American Distractions

Canada’s best hope for change lies in our own traditions.

The possible election of Barack Obama as president of the United States has engendered a puzzling level of enthusiasm among Canadian progressives. It is puzzling first because they are normally skeptical of American influence on Canada and second because it is not obvious, even if he possesses the wonderful qualities his more enthusiastic supporters attribute to him, how President Obama would bring about exciting changes in Canada. That we are in need of some rejuvenation of our political culture is beyond doubt. But Washington is not the place to look for it.

It might be carping to suggest that the direct impact of President Obama’s policies on Canada is liable to be negative insofar as it is discernable. Despite some bobbing and weaving, he does seem hostile to NAFTA, on which so much of our recent impressive economic growth is based. And if he should miscalculate in foreign policy, as his rhetorical tendency to oscillate between extremes of accommodation and belligerence suggests, we might well find ourselves in a far less attractive world. Those to the left of George W. Bush on foreign policy may think Obama would bring a more enlightened attitude to diplomacy leading to a more peaceful world. If so, the benefits are obvious, starting with our possibly being able to bring our brave soldiers home from Afghanistan. But at the risk of sounding hard-boiled, since September 11 Canada has, like the United States, experienced precisely no terrorist attacks, so regardless of his excellence, Mr. Obama will have mathematical trouble bringing that number down any further. And if he ends up flopping his flip on a hasty withdrawal from Iraq, then his Canadian supporters, even if they find it aesthetically superior to see a Democrat engage in foreign military nation-building ventures, will have little of substance to celebrate.

Perhaps the issue is not policy. At least some Canadian Obama enthusiasts expect his positive impact on us to be more a matter of changing our national mood than any concrete steps he might take. And here there is one way in which his example might do us good. It has been mentioned that the recent Democratic nomination contest between the senator from Illinois and Hillary Rodham Clinton presented a remarkable contrast with Canadian political parties and their all-white-male-all-the-time leadership ambiance. (The Republican race, with a maverick war hero, a Mormon, a libertine and a preacher man offered considerable variety even before John McCain chose the gun-totin’, whistle-blowin’, former beauty queen, pro-life Alaskan governor as his running mate.) And if Mr. Obama really is a fresh face, rhetorically inspiring rather than insipid, above the politics of image and manipulation, and living proof that anyone can aspire to the presidency, we might be prompted to ask ourselves why such things do not happen here. But that is about all the help we are going to get from him.

Even if American political institutions are working in such a way as to provide this inspiring ray of hope, we cannot attempt to imitate any changes Obama helps to cause in Washington directly because our own institutions are different. Indeed, one need not be naive about American governance to say that ours legitimately seem to be in a far more advanced state of disrepair.

The extent of visceral disdain for George W. Bush in Canada, especially among the literati, can easily deceive people into thinking that the American political system, and their very constitution, must have disintegrated for such a man to occupy the White House. The 2000 election was stolen, the war in Iraq is illegal, Guantanamo Bay violates the Geneva Conventions, the economy is collapsing because of the subprime mortgage lending fiasco, and so on.

The prevalence of such talk underlines that the last two presidents have had an unhealthy polarizing effect on American politics. Indeed, I confess that Bill Clinton had that effect on me. But I also remember the invective of the Reagan years. And as a U.S. historian by training, I am acutely aware that at various other times in America’s past the level of bitterness and division seemed perilously high, including periods now remembered as calm and harmonious or as times when giants walked the earth. It is now hard to believe that newspapers called Abraham Lincoln a coward and a baboon (as did a member of his own cabinet), South Carolina senator Ben Tillman threatened to stab President Grover Cleveland with a pitchfork over his bank policy and some parents washed their children’s mouths out with soap if they spoke the name of Franklin Roosevelt. Or that Orson Welles and Norman Mailer suggested on television that Richard Nixon might cancel the 1972 elections, while Daniel Patrick Moynihan urged Nixon to make some sort of reassuring statement to black Americans in his first inaugural address because “the rumor is widespread that the new government is planning to build concentration camps.”1 And those last two examples came less than a decade after the supposedly transforming glory of Camelot.

There are plenty of grounds for criticizing George Bush on matters both of substance and of style. But neither his policy failures nor offputting personal style grotesquely exceed those of Lyndon Johnson over Vietnam and race riots, Richard Nixon over Vietnam and Watergate, or Jimmy Carter over energy shortages and superpower relations. And, in any event, voters have already given both houses of Congress to the Democrats to rein in President Bush. The United States is simply not in a pit of such Stygian darkness that Barack Obama will transform it, even if he is everything his supporters imagine him to be. And even if he does, he certainly will not transform Canada as well.

Viewed dispassionately, our governance is not going well. But our problems cannot reasonably be attributed to George W. Bush or a Republican Congress, which the United States does not even have any more. Our policies bear little resemblance to those of Mr. Bush and our institutional difficulties are quite unlike those of the United States. To start with the obvious, Question Period routinely sinks to a level the Obama-Clinton debates never did. And it is no fluke, no passing result of our 2006 election or the 2000 one in the United States. It has been this way for well over a decade regardless of which party is asking or answering the questions.

Novice members of Parliament now routinely enter the Commons genuinely convinced that they can and will help raise the tone of Question Period. But before you know it they are turning artificially purple, jabbing fingers in a way that causes fights in bars and making barnyard noises while their colleagues across the aisle attempt to be heard further lowering the tone of debate.

And it is not just Question Period. Take legislative committees. American congressional committees have their failings, but they continue to play a vital and effective role in the discharge of Congress’s legitimate and constitutionally mandated functions. If you have sat in on any significant number of parliamentary committees lately, which I have, you will know that many of them are on the verge of total meltdown due not to otherwise real problems, such as overwork, but to a complete lapse in civility that inhibits even routine substantive and procedural activities. Even the notorious disruption of, for instance, the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics over the “in-and-out” affair has its roots in a ferocity of partisan attachment among almost all members of Parliament that leaves no room for a higher allegiance to Parliament or concern for its proper functioning that might transcend the vicious battle for short-term party advantage.

Our discontents go further. Whatever one thinks of the Liberal Party’s traditional image of itself as the only national brokerage party, it is surely alarming to see the geographical and sociological fracturing of our politics into voting tribes among whom there is little communication, never mind conversation. There is widespread fear of another election among parties and voters for reasons ranging from financial to aesthetic. But the biggest problem is that we are liable to get back the same parliament again and again. (If the Conservatives do obtain a dissolution of Parliament this fall, uncertain at the time of writing, it will be from fear of something worse, not the hope of something better.) It is hard to see how George Bush can have created this electoral paralysis and, therefore, hard to see how Barack Obama might end it. And you certainly cannot blame the outgoing Republican incumbent for the fact that Canada’s three opposition parties share a sufficiently similar social democratic philosophy to cooperate almost reflexively in committees, and even sometimes in passing money bills through the House, yet cannot bring themselves even to bring down the Tories and cause an election, let alone assemble a coalition to pass a coherent governing program based on things they all loudly declare themselves to believe in.

Such a state of affairs would not be a problem in principle in the United States. Their constitution, with its separate election of the executive, does not depend upon the president having a working majority in the legislature. For much of its history he has not, and the founding fathers would be happy to hear it. Moreover, even a president with significant partisan majorities in Congress may be unable to control the legislative agenda. But in Canada, with a constitution in many ways similar in principle to that of Great Britain, the executive depends upon a working majority in the House. The Conservatives, lacking one, should not be able to govern, and in certain important respects, including the work of committees, they cannot. The unwillingness of the opposition parties to take on the unpleasant as well as pleasant tasks incumbent on a majority in Parliament, leading them to abstain on or duck crucial budgetary votes, is a peculiarly Canadian pathology that denies citizens a government they can hold responsible for what actually happens politically, and an opposition they can turn to for alternatives. Barack Obama cannot help us with that even if he turns out to make John F. Kennedy look like Ike.

Right now people are thrashing about, proposing remedies that are incompatible with our fundamental institutions and unrelated to our current difficulties. We are digging ourselves deeper and deeper into the hole with proposals such as Reform’s direct democracy in the 1990s and a proliferation of arm’s-length agencies impossible to situate within the executive, legislative or judicial branches and unconstrained by traditional rules appropriate to any of them. We need a plan here, not a mood swing.

One advantage of a sweeping advocacy of change, currently working to the benefit of Barack Obama, is that its lack of specificity makes it hard to criticize. Regrettably it has precisely the same effect on implementation. One waits in vain for progressive Canadian enthusiasts for the coming Obama revolution to tell us what exactly it is that, fired with newfound enthusiasm, we ought to do to make Canada—rather than the U.S.—a better, happier place.

Some prominent Canadian commentators have invoked the atmosphere of Camelot with respect to Mr. Obama. Cynics might retort that the senator from Illinois in 2008, like the one from Massachusetts in 1960, is young, handsome, inexperienced and gifted at raising expectations with empty rhetoric. But the analogy is noteworthy because the American “Great Society” of the 1960s really did furnish the model, or at least a significant inspiration, for our own “Just Society” five years later—the last great burst of transborder progressive enthusiasm.

Retrospective discussions of government in Canada in the 1960s contain an air of breathless excitement. Politicians of vision worked closely with brilliant public servants such as Gordon Robertson and Robert Bryce to sweep aside old structures within government and outside it and to revolutionize Canadian society by harnessing the potential of a marriage of social science and political power. Bliss it was to be alive, and to be young was very heaven, especially given free love.

What is too often overlooked in such fond reminiscing is the awkward fact that it did not work. I say this not as a sour and sidelined relic of the past age, even if I am one. I simply take at face value the verdict of activists and advocates for progressive causes. Read their rhetoric about, say, income distribution in Canada today and it is obvious that the welfare programs brought in with such fanfare, often profoundly influenced in their design by American ideas, have not done what their supporters said they would, however much they may have confirmed, or confounded, the expectations of their critics. And progressive politicians share that verdict.

Just Society reforms sought to curb native Canadian traditions like free enterprise and the politics of liberty, sometimes reflexively dismissed in this country as “too American” or in an even more partisan way as “too Republican.” But in 1943, William Watson observes in Globalization and the Meaning of Canadian Life, journalist Bruce Hutchison wrote that “we Canadians can probably claim the distinction of being the most rugged surviving individualists,” having rejected the statist embrace of the American New Deal. As Watson goes on to point out, as late as 1958 Canadian governments took a smaller share of gross domestic product than American ones. Parts of Canada’s welfare state date back to 1940 (rudimentary unemployment insurance) or even 1927 (the first, grudging old age pension), but the bulk of it dates to the two decades from 1956 (the Unemployment Assistance Act) to 1968 (federal medicare), including the Canada Pension Plan in 1965 and the Canada Assistance Program and federal aid to education in 1967.

Yet by 1973 the throne speech was promising a dramatic revamping of a system that was not working, which the subsequent orange paper prepared for health and welfare minister Marc Lalonde failed to deliver. In 1994 Lloyd Axworthy, then Minister of Human Resources Development, undertook a grandiose consultation exercise that saw the Human Resources Committee of the House of Commons travel across Canada in a propeller plane listening to activists complain from sea to sea to sea. (I know. I was there, as a Reform staffer.) In the end they cut spending and renamed unemployment insurance to employment insurance Not a lot to show, really.

By the same token, satisfaction with the existing public healthcare system is hardly greater among its most fervent supporters than among its most acerbic critics. They disagree sharply on prescriptions but not on the crisis, for which politicians routinely produce expensive fixes that are meant to last a generation and are lucky to quiet the complaining and demands for more money for a few months.

In the midst of all this, there is reasonably wide agreement that the volume of activity now undertaken by the executive branch precludes effective scrutiny by Parliament or even, nowadays, Cabinet. Quarter-trillion-dollar budgets, thousands of pages of regulations, massive bills drafted by hordes of bureaucrats, all simply roll through unchecked and poorly understood because no one has the time or capacity to check or understand them.

Now turn to the field of judicial innovations, from the broad reading of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms by the Supreme Court to the proliferation of human rights tribunals not bound by traditional rules of judicial procedure. Some people including myself are appalled that, for instance, Ezra Levant had to spend almost three years and $100,000 defending his right to reprint cartoons as part of a news story while one of the complainants could casually walk away two years into the case without spending a dime on lawyers. And it is outrageous that the Ontario Human Rights Commission could caustically pronounce Maclean’s and Mark Steyn guilty while admitting it lacked jurisdiction even to hear their case. But defenders of the process do not appear much happier; they still seem to regard Canada as a nation riddled with injustice, hatred, bigotry and exclusion, with only a thin red line of human rights commissions between us and the resurgent net-savvy KKK.

If one listens to the voices of progressives in politics or that frequently amazingly uncivil bunch wrongly dubbed “civil society,” it is clear that no Just Society has emerged in Canada, nor is one about to. Conservatives may lament the demise of parliamentary sovereignty and the rise of an imperial judiciary in vain; their opponents derive no satisfaction from these processes.

It is, of course, possible to assert that it is just a matter of persisting, that the medicine will have the desired effect provided the patient adheres to the course of treatment long enough. But those who await a second Camelot under Obama, casting reflected glory upon ourselves, must believe that in such an event we will find new approaches that will at last bring the New Jerusalem or Albion into being upon the banks of the Rideau. And whatever else one thinks of that position, it is logically incompatible with the claim that the dramatic changes we have made in the last half century were the right ones and that we now need a calm hand on the wheel and a steady-as-she-goes mentality of the sort most prominently associated recently with Jean Chrétien.

If prompted I can certainly offer a quite different program of action, based on undoing much of the unsound innovation of recent decades. And I can tell you where to find the necessary spirit: in a splendid tradition going back more than twelve centuries. Let us not forget that our political institutions were explicitly modelled primarily on those of Great Britain, which, in a characteristic passage, the famed 18th-century commentator William Blackstone called “a land, perhaps the only one in the universe, in which political or civil liberty is the very end and scope of the constitution.”

My proposal is to take a very deep breath and remind ourselves what our institutions are for and how they are meant to work. In the process we must grasp that we have had not too little but too much change in government in the past 40 years, and have replaced our under-appreciated traditional parliamentary system with a bizarre new one that does not work at all.

If my proposal does not appeal, I am willing to entertain alternatives. Maybe you do not want to restore the spirit with which Canadians tamed a wilderness, beat Hitler and made parliamentary democracy work in a federation. But whatever you do want, we are not getting it from Washington, even if Barack Obama is everything his more excitable supporters in both countries expect him to be.

Note:


  1. Raymond Price, <em>With Nixon</em> (New York: Viking Press, 1977), page 44.