting slurs he would be putty in the hands of Washington, will likely try to be more discreet in his relationship with Bush, but Washington will know why, and understand, and try to show Canadians the new relationship is paying off for them.
Washington has constantly urged Canada to rebuild its armed forces and tenaciously upgrade its security network against terrorism. Canada, with the second largest land area in the world after Communist China, spends less of its GNP on defence than any other NATO country except the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. With only 60,000 members, the Canadian armed forces have only 20,000 combat troops, many of them without equipment. Harper has already vowed to increase Canada's military budget of $13 billion (Cdn) by $5 billion over the next several years. A Canadian dollar is worth 85—cents U.S.
On national security, Harper has already appointed rightwing Member of Parliament Stockwell Day as Minister of Public Safety, the equivalent of the Secretary of Homeland Security in the U.S. Under the Liberals, the Public Security portfolio was a hip—pocket affair; now it has full cabinet status.
Bush was furious not only when the Liberals declined to join the missile defence shield, but because Martin kept hinting he would sign on, but then at the last minute backed out, and didn't even tell Bush face—to—face of his decision. Washington found out from newspaper reports. Harper will likely allow a free vote in the House of Commons on whether to join.
Harper and Wilson would make huge gains in popularity, and prove newer, friendly relations with the U.S. bring benefits, if the softwood lumber export controversy could be quickly solved. Canadian lumber companies have about one—third of the softwood lumber business in the U.S., and Washington has imposed a 10%import duty on Canadian lumber because U.S. companies claim Canadian lumber is unfairly subsidized by low stumpage fees on government forestry land. So far, the penalties collected by Washington have reached $4 billion (U.S.) and the issue festers by the day.
While the U.S. Coalition for Fair Lumber Imports claim Canadian softwood prices for timber are 70% below those of American timber, U.S. home builders insist Canadian imports keep the cost of new homes down. Home builders in the U.S. also say the domestic industry alone can't meet their needs by any measure. A quick negotiated solution to the dispute — even a 50/50 split — would ease one of the rawest issues between the two nations. A 75/25 split for Canada would do so dramatically.
A smaller thorny issue is the U.S. continually rejects Canada's claim of sovereignty over parts of the High Arctic and the Northwest Passage. Harper plans to build armed ice breakers and station troops there to make a point about Canada's sovereignty. Some believe the Northwest Passage could one day become even more important than the Panama Canal as a trade route. A hopeful sign is Washington has at times quietly hinted it might respect Canada's contentions if it joined the U.S. in establishing a North American border security perimeter. This would also boost Washington's standing in Canada — and Harper's, too.
The past several years have been a frustrating and bitter time for the U.S. in dealing with Canada, and for Canadian Conservatives and other pro—American Canadians. Indeed, it's hard to recall a time when relations between the two nations were lower.
Chretien once suggested the U.S. provoked the 9/11 terrorist attacks on itself because of America's 'wealth, greed and power.' One of his senior aides publicly called Bush a 'moron.' During the 2000 president election campaign, Chretien's nephew, Raymond Chretien, then ambassador to Washington, let it be known his Liberal government favored Democrat Al Gore over Bush.
Amongst other incidents that upset Washington were Liberal MP Carolyn Parish's comment, 'Americans! I hate the bastards!' and her calling Bush's allies a 'coalition of idiots' Martin never rebuked Parrish for the comments. During the 2004 presidential election campaign a number of Liberal cabinet ministers and senators openly supported John Kerry over Bush.
McKenna, a former Liberal premier of New Brunswick, resigned almost immediately after Harper's Conservatives won minority power on Jan. 23. McKenna had complained the U.S. system of government was 'dysfunctional' because of its checks and balances on presidential power. Coincidentally, Harper's Conservatives intend to incorporate many of those 'checks and balances' into Canada's Parliamentary system, including cutting back the absolute power of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), giving more power to bi—partisan Parliamentary committees, and allowing free votes in the House of Commons on any issue that would not mean the defeat of the government.
For instance, currently there is no nomination or vetting procedure for appointments to the Supreme Court of Canada. The prime minister alone selects justices. In the House of Commons, government MPs — especially Liberals members — are always expected to toe the government line on all issues.
Somewhat out of character, the usually straight—laced Wilson — straight—laced but with personal charm — is a friend of Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, whom he met in the Caribbean while on vacation in 1989. The two found that, coincidentally they had both attended the London School of Economics in the 1960s. Jagger, though, dropped out within a year finding it boring. Wilson threw a party in Toronto for Jagger and his group on one of their Canadian tours. 'I keep this under wraps,' Wilson once said jokingly when asked about the friendship.
On a less amusing note, Wilson suffered a personal tragedy when, in 1995, his 29—year—old son committed suicide after battling depression for years. Wilson, grief—stricken, began non—stop campaigns to raise money and larger government budgets for programs for the mentally ill.
Praise for Wilson's appointment came from many quarters — the strangest from interim Liberal leader and former Liberal —again 'soft power' —defence and foreign affairs minister Bill Graham who said the selection was positive and welcome.
It's perhaps indicative Harper's chief advisor on his government transition team is Derek Burney, former Chief of Staff to Mulroney and also a former ambassador to Washington under Mulroney. Burney, like Allan Gotlieb, another ambassador to Washington under Mulroney, have both been longing for a return to the days when friendship between the two nations was active and cooperative. Even President Bill Clinton's ambassador to Canada, James Blanchard, has bemoaned the low state of relations of late between the two countries. Now that happier era is again on the horizon. Perhaps even in high gear.
Certainly, current American Ambassador to Canada, David Wilkins will be a much happier man, and his predecessor, former Massachusetts governor Paul Cellucci, who fought so hard to have Canada pull its weight on defence and national security issues, will breathe a sigh of relief.
Paul Jackson is a veteran, award—winning political journalist who has covered Canadian, American and world politics for several major daily metropolitan Canadian newspapers for 40 years. He is now Editor Emeritus of the Calgary Sun, in Calgary, Alberta