Canada is about to face an intense political season, with the general election slated for October 19, 2015. Polls indicate the possibility of a minority government with the ruling Conservatives showing some momentum in recent surveys.
This week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper presented his 2015-2016 budget, with a lot of goodies for seniors, families, and business. With security very much a concern, the Tories continued their discourse about making Canada safer.
Harper was first elected in 2006. Normally, nine years in office results in a tendency towards incumbent fatigue. Last summer, it seemed that the Harper government was facing the distinct possibility of losing its grip on power.
Enter the debate on the ISIS (or ISIL) resolution to join the international coalition, add two homegrown terrorist incidents, and the game changed. While the official opposition under Tom Mulcair has been effective, and the Liberals have been re-energized under new leader Justin Trudeau, it seems that the complexity of governing has given Harper a decidedly new life. Experience may be his best trump card to overcome the fatigue. Mulcair and Trudeau promise change, but will it be enough?
When the Canadian House of Commons adopted a resolution back in early October 2014 to join the coalition to combat ISIS beyond its foothold in Syria and Iraq, there was a provision for a renewal of the commitment in six months. This Tuesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper introduced a new motion to extend Canada’s role in the coalition for another year. A major modification, however, expanded operations to include airstrikes in Syria—a sovereign country torn by civil war with a leader who has committed his own atrocities.
This being an election year, debate in the House has predictably strong partisan overtones.
The Harper government, fully conscious of the majority support Canadian have expressed in recent polls for Canada’s participation in the coalition, has argued to extend the ISIS mission to avoid a greater security threat at home. The so-called lone-wolf terrorist acts in the autumn in both St.-Jean, Québec (where a Canadian soldier was killed), and on Parliament Hill in Ottawa (where a reserve soldier standing guard was also killed) only reinforced Canadian support.
Bill C-51, the proposed legislation to give increased powers to Canada’s intelligence-gathering agency (CSIS), also benefits from majority support, even as the debate rages on between those wanting stronger security measures and those fearful of the lack of civilian oversight for the protection of civil liberties. It is fair to say that the Harper government sees further gain for its electoral prospects.
On Tuesday, the Harper Conservative government decided with its majority in the Canadian House of Commons to engage Canada in the U.S.-led mission against ISIS. In so doing, the Canadian government will carry out a mix of air strikes, surveillance, training and humanitarian aid. The mission is meant to last six months, but will be subject to assessment and review within that period. There is, however, the possibility that it could be extended or expanded.
The New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Liberals opposed the move. As requested, the opposition was able to have a full-throated debate, as a sovereign and healthy democracy should.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper made the case for the ISIS mission using arguments similar to those of U.S. President Barack Obama. Given its senseless violence and genocidal actions, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a brutal, murderous force that has a total disregard for the rule of law and basic humanitarian principles. With some ISIS recruits coming from Western countries such as Canada, Harper argued that it has become imperative for the Canadian government to either collaborate with the coalition abroad or face a more serious problem at home with homegrown terrorism.
The mission is UN-sanctioned, and involves over 50 countries, including key Arab states and our traditional allies, such as the U.S., France and Great Britain. Doing nothing would have been unthinkable: on this, most Canadians could agree. The real question was to determine the nature and the extent of Canadian involvement.
Resisting the rush to war has been a characteristic of the Obama administration since its election in 2008. Avoiding the Bush-Cheney approach, which led to the Iraq invasion in 2003, Obama has been criticized for indifference, detachment and sometimes weakness in dealing with international crises. Even former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta are engaged in some historical revisionism regarding their positions in the Obama administration on Syria’s civil war, where they purportedly recommended arming rebel groups against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
The complex situation in the Middle East makes it highly risky to rush into any conflict. Obama’s reserve regarding events in Syria is understandable when U.S. intelligence has been less-than-reliable in the Middle East for the last forty years. Besides, America has had its fill of carrying the load and “putting boots on the ground.” This is why President Obama’s recent efforts to pluralize the Iraqi government under new leadership, to build a coalition of Arab states against the Islamic State (ISIS), to support ground forces in Iraq (the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga), and to train vetted Syrian rebels are welcome.
Granted, a war strategy without an exit plan is far from reassuring at this stage, and this war has, as of yet, no definable exit strategy or time limit. The alternative is believing that isolated and defensive measures will be sufficient to beat a group like ISIS—which recruits foreign nationals from the West—and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Khorasan group, which is bent on hitting Western targets, including airplanes in full flight. The ideology underlying the tactics of these terrorists will not end without a coordinated multinational effort requiring years.
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.