Canadian politics is often said to be boring. Maybe this widespread American belief can be set down to the fact that Canada is America’s least-threatening neighbor. When Mexico, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Cuba are your other neighbors, then Canada is bound to seem like the nation-state equivalent of a maiden aunt–prissy and disapproving but no real trouble.
There is something in this, but it is not the whole story. In 1945 Canada was the world’s fourth-largest military power. Its soldiers, sailors, and airmen had played a major part on D-Day and in finally defeating Nazi Germany. And its national image was that of a tough, self-reliant, stand-up guy whom you would like on your side in a barroom brawl.
From 1945 to the present, the history and changing national image of Canada were brilliantly summed up in the Monty Python song that begins “I’m a lumberjack and I’m okay” and gradually develops into “I put on women’s clothing and hang around in bars.” In other words, not necessarily someone you would like on your side in a barroom brawl.
This new Canada was the child of Pierre Trudeau and the Canadian Liberal party. As the sprawling octopus of the government in power for most of the postwar period, they remade Canada in their own image: left-liberal in politics, tightly regulated in economics, welfarist in social policy, officially bilingual and multicultural as regards national identity, allied to the United Nations and the third world in foreign policy, and therefore self-consciously different from (and sometimes even hostile to) the U.S.
In one significant respect, however, the new Trudeaupian Canadians imitated America: They ditched their British-style parliamentary constitution and introduced an American constitution with both a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, broader and more collectivist than America’s Bill of Rights, and a U.S.-style Supreme Court to adjudicate and enforce it. By making the courts the all-but-final political authority, the Liberals were hoping to ensure that like-minded judges could continue to impose Trudeaupian liberal policies on Canada even during the brief intervals when they were out of office.
Such an interval may just be about to occur. Canada is holding a federal election next Monday, and most opinion polls show a lead of around 10-12 percent for the opposition Conservative party. In Canada’s multiparty system, that might not ensure a majority for the Tories. The opinion scores for the three main national parties–40 percent for the CPD, 30 percent for the ruling Liberals, and 16 percent for the left-wing National Democratic party–could produce a range of results. But there is a strong prospect of a minority Tory government, and a lesser but real chance of an outright majority one.
“I’m a Scary Conservative with a Hidden Agenda” The Liberals are going into overdrive to prevent this–hurling a series of charges against the rising Tories. Their all-purpose portmanteau slander is that the Tories are a sinister force and are secretly planning a series of radical attacks on Canada’s current multicultural-welfare state. My distinguished columnar colleague, Mark Steyn, parodies this critique by offering Canadian visitors to his website t-shirts that read: “I’m a Scary Conservative with a Hidden Agenda.” But the Liberals have outdone even Mr. Steyn’s satire. Their latest television ad warned that the Tories intended to deploy the Canadian armed forces in urban areas, implying that they would be used not to help in Katrina-style emergencies but to impose martial law. This invited a raucous response from, among others, the Canadian military: “Where would we get the soldiers? Where would we get the guns?” asked one officer, who asked not to be named [by Canada’s National Post.] “Haven’t these guys been reading their own policies?” The ad was quickly withdrawn amid Liberal embarrassment. A Liberal flunkey remarked that “some idiot” had approved it. The Liberals’ embarrassment deepened when it became known that the “idiot” in question was the prime minister, Paul Martin.
The next Liberal tactic was to exploit Canada’s rich vein of anti-Americanism. Martin picked up a favorable reference by the Tory leader, Stephen Harper, to American conservatives–and proceeded to embroider it darkly: “That’s what Stephen Harper means when he says it’s time for a change in Canada. Well, let me tell you something, Mr. Harper. That’s not the kind of change that Canadians want. America is our neighbor. It is not our nation.” Martin also picked a silly quarrel with the U.S. ambassador in order to be seen “standing up” to the U.S.
Such posturing has left the voters unimpressed. They know Martin doesn’t really mean it since his and previous Liberal governments have happily cooperated with the U.S. on serious matters such as defense and cross-border trade. They also think it would be a bad thing if Martin did mean it since it might alienate Canada’s largest trading partner–especially since the first faint signs of American irritation at these pinpricks have been lately observed.
As defeat has loomed, Martin’s Liberal party has unleashed a third and more interesting attack–that Harper and the Tories might one day use the “notwithstanding” clause of the Canadian constitution that allows parliament in the last resort to overrule the Supreme Court by exempting a law from its constitutional review. Martin promises to abolish the clause in order to protect such recent judge-made law as same-sex marriage.
The issue is certainly important. Removing the notwithstanding clause would make the Supreme Court the sovereign political authority in Canada, outside the control of the voters. It would then be impossible for an elected government to repeal any Liberal policy of which the courts approved. Democracy would be replaced by judgeocracy.
It is usually hard to get the voters to pay regard to such apparently theoretical risks. On this occasion, however, a report commissioned by Ottawa has just pointed out, with exquisitely bad timing, that the courts might well interpret the Charter rules on marriage so as to legalize polygamy. Without a notwithstanding clause, no Canadian government could prevent such legalization. It is now the Liberals’ turn to look “scary.”
At any rate, whatever the reason, their campaign of scares is visibly failing today. The Liberals, still reeling from a massive financial scandal of influence-buying in Quebec, are simply not a credible source for scares–at least about other people. The voters–who last year were frightened away from voting Tory by a similar last-minute scare campaign–have had twelve months to become accustomed to the possibility of a Tory majority. It looks a good deal less “scary” than legalized polygamy.
Above all, the Tory leader, Stephen Harper, is not a very good candidate for demonization. He is a cerebral politician who has kept cool under the Liberal onslaught. He has fought a controlled campaign on a distinctly moderate conservative manifesto.
Too moderate, some would say, since the Tory manifesto concentrates on cleaning up government after the Liberal scandals, offers only modest tax cuts, is willing to offer the U.S. a “free vote” in parliament on joining a missile defense system (rather than supporting it outright), and proposes raft after raft of government assistance programs rather than a smaller state.
That said, the Tories also propose to rebuild Canada’s shrunken military, to retain the democratic safeguard of the notwithstanding clause, to strengthen border security against terrorists, to advance Canada’s interests by better relations with the U.S. rather than by pointless insults, and in general to revive the more vigorous Canada that existed before Trudeau.
Harper’s moderation is a recognition that the Canadians have become accustomed to the easy chair of subsidies and regulation. He knows that massive change would be rejected. So he is inviting modern Canada to take the first small steps back to economic independence, self-reliance, and national pride–perhaps with more to follow as the patient grows stronger.
But is there still a lumberjack under all that mascara?