Is Canada Slowly Going American?

Within the next year or so, Canada could elect its most pro-American leader in memory. In the first part of a two-stage electoral transition, this week the Conservative Party, led by free market economist Stephen Harper, reduced Prime Minister Paul Martin’s all-powerful Liberal Party to minority government status. After governing Canada without serious challenge for the past 11 years, the Liberals replaced long-time leader Jean Chretien with Martin late last year. During the 1990s, the Chretien government was ideologically compatible with the Clinton administration. During the 2000 presidential race, the Canadian ambassador to Washington undiplomatically voiced support for Al Gore’s candidacy. From 2001 onwards, the Chretien government did little to hide its antipathy to the Bush administration’s nominally conservative policy prescriptions. On one occasion, a senior Chretien aide referred to President Bush as “a moron.” Chretien, himself, privately regaled fellow Liberal legislators with jokes at President Bush’s personal expense. Chretien’s initial response to the events of September 11, 2001, was viewed as underwhelming, particular in contrast to Britain’s Tony Blair. President Bush subsequently excluded Canada from the list of countries he thanked during his September 20, 2001, speech to Congress. Chretien also disagreed with Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. Chretien’s position mirrored the sentiments of most Canadians and, today, an even greater number are pleased that Canada stayed out of the Iraq war. However, Stephen Harper rhetorically trod the Blairite path in support of the president’s decision to remove Saddam Hussein. As leader of the new Conservative Party — the product of a merger between the ideologically squishy Progressive Conservative (PC) party and Harper’s larger, more ideologically robust Canadian Alliance party — Harper has unapologetically pledged closer ties with the United States. For Harper, an improvement in Canada-U.S. relations is not simply a pragmatic concern driven by the importance of north-south trade. Rather, it constitutes an opportunity for Canada to be a more reliable ally, a better friend, both rhetorically and substantively. He seeks to alter Canada’s legendary invisibility in political Washington. Harper would significantly increase Canadian defense spending, elevate the Canadian ambassador to Washington to cabinet status, and form a U.S.-Canada customs union. The Liberal campaign centered on hyperbolic attacks at Harper’s support for tax cuts. Martin implied lower taxes were un-Canadian and disingenuously claimed that leaving more money in taxpayers’ pockets would usher in an American-style state of nature where Canada’s poor, elderly, and sick are left to fend for themselves. While neither American conservatives nor libertarians would recognize the American polity as she is so frequently and erroneously described beyond her borders, such nationalistic appeals are notoriously effective. After all, the average Canadian has always defined himself in negative terms, i.e., in terms of “not being American.” Surprisingly, Harper was injured, but not fatally, by the Liberal charge that he was too pro-American. Historically, the Liberal Party has done well in national elections based in part on its fondness for playing the anti-American card. But the 2004 campaign was a little different. The difference reflects, in part, the Liberal government’s own credibility problems stemming from a litany of political corruption scandals. It also reflects a gradual evolution of the Canadian electorate’s attitudes and values. Today, Canadians look more kindly on free trade, economic competition, and wealth creation than in the past, while they are somewhat more skeptical of big government solutions to social and economic problems. In truth, Canadians more closely resemble Americans than they used to. Harper’s campaign exploited this opening to good effect with promises to cut taxes, limit increases in government spending, end corporate welfare, and withdraw Canada from the Kyoto accord on climate change. He also proposed to attack Canada’s democratic deficit with an elected Senate, fixed election dates, referenda, and a more decentralized federation. Harper is a rarity among national Canadian leaders. A genuine policy wonk, he has reflected long and hard about the role of government in society. In most areas, he recognizes that less, rather than more, government is the better option. Coming 15 years after Harper helped to lead a grassroots exodus away from the last PC government to a new small-c conservative party, his party’s solid showing serves as a neighborly reminder that adherence to principle can pay off electorally. Today, the Conservatives are politically relevant and are nicely poised to exploit the inevitable traumas that will befall a Liberal minority government dependent upon the left-wing New Democratic Party for political survival. Occurring so close to home, is it too much to hope that Stephen Harper’s achievement will also embolden President Bush’s past commitment to limited government?