What’s going on in Ottawa now .. while ho-hum and quiet revolutions breed across the land?

Apr 27th, 2007 | By | Category: Ottawa Scene

Two new polls on federal party standings have confirmed recent instincts about the essential dead-calm in the cross-Canada political mood. Another election soon would probably just put the same people back in the same seats as last year’s election. And that may definitively banish all further fevered election speculation at least until the fall. What this means for the ongoing fine art of minority-governing the Canadian federation remains misty. The Harper Conservative cabinet’s Afghanistan mission is out of step with public opinion, but survives in Parliament thanks to the NDP. The Dion Liberals are still struggling. The Bloc Quebecois is supporting the Conservatives’ election date bill. Senate reform or even the Governor General loom as sidebars. Beyond Ottawa BC looks to California on the environment. Newfoundland wants to be master in its own house, just like Quebec in the 1960s. But not to worry. Things are even worse in other parts of the global village right now.

Federal party struggle going nowhere?

Just over a month ago [March 2021, 2007] the Strategic Counsel polling enterprise had Conservatives at 39%, Liberals 31%, NDP 13%, Green Party 9%, and Bloc Quebecois 8%. By April 2124 this had changed to Conservatives 36%, Liberals 30%, NDP 13%, Green Party 12%, and Bloc Quebecois 9% – which for Conservatives and Liberals is the same result as the January 23, 2006 federal election.

To thicken the plot here, a Decima poll covering the period April 1921, 2007 had just put the Conservatives at a mere 30%, the Liberals 29%, the NDP 18%, the Green Party 11%, and the Bloc Quebecois 8%. A parallel “Decima survey four weeks ago had the Tories at 39 per cent, but two intervening polls put them at 34 per cent.”

All this does suggest that “Canada’s new government” has lost the momentum it seemed to enjoy right after its clever Liberal-look-alike federal budget on March 19. Even before the latest polls Barbara Yaffe at the Vancouver Sun reported on a weekend dinner where “several west side Vancouverites” dug into the question: “Why can’t Stephen Harper and his party nudge polling numbers to a point where a majority government is within their reach?” Maybe it’s because the aggressive Conservative TV attack ads against Liberal leader Stephane Dion have reinforced “the impression of Harper as mean-spirited”? And because Harper’s recent “flexibility” on the budget (and the environment) may have actually heightened “fears about a Harper majority government. What does the guy really stand for? Would he be a hard-core right-winger if he had enough Commons seats to govern as he alone wished?”

Susan Delacourt at the Toronto Star has pondered the same question in the harsh light of the latest Decima poll. And she puts a finger on those “critics” who detect “a tendency to dishonest coverup by the Conservative government” – especially on the two tricky issues of the Afghanistan mission and the environmentalist holy grail of the Kyoto Accord. Some critics in the House at Ottawa have actually been “accusing ministers of lying – not once, but repeatedly.” And even “by the standards of this raucous minority Parliament, that’s rare.”

Meanwhile, Jane Taber at the Globe and Mail has been exploring the “continuing questions about Mr. Dion’s leadership” of the Liberal Party of Canada. These “questions began almost the minute he won the leadership in December: Is his English good enough? What is his main message? The environment? Law and order? The economy? … In the nearly five months since the convention the complaints have grown to include a lack of consultation with MPs, not enough emphasis on party renewal and dissatisfaction with … the Opposition Leader’s Office.”

Finally, just to show that Conservatives are not the only Ottawa politicians who may or may not have problems with environmental policy, the Angus Reid polling organization has just reported that: “Few Canadians are satisfied with a recent agreement between Stphane Dion and [Green Party leader] Elizabeth May … 45 per cent of respondents disapprove of the Liberal leader and the Green leader’s pact to not run candidates in each other’s ridings in the next federal election” (and only 29% approve).

Shaky consensus on Canada’s Afghanistan mission unraveling again?

According to Thomas Walkom at the Toronto Star, the April 24 “vote in the Commons on a Liberal motion to have the government wrap up combat operations in southern Afghanistan’ by February 2009” showed that “Canada’s soldiers may be happy to fight on indefinitely in that country. But a clear majority of elected MPs are not. They want the troops home.”

Yet the practical political point for the moment remains, as Mr. Walkom also noted, that: “Thanks to Jack Layton’s anti-war New Democrats – who, for their own baffling reasons, chose to vote with the governing Conservatives – the Liberal motion lost.” And this may reveal as well the deepest secrets of the scene in Ottawa right now.

Harper’s Conservatives may not be very likely at all to win a majority of the 308 seats in the Canadian House of Commons in any fresh federal election soon. And they may not be able to pass certain kinds of legislation that they otherwise would like. (See below for more on Senate reform, e.g.) But beyond this their minority government seems rather secure for the time being. (The Toronto Star published an article on April 28 provocatively headlined “Liberals ponder forcing election” – the contents of which only show how absurd that prospect is, for the moment at any rate, again.)

Meanwhile, much agonized debate about Afghanistan may continue to flare up. Conceivably, the defence minister may finally have to resign (though who would replace him?). And Harper will almost certainly be vulnerable on this front in the next election. But the Liberals themselves are not united on the issue. And Jack Layton’s NDP has now done something about Canada’s Afghanistan policy that many of its own supporters find difficult to understand.

How serious is the environment … and other issues …?

On April 26 John Baird wheeled out the latest Conservative stab at an environmental policy that enough strategic cross-Canada voters will like – without upsetting too many special interests in the Alberta oil industry or the Ontario auto sector. If you looked at the reports on TV you can be pardoned for being mostly confused by yet another sea of improbable-sounding numbers and grating political hyperbole. The question of just how many of the peoples’ votes there actually are in this particular pond on election day remains – despite what the polls say now about how some kind of action on environmental policy really is what most people say they want.

Meanwhile, Gordon Campbell’s government in Victoria has announced that British Columbia “will be the first Canadian province to join an emerging international system to fight global warming by creating a carbon trading market that lets polluters buy carbon credits’ from cleaner and greener companies … The province is joining five US western states” that have “formed a bloc, first proposed by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger” to “set aggressive targets for greenhouse gas emissions in California, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Arizona.”

Governor Schwarzenegger is also “hoping to enlist four or five’ other Canadian provinces to join the carbon-trading bloc – now closing in on a population of 60 million people – when he visits Canada in May, ” according to an advisor. And an announcement will apparently “also be made in the next few days that some of Australia’s states will join.”

For the time being, both the Ontario and Alberta provincial governments seem most concerned about how Mr. Harper’s proposed Canadian federal emission-reduction targets will be affecting the Canadian auto sector and the Canadian oil industry. Other provinces have other concerns about other public policy files and fields.

E.g.: “The lion’s share of regional benefits from upcoming Canadian military aerospace contracts should go to Quebec companies,” according to Robert Brown, CEO of Montreal-based CAE Inc., in line with Quebec’s current “60 per cent share of Canadian aerospace production.”

And: “Borrowing a rallying cry from Quebec’s Quiet Revolution [of the 1960s], Premier Danny Williams invoked a strongly nationalist theme in a throne speech … that suggested Newfoundlanders want to be masters of our own house.'” Premier Williams “insisted he wasn’t attempting to fan the flames of sovereignty … I don’t mean this in any separatist way … we are all strong nationalists and we’re proud Canadians … Political self-reliance simply means that we cannot rely upon those elected to offices outside of this province to deliver what is in our own best interest. We must achieve that on our own.'” Mmmm …

What is “democratic reform”… fixed election date … Senate reform … even the office of Governor General?

Some still say that only university professors are actually interested in the cluster of current public policy concerns that go under the rubric of “democratic reform.” But there is polling evidence that many voters also identify with the symbolism of this public enterprise. (The idealistic people are always more high-minded about such things than the cynical politicians?)

The Harper minority government in Ottawa has a bill afoot on what appears to have become the first Canadian baby step in this direction (already implemented by the BC and Ontario provincial governments, e.g.) – the fixed election date (with suitable reservations for the particular principles of parliamentary as opposed to other forms of representative democracy today). The Conservative legislation has had some trouble lately. But now the Bloc Quebecois has supported “the Harper government in a rare standoff with the Senate over what Liberals claim is a minor amendment to a bill fixing election dates every four years.” (Even if a Liberal Senator says it’s all part of a separatist plot.)

Conservative legislation on Mr. Harper’s initial plans for “step-by-step” Senate reform has been getting a bumpy ride too. And a recent piece by University of Calgary political scientist Tom Flanagan, in the Globe and Mail, was almost certainly right when it urged that the Conservative minority government’s “bill (C-43) that would set up a national system for electing senators” will not “get Commons approval while the Conservatives have only a minority. The NDP and the Bloc Qubcois both favour Senate abolition, not reform, while the Liberals have adopted the Big Bang position that reform, while desirable in principle, can only be done in one sweep, not one step at a time. It’s a convenient excuse for inaction.”

Even if you usually don’t agree with Mr. Flanagan at all, he may have a point when he urges that Liberal leader “Stphane Dion just doesn’t seem to get it” on Senate reform – and was “remarkably graceless” when he greeted Mr. Harper’s recent appointment of the longstanding Alberta “elected Senator-in-waiting” Bert Brown by questioning “Mr. Brown’s qualifications,” and saying “his appointment is bad for Alberta, even though Albertans overwhelmingly support it.” Mr. Flanagan has urged as well that the “vacuum left by the Liberal position means the Conservative strategy of incremental reform will eventually win. As the old saying goes, you can’t beat something with nothing,’ and right now, the Liberals are offering nothing but inertia.”

Finally, Governor General Michaelle Jean’s recent slowing down on her ceremonial duties has prompted at least some critics at the Globe and Mail to raise further doubts about her broader approach to fulfilling the ephemeral but still nonetheless taxing duties of the office, since her appointment took effect in late September 2005.

It sometimes seems that Prime Minister Harper would like to reform (the Liberal-appointed) Governor General Jean too – if only this did not raise so many thorny questions about the future of the now rather surreal symbolism of the British monarchy in Canada. And it does seem to be those who are concerned to ensure some kind of future for the monarchy who are most critical of what the excellent Mme Jean is doing with the office that others now call Canada’s “de facto head of state.” Those who say “don’t look at me, I’m a republican” (as University of Toronto political scientist Stephen Clarkson did on TV the other night) seem more likely to believe that Michaelle Jean has been doing a good and even interesting job. (And the latest reports suggest that her recent slowing down finally has to do with thyroid problems.)

Justin Trudeau in Papineau on April 29

Some Quebec Liberals are contemptuous of the serious political talents of Pierre Trudeau’s eldest son. And some Liberals in other parts of the country feel that the party needs to be moving beyond its continuing love affair with the assorted legacies of Justin Trudeau’s father. But in still other relevant circles – in such places as Toronto and even parts of Vancouver, or Halifax, or Edmonton for that matter? – Justin Trudeau’s name still has a certain magic. His wife Sophie Gregoire and his brother’s wife Zoe Bedos appear to have a certain kind of fashion magazine appeal at least. And the Liberal Party of Canada today needs any kind of help it can get.

The big question right now is can Justin Trudeau win the federal Liberal nomination in the Montreal riding of Papineau, this Sunday, April 29. If he can’t, his potential political career will likely have to go on hold for a while. If he can, that and his support for Gerard Kennedy at last December’s Liberal leadership convention – and of course a victory in Papineau in the next federal election, whenever it comes – just might give him the beginnings of some role in the more near-term future of Canada’s old natural governing party, over the next few years. So if you do happen to be at all interested in such things, keep your ears to the ground.

UPDATE, SUNDAY, APRIL 29. 11:00 PM: So the results are in now, and Justin Trudeau took 54% of the vote on the first ballot. He has become the Liberal candidate for Papineau in the next federal election. And for better or worse his political career — and that of his wife Sophie Gregoire, some say — has taken another step ahead. Stephane Dion apparently phoned to congratulate him shortly after the results became public.

UPDATE: MONDAY, APRIL 30. 1:45 PM. Intriguingly enough, Justin Trudeau’s victory in Papineau has won some attention across the country. Along with the Toronto Star report in the link above, check out, e.g., the reports in the Vancouver Sun, Calgary Herald, Le Devoir, and the Halifax Chronicle-Herald. CBC TV this morning was pushing the traditional spin that because both Justin and his father are so unpopular in Quebec, some Liberals fear his candidacy in Papineau might just further damage the party in that province. But remember how his father used to win almost every federal seat in Quebec, despite the same rhetoric back then? And note that the Le Devoir website today features Justin Trudeau prominently. And one Quebec reader writing in has proclaimed: “Moi je prdit que d’ici 10 ans le Qubec sera derrire Justin et il sera le Premier Ministre du Canada en 2020 avec le support massif du Qubec.”

[For a further update on the latest related adventures of Sophie Gregoire, see our May 2007 counterweights report on “Margaret and Sophie in Ethiopia.”]

Foreign news in brief …

* Democrats and Republicans in Washington are now “locked in an epic struggle for control of Congress, where every incumbent occupies precious turf.” And the House Democrats who managed to pass their Iraq pull-out measure this week also showed how the Afghanistan debate in the Canadian House of Commons was at least accidentally synchronized with some higher timetable. (Even if the New Democrats in Canada wouldn’t get with the program.)

* You can now make bets about just how global warming will be unfolding on stock markets – which could prove one way of making the new green economy pay (if you’re either very lucky or very smart about what’s really happening to the environment, of course).

* The final round of the French presidential election on Sunday, May 6 could be closer than some think. Polls are now giving the right-wing “Sarko” 51% to the left-wing”Sego”‘s 49%. Meanwhile, across the channel, the Scottish National Party is expected to do very well in the first elections to the new Scottish Parliament, on Thursday, May 3.

* Fortunately, somebody has just discovered some kind of earth-like planet outside our solar system, but close enough for jazz, eventually, maybe. Or so they say. So if the human race does finally destroy planet earth through unwise environmental policy, maybe some of our descendants can get a fresh start on wherever this new planet is. Which should help all of us alive in the global village today sleep just a little easier tonight.

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