Sunday, January 01, 2006

Northern Exposure: The U.S. Sticks Its Nose Into Canada's January 23 Election

U.S. Envoy's Blast at PM Over Climate Change Remarks Stirs Furor While Opposition Leader Is Forced to Distance Himself From Bush Over Iraq War

By Skeeter Sanders

With the exception of those who live in the northernmost regions of the states that border Canada, Americans pay little to no attention to their neighbors in the "Great White North." Tune into the TV news channels or read a newspaper in this country and you will almost never see or read a major story originating from north of the border.

The last time events in Canada became major front-page headline news in the American media was just over 10 years ago, when Canadians from coast to coast held their collective breath while Quebecers voted in a referendum on independence for the French-speaking province -- the second such referendum in 15 years -- that saw anti-independence voters eke out a razor-thin majority.

Unless you live close to the border and regularly watch and listen to Canadian TV and radio, you probably don't have a clue that Canadians are just three weeks away from going to the polls in a nationwide parliamentary election on January 23. You probably don't even know that Canada's last nationwide election took place just a year and a half ago.

Normally, elections in Canada -- at both the federal and provincial levels -- take place every four years, the same frequency as in the United States. I say "normally," because unlike in the U.S., the four-year cycle is set by political tradition, rather than by law. Under Canada's parliamentary system -- inherited from the British -- incumbent governments can legally stay in office for up to five years before they must face the voters again.

And under normal circumstances, Canadian election campaigns -- which are much shorter than their American counterparts -- contain little of the bitter, nasty negative tactics that have become a plague on politics in this country.

This time, however, there is nothing normal about this campaign. By Canadian standards, this is shaping up as the nastiest campaign ever, falling dangerously close to American standards. And this time, Americans -- at least, those inside the Washington Beltway -- are paying very close attention. Perhaps too close attention.

PM's Remarks on Climate Change Sparks an Angry U.S. Reaction

Tempers flared at the White House last month in reaction to Prime Minister Paul Martin's comments at an international conference on climate change in Montreal, in which he sharply criticized the U.S. and other industrialized nations that refused to sign the Kyoto Treaty to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, which scientists and environmentalists all over the world blame for global warming.

The U.S is the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, with an economically booming China rapidly moving up to second place. "There is such a thing as a global conscience," Martin said at the United Nations-sponsored Conference on Climate Change. "Now is the time to listen to it."

In remarks aimed directly at Washington, Martin declared, "Now's the time to join with others in our global community. Now is the time for resolve, for commitment and leadership and, above all, now is the time for action. Because only by coming together can we make real and lasting progress."

The Bush administration has been steadfast in refusing to commit the U.S. to abide by the Kyoto Treaty, refusing to even acknowledge that global warming exists -- insisting that to comply with Kyoto would damage the U.S. economy.

In Washington, Jim Connaughton, chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, told Frank McKenna, the Canadian ambassador to the U.S., that Martin's comments were "the worst slight" against President Bush since former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany suggested in October that Bush's stance against the Kyoto Treaty was partially responsible for accelerating changes in climactic conditions that ultimately led to Hurricane Katrina.

At the same time, in Ottawa, David Wilkins, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, said Martin risked damaging relations between the two countries by dragging the U.S. into Canada's election campaign. Without mentioning the prime minister by name, Wilkins warned Martin against "scoring cheap political points" against Washington.

"It may be smart election-year politics to thump your chest and criticize your friend and number-one trading partner constantly," Wilkins said, "but it's a slippery slope and all of us should hope that it doesn't have a long-term [negative] impact on our relationship."

But Wilkins then turned around and took a swipe at Canada's own environmental record since Kyoto was ratified in 1990, noting that Canada's level of emissions increased from 1990 to 2003 by 24 percent, while the U.S. level of emissions rose by 13.3 percent in the same period -- even though the U.S. has nearly ten times Canada's population of 30 million.

"I would respectfully submit to you that when it comes to a 'global conscience,' the United States is walking the walk," Wilkins said.

Martin: "I'm Not Going to be Dictated To!"

For his part, Martin declared that he wasn't concerned by what officials in Washington thought about his remarks on the campaign trail. "I am not going to be dictated to as to the subjects I should raise," the prime minister said at a lumber mill in British Columbia.

"When it comes to defending Canadian values, when it comes to standing up for Canadian interests, I'm going to call it as I see it!" Martin said.

The prime minister than ripped into his chief electoral rival, Stephen Harper, leader of the opposition Conservative Party -- which forced the January 23 election by pushing through a no-confidence vote in the House of Commons on November 28, which toppled Martin's minority Liberal Party government.

Martin accused Harper of being too ideologically close to the Bush administration and warned that if Harper became prime minister, he would "always give in" to Washington.

"If the thesis of Mr. Harper is that the only way to have good relations with the United States is to concede everything to the United States, then I do not accept that at all," Martin said. "We do expect our partners to honor our agreements and I will defend Canada -- period."

Even Harper said he thought Ambassador Wilkins' remarks were "inappropriate" and accused him of "interfering" with Canada's election. "I understand that the ambassador is concerned about our relationship," Harper said, "but there's inevitably going to be a dialog on that relationship among the parties during an election campaign."

The Liberals, who have governed Canada for most of the country's 138-year history -- and continuously since 1993 -- lost their parliamentary majority in the last election in 2004, but remained in power by forming an uneasy partnership with the more left-leaning New Democratic Party, headed by Jack Layton.

That partnership collapsed when Layton's party joined the Conservatives and the separatist Bloc Quebecois in voting no confidence in Martin's government.

Harper Denies He's a "Poster Boy" for Bush

Meanwhile, Harper found himself having to keep his distance from the Bush administration, asserting that his positions on many issues differ from those of the president and other American conservatives.

In a letter to the editor of The Washington Times, Harper complained that a December 2 op-ed column in the conservative daily characterizing him as "pro-free trade, pro-Iraq War, anti-Kyoto and socially conservative" was an "oversimplification" of his positions.

In his column, titled "Gift from Canada?," Patrick Basham of the Cato Institute, a conservative American think tank, wrote, "Move over, Tony Blair. If elected, Mr. Harper will quickly become Mr. Bush's new best friend internationally and the poster boy for his ideal foreign leader."

Basham's column set off a political and media firestorm in Ottawa, forcing a quick response from Harper.

In his December 8 letter to the Times, Harper wrote that while he supports free trade, Canada would expand its trade relationships with Asian countries, including China, if the United States did not pay some $5 billion in penalties slapped on Washington in a four-year-old trade dispute between the two countries over Canadian softwood lumber exports to the U.S.

Washington has had punitive tariffs on the lumber in place since 2001, claiming that Canada was unfairly "dumping" cheaper lumber onto the U.S. market. The tariffs have been repeatedly declared by NAFTA arbitrators -- and by Canadian courts -- as illegal under the North American Free Trade Agreement. But the Bush administration has steadfastly refused to remove them.

The dispute could ultimately go to the World Trade Organization, which has the power to impose economic sanctions against the U.S. if it also determines the tariffs are illegal.

On the war in Iraq, Harper wrote that he supported the removal of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and applauded "the efforts to establish democracy and freedom" in that country, but flatly ruled out sending Canadian troops there and added his "great disappointment" with the Americans' apparent failure to substantiate pre-war intelligence regarding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

In an open break with American conservatives on the highly emotional issue of abortion, Harper pledged that he would not initiate or support any effort in Parliament to pass legislation restricting abortion in Canada.

On the equally volatile issue of same-sex marriage, on the other hand, Harper vowed to press for a parliamentary vote to reinstate the "traditional" definition of marriage as that between a man and a woman, despite court rulings that such a definition illegally discriminated against gay and lesbian couples under the Canadian Constitution's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Harper nonetheless insisted that the more than 5,000 gay and lesbian couples who have tied the knot since same-sex marriage was legalized would continue to be recognized as legally wed. Unlike the U.S., where the 50 states individually have jurisdiction over marriage, in Canada, the federal government has sole jurisdiction.

Bush Deeply Unpopular North of the Border

Martin's verbal jousting with Washington is playing well with Canadians. Bush is the most deeply unpopular American president in Canadian history, with opinion polls showing an overwhelming 80 percent of Canadians holding a negative opinion of Bush and his policies -- especially over the war in Iraq.

The Liberals are holding a narrow lead over the Conservatives in most national pre-election opinion polls, despite a corruption scandal that's been a drag on the governing party, especially in Quebec -- the prime minister's home province -- where the Liberals' main rival is the Bloc Quebecois.

A recent poll in Quebec showed the separatist Bloc, led by Gilles Duceppe, leading the Liberals 51 percent to 38 percent -- the first time ever that a pro-independence party at either the federal level (the Bloc) or the provincial level (the more hard-line Parti Quebecois) has garnered the support of more than 50 percent of Quebecers.

As in Ottawa, the provincial Liberal Party governs in Quebec City -- and are just as unpopular as their federal cousins. But unlike Martin's party, the Quebec Liberal government of Premier Jean Charest (Ironically, a former federal Conservative Party leader) enjoys a healthy majority in the Quebec legislature and doesn't have to square off against the PQ in the next provincial election until the spring of 2008 at the latest.

A Dilemma for Harper

After 12 unbroken years in power, the federal Liberals would, under normal political circumstances, be ripe for electoral defeat -- and history is not on the Liberals' side. No party in Canadian history has ever won five consecutive federal elections.

But with the colossus to the south -- and the fact that Harper has become the darling of American conservatives -- a major campaign issue, Harper's Conservatives are far from assured of victory. Indeed, barring a late Conservative surge in the final days of the campaign, Canadians are likely to elect another Liberal minority government -- perhaps even more dependent on the New Democrats to cling to power.

The Conservatives were poised to win the 2004 election, only to see their chances evaporate after a Conservative candidate in British Columbia made highly inflammatory remarks against gays in a blistering attack on same-sex marriage just three days before the voting.

No wonder Harper felt compelled to distance himself from Bush and American conservatives. The last thing Harper needs is to be perceived by the voters as a political or ideological clone of Bush. Such a perception would all but doom his chances of becoming Canada's first Conservative prime minister in 12 years -- and only the fourth in the last half-century.

And Harper's got enough problems mollifying Canadians who are angry at him in the first place for forcing an election campaign at the height of the holiday season -- something that hasn't happened in Canada in a half-century, either.

It's a heck of a way to start the new year, eh?


Volume I, Number 5
Copyright 2006, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.

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