Thursday, December 22, 2005

Canada's Referendum

Edit: I hadn't realized that Mr. Wells was a reader! He wrote an extra-friendly note to my last piece on Canadian politics, and I wrote a friendly response back. Feel free to read them.

Oh, and by the way... Mr Wells?

Chris Dornan had Maclean's nailed- the Svend cover was ludicrous, and the shift in the magazine's tone under Whyte is bizarre, considering the rank failure that was his stewardship of the National Post.

I realize that you have a job to do, and I'm sure nobody begrudges you that, but c'mon... "Canada should sell its water to the Americans before they steal it"?

You gotta be kidding.

I criticized Paul Wells a little while ago for his misrepresentation of Paul Martin's positions and his seeming personal dislike of Martin. I haven't changed in that opinion, but I do think that an article he wrote claiming that "this election is about Stephen Harper, and whether he'll be trusted to lead" provides a useful jumping-off point for an idea that both Canadians and Americans should consider:

Canada's election is, primarily, about George W. Bush.

Leave aside, for the moment, the issue of Canadian unity. The main points of contention are protection of the social safety net, the Conservatives' social conservatism, and Canadian sovereignty in its foreign policy. The main reason why Mr. Harper is attacked as being out of the mainstream is his views on these three broad issues: they see him as disdainful of social welfare, backed by hardcore social conservatives, and supporting tight fiscal and strategic integration with the United States.

Yet, for all three of these issues, the basic idea is similar: Harper wants to make Canada more American, and less European. Harper and the other conservatives insist that they are not stealthy Republicans and aren't THAT conservative, but they're still derided as "scary".

Scary? Harper isn't scary, not in-and-of himself. He's a policy wonk who never learned how not to look wooden on television. What makes him scary is that the a significant plurality (if not a majority) of Canadians absolutely, positively, and viscerally LOATHE George W. Bush, and everything that he represents.

This is not due to envy, as Republicans seem to believe--few Canadians envy American political and popular culture, but simply appropriate what they like about it and jettison the rest, just as the rest of the world does--but simply because he represents a part of Americana that is almost entirely unexportable, because it relies on a religiosity that doesn't exist in Canada and a neo-conservative sense of American mission that, by definition, almost any outsider doesn't share. Americans themselves? Like many non-Americans, Canadians regard the vast majority with fondness. Not identification, but fondness.

Canadians don't like Bush or what he represents, but they have an advantage over those Americans who don't: they have that big beautiful border, protecting them from his follies. It's not just a geographical line, but a policy-based one- as long as Canada is different, that line keeps them independent. It kept them from going to Iraq, it kept them from domination by the religious right, it kept them from the attempted gutting of social security, it kept them from the Department of Homeland Security... the more that Bush has screwed up, the better that line on the map looks.

Thus, Harper's woes. It's not just about whether or not the policies he espouses would be good for Canada. It's about that line, and whether or not the policies would make that line fade or disappear. Paul Martin's anti-American tirades are code for "I'll keep that line sharp and safe", which (since it's the most important issue in American politics) is also code for "I'll keep your friends and family from bleeding to death on the streets of Baghdad". He pledges that as long as he is Prime Minister, George W. Bush and the Other that he represents will be kept down where they belong, until whatever the hell caused the American people to actually vote for the man dissipates or burns itself out.

So, to a certain extent, this isn't about Harper. It's about W. The worse Bush looks, the more important that line becomes, and the easier it is for Martin to ride these fears to victory. Harper cannot retain his policies and also allay these fears. His talk about standing up to the United States is immaterial, because his policies would make Canada more like the United States, and thus blur the border. The best he can do is show that Martin would blur it as well, which is why the Conservatives have been trying so hard to paint Martin as a fair-weather nationalist. Jack Layton's NDP is doing much the same thing, because they also can't credibly claim to be able to defend the line: they don't have the power, and won't have the power.

The only two provinces that don't really care about this are Alberta and Quebec. Quebec, because it will be distinct from the rest of English-speaking North America no matter what its policies are. Alberta, because the conservative political movers-and-shakers there are just fine with Republicans and Republicanism, and see the blurring of the line as a feature, not a bug.

(In fact, it is this that is Harper's biggest millstone: Ontarians and Albertans have a deep distrust of one another, at least partially due to this issue. It is Ontario, however, that Stephen Harper--the self-identified conservative Albertan--needs to win.)

It is unfortunate, but events down south will almost certainly have an effect up in Canada. It won't be easily measured, and as an intervening variable, it will likely not show up on any poll... but it will have an effect nonetheless. Harper is running against two men, and judging by the latest news, Bush is likely to remain a serious, serious problem.

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