While thousands of federal workers in the U.S. went back to work today after grappling with the government shutdown and debt ceiling crisis, Canada’s Parliament has just now reopened for business, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s second Throne Speech since his party won a majority government mandate in May 2011.
Coming at mid-term, the speech has been properly described as a new beginning for the Harper government. He outlined consumer-friendly measures such as reducing the gap between cross-border prices on items purchased in the U.S. and greater subscriber freedom in purchasing cable TV packages. In addition, he announced more law and order policies to reinforce his conservative base. All this was presented in the usual pomp of a Speech from the Throne.
The past year has seen the Harper administration facing its most serious crises since it first took office in 2006. Election irregularities in the 2011 campaign have led to departures within the ranks, and a Senate scandal involving three Conservative senators dominated the spring session. Current polls place the Harper Conservatives behind the third party in the House of Commons—the Liberals, under new leader Justin Trudeau. While there is plenty of time for a resurgence before the 2015 general election, the Speech from the Throne delivered on October 16 does represent a potential second wind.
The Conservative victory in May 2011 was so impressive that some seasoned political observers saw the emergence of a new coalition made up of law and order types and Canadians with conservatives values— one which could transform the Conservatives into “the natural governing party” of the nation, as the Liberals were through most of the 20th century. Harper’s Conservative party is also seen as the most ideological party of its nature since Confederation.
Some pundits have postulated that the 2011 shift to the Right may develop into a permanent phenomenon. After all, in that year, the Liberals dropped to third place (Conservatives occupied 161 seats in the House of Commons while Liberals occupied 34) and seemed decimated in key strongholds across the country, including Québec and the greater Toronto area. The progressive view seemed in search of a principal voice. Enter the new official opposition party—the New Democrats (NDP), who are hoping to replace the Liberals as the alternative to the Conservatives.
On Wednesday, during a one day visit to Peru, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a new aid package aimed in part at helping regional governments more effectively reinvest taxes and royalties from mining in programs to alleviate poverty.
During the first official visit to Peru by a Canadian prime minister, Harper met with executives from Canadian mining companies before meeting with Peruvian President Ollanta Humala to reveal the new $53 billion aid package. The package, which more than doubles Canada’s aid to the Andean country, includes funds to develop mechanisms to more efficiently and transparently allocate the $4 billion regional governments have amassed in unspent royalties.
Humala, who campaigned on a platform of social inclusion and poverty eradication, imposed the mining royalties as part of that commitment. But that money lies idle in government bank accounts, while half of Peru’s rural population continues to live below the poverty line and violent anti-mining protests have sprung up.
Canada has a large presence in Peru’s mining sector. Currently 75 Canadian mining companies are engaged in gold, silver or copper exploration throughout Peru.
Canada’s increased investment in Peru is part of a broader initiative rolled out by the Canadian government in fall 2012 to ensure that Canada’s federal spending goes toward efforts that boost the country’s commercial interests and to encourage investment in socially and environmentally responsible industries.
Since taking power in 2006, Canada’s Conservative Party has worked hard to portray itself as the party of sound fiscal practice. All of that went up in smoke earlier this month, as an independent audit confirmed that the costs of stealth fighter jets within the national defense budget had ballooned from $16 billion to nearly $46 billion.
In the House of Commons, the Conservative political class had dodged questions about the cost of these jets for about 18 months. Michael Ferguson, Canada’s Auditor General, blasted this fiscal mismanagement in a scathing spring report, blaming officials in the ministry of national defense for the spiraling costs and keeping the facts from ministers. The Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page, put the price tag of the undisclosed funds at around $30 billion.
The Auditor General’s report did spark some action from the administration of Prime Minister Stephen Harper but the government never acknowledged the costs had run out of control. It froze spending on aircraft procurement and stripped the responsibility for the acquisition of these planes away from the military, handing it instead to a secretariat in the public works department. The military brass was enthralled by fifth-generation F-35 fighter planes, refusing to consider any others. The government, it would seem, never questioned the numbers nor dared to ask the hard questions.
The government could have spared itself some hardship by coming clean on the costs of the plane after a leaked audit report on December 7 hinted of a hefty price tag. But instead, a nervous Peter MacKay, Canada’s defense minister, refused to take responsibility for the bungling of the file when grilled by reporters. A week later, the full audit report was released on December 13 and put the cost and maintenance of 65 F-35 fighter jets at $46 billion over 42 years, and not $16 billion as stated by the Tories. The public was initially told it would cost $9 billion.
Last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper interrupted his trip to India to offer President Barack Obama his congratulations on his reelection. In Canada, there had been talk that Conservative Prime Minister Harper may have preferred a more ideologically-similar partner like Mitt Romney to govern our closest political neighbor and ally and strongest commercial partner.
But anyone who knows Canadian-American relations and history should know that interests and interpersonal relationships play a greater role than ideological kinship.
To his credit, Harper, who won a minority government victory a month before Obama's win in 2008, sent a clear signal that his approach to U.S. relations would be pragmatic and sensitive to the president-elect's interests and agenda. The appointment of NDP Premier Gary Doer as Canada's ambassador to Washington in 2009 had all the makings of Harper's desire for a smooth and operational relationship. He was not wrong: Doer has shown aplomb and pragmatism while gaining access, which is so critical and crucial for a functional partnership.
OTTAWA-The election landscape has changed in the predominantly-francophone province of Québec. On September 4, les Québécois elected a minority pro-independence party, le Parti québécois (PQ) with Pauline Marois at its helm.
This makes life a lot simpler for Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister. A referendum on the separation of Québec from the rest of Canada, a lifelong dream for Marois, is on the backburner at least for now.
Still, the worst thing for Harper would be to be too complacent, observers say.
If he doesn’t want to go down in history as the prime minister “who lost Québec” he has to “calculate his moves,” says political scientist Louis Massicotte from l’Université Laval in Québec City.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper reflected the mood of Canadians when he announced at last week’s NATO Summit that troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014. While supportive of the original engagement in 2001 and proud of the work of our Canadian troops, Canadians generally want out of this seemingly never-ending conflict. No longer involved in combat operations on the battlefield, and recently engaged in the training of security forces for post-war Afghanistan, Canada will continue to contribute a significant financial commitment to the efforts beyond 2014.
When 9/11 occurred, then-Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien supported American efforts through the UN, the Security Council and NATO to remove the Taliban government in Afghanistan and work in a concerted effort to stop Al Qaeda terrorism. This has often been referred as the “smart” war, as opposed to the “dumb war” in Iraq—terms used by a young Illinois politician called Barack Obama. Events showing that Osama Bin Laden was able to act with impunity and with state cover from the Taliban justified that Canada join with their international allies and overthrow the government of the day.
The goals then were clear: defend our national interests, show our leadership in the world community and contribute to stabilizing and rebuilding Afghanistan. In the decade that followed, however, the war lost favor with the Canadian public. Canadians’ support for the war effort declined consistently to the point where Canada announced its intention to withdraw the bulk of its troops by 2011.
Overall, Canada’s participation was quite significant in scope and sacrifice. Canadian troops were intensively engaged in the volatile Kandahar province for a number of years. To date, 158 Canadian soldiers have been killed with most dying in hostile circumstances. The war has cost Canada more than $10 billion. The courage of our fallen ones and their families remains a matter of pride to Canadians.
Prime Minister Harper indicated Canada’s training mission will end in 2014 at a time when U.S. combat forces will have withdrawn. In so doing, the Canadian government will still commit $110 million annually for three years beyond 2015. It is clear that Canada is now resigned to the fact that no one country can declare victory and mission accomplished in this conflict.
Canada and the U.S. may have had their differences on whether to go to war in Iraq but not in Afghanistan. We can recall that Canada had serious doubts when the Bush Administration believed there were weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
But the course in Afghanistan was an example of two allies sharing objectives and sacrifice. Now that Canada has signaled the end of its commitment, and the U.S. has outlined its exit strategy, other NATO nations are beginning to gradually disengage. Still, it is fair to say that significant progress was made in reducing the impact of Al Qaeda. But the overall outcome sadly remains inconclusive and uncertain.
John Parisella is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently an invited professor at University of Montréal’s International Relations Center.
As was the case with many countries outside of the United States, Canada had its share of Obama fever back in 2008. His candidacy was arguably seen as transformative, if only by being the first African-American candidate in a serious position to win the presidency. To be fair, the 2008 Democratic primary season also had all the makings of another rendezvous with history: the possibility of the first woman, Hillary Clinton, to capture the U.S. presidency. When Obama ultimately triumphed, Canadians seemed as excited as our neighbors to the south and hope was as much in the air in Canada as in the U.S.
Unlike some of our American friends who may have since soured on President Obama, Canadians generally retain a positive view of the President. It is not an exaggeration to say that his re-election for a second term would be seen very favorably. In fact, the general consensus after the rather disappointing Republican primary season is that Obama will walk away with an easy victory. It seems that many in Canada confuse their wishes with reality on the ground as Americans are bracing for a hard fought election.
The reality is that the United States remains fundamentally a 50-50 nation, with independents holding the key to the final results. The sluggish recovery in the U.S. (20 percent of lost jobs have been recovered) is contrasted by a far more robust recovery in Canada (over 100 percent). While our optimism is somewhat guarded regarding the economy, it is clear we did not have a housing crisis and a financial meltdown of the magnitude of America. Our single payer healthcare system, while under some financial strain, remains very much a major tenet of our social and economic security. Our growth outlook is generally considered good compared to our fellow OECD countries. So we tend to extrapolate our comparative good fortune with that of President Obama’s attractiveness and ask: Why would America change leaders now? The fact is that the economic picture will be a decisive factor in the November election.
It’s been a long eleven months for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his fellow Conservatives. After a strong start in May 2011 following the election of his first-ever majority government, Harper has faced months of relentless attacks in the House of Commons—and the strain is showing.
Now the public is witnessing another Stephen Harper. Always in control, he now has a hard time getting his message through. Day after day during the daily Question Period in the House of Commons, the prime minister has had to defend unpopular positions about costly fighter jets, a rollback on pension eligibility (from 65 to 67 years old starting in 2023), and the suspected involvement of the Conservative Party in an alleged scheme to mislead voters on election day last May.
Not to mention that Harper is facing a court challenge from the provincial government of Québec over the dismantling of the federal long-gun registry and all the data it contains. Québec is contesting the federal decision because it wants the data collected on the identity of Québec rifle owners to set up its own provincial registry.
But the Tories’ main problem is the growing controversy over the cost of 65 F-35 stealth fighter jets it plans to buy from the U.S. firm Lockheed Martin as part of an international consortium. Other nations have scaled back their military orders as the ballooning costs became apparent. But the Harper government remained tight-lipped about its plans for months.
That all changed on April 3. A new report from Michael Ferguson, Canada’s Auditor General who acts as an independent controller with authority to comb through the expenses of federal departments and agencies, lists the cost of these fighter jets at a minimum of $25 billion rather than the roughly $15 billion that was previously anticipated. After initially saying that defense officials withheld information from ministers, Ferguson said it was likely the Harper government must have known about the true cost of the program. He faulted the government for mismanaging the F-35 program and not telling Canadians about the true cost of the country’s largest-ever military purchase.
Last weekend’s Sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, ended on a discordant note with no final communiqué outlining a joint statement on the conference’s outcome. The refusal by the United States and Canada to accept Cuba at the next Summit created a schism with their Latin American and Caribbean partners who supported Cuba’s inclusion, although President Obama and Prime Minister Harper were acting in a manner consistent with previous positions regarding Cuba‘s participation. The lack of a communiqué, however, should not be seen as a failure but rather as a time to reflect.
The U.S. embargo of Cuba is essentially a relic of the Cold War period when Fidel Castro embraced the Soviet bloc, and later, when the world teetered on the brink of a nuclear confrontation during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Clearly, in this presidential cycle with Florida remaining a swing state and with its fiercely anti- Castro Cuban population, Obama had little room to maneuver. Admittedly, there is no appetite in both the Democratic and Republican parties to turn Cuba into a political issue in the short term.
Despite this predictable outcome, it is reasonable to hope that both the U.S. and Canada take a fresh look at Cuba and the post-Castro period. Both Castro brothers are aging and communism is no longer a major geopolitical factor on the global stage. Latin American countries have emerging economies with increasingly stable democracies wanting to reach out with trade overtures. In this era of the Internet and globalization, it is unlikely that the iron fist of the Castro legacy will be able to maintain its grip for years to come. In any case, the embargo has not achieved its goal. Why not explore the option of engagement?
Assembled in the White House Rose Garden for a joint press conference on Monday, the “three amigos” of North America projected an image of trilateral comity in keeping with the depth of their countries’ relationships. Yet Mexican President Felipe Calderón and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper departed the one-day North American Leaders’ Summit without a firm commitment from U.S. President Barack Obama on their request to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Buried in the penultimate line of the lengthy joint statement was a coy response: “The United States welcomes Canada’s and Mexico’s interest in joining the TPP as ambitious partners.”
As President Obama acknowledged in the Rose Garden, TPP’s high-standards approach “could be a real model for the world.” Indeed, the goal of the original four TPP members—Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, and Singapore—was to create a uniquely comprehensive agreement to which like-minded countries on both sides of the Pacific could accede, thus linking Asia and the Americas. Similarly, the U.S. decision to join TPP made more sense for the bloc’s potential to grow than for the market-access gains to be found in the members’ relatively small economies. For Washington, TPP carries significant strategic weight as long as it continues to expand.
To its credit, the Obama administration recognizes the geopolitical benefits of TPP in the context of increased U.S. engagement with the Asia-Pacific. Its reluctance to advocate for expanded participation from the Western Hemisphere, however, risks a gross strategic oversight. As Harper candidly remarked to an audience at the Woodrow Wilson Center on Monday, while “most of the members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership would like to see Canada join, I think there’s some debate, particularly within the (Obama) administration, about the merits of that."