Friday, August 26, 2005

Why Bush is good for Liberal Canada

Let's turn to something Canadian. Or, more specifically, with how we Canadians view Americans — which is, as most of you may not know (unless you're following the Maher Arar case or are otherwise curiously interested in Canada), both one of our distinctive national pastimes and a major source of our sense of national identity (i.e., being Canadian means being not American, for better or for worse).

In yesterday's Globe and Mail, columnist Lawrence Martin (no relation to Prime Minister Paul Martin) argues that President Bush, whom he dubs a "[n]eanderthal for "his approach to international diplomacy" is — hold on to your hats! — good for Canada, or at least for Liberal Canada. Bear with me:

[T]here's another, antipodal perspective from which to look at Mr. Bush. Canadians can rank him as the worst U.S. president this country has ever known, and make a good case for doing so. Or they can look at the bright side. In many respects, you can argue that Mr. Bush has been a big plus for Canada. God's gift, even. As for our governing Grits, angered by the repudiation on trade, they shouldn't complain too loudly. The toxic Texan has been good for them, too.

How good? Let us count the ways.

For a country often insecure about its identity, who better than George Bush?

His time in office might well represent the longest defining moment that Canada has ever had. His simplistic warrior mentality, his treaty-breaking unilateralism and his rigid rightist mindset have all served to delineate the differences between this nation and the United States more graphically than any other president. In a sense, he has reforged the Canadian identity along classic Liberal lines.

For a country uneasy about unceasing continental integration and where it might end up, who better than this

The way his fabricated war in Iraq has gone, Ottawa's decision to say no has served to enhance Canada's reputation. Our multilateralism, as deficient as it may be, looks princely and inspired by comparison to the Bush administration's global-dominance muscle talk. Our rejection of his pro-nuclear policies on missile defence and India is surely progressive by comparison, as is our stand (tolerance versus intolerance) on gay rights and other social issues…

When Mr. Bush was first elected, conservative forces to the north, pushed on by the Black media empire, appeared to be in position to pose a challenge to the old Canadian ways. Thanks, in part, to the model put up by Mr. Bush, it isn't happening.

For the Liberal Party, which sees itself as the keeper of the Canadian tradition, who better than George Bush? Opposition Leader Stephen Harper, whose party is closer to the American way, can hardly mention the President's name. Meantime, Paul Martin, who took office with the reputation of a Bay Street Liberal, has been served well by the President.

Mr. Bush has had the effect of pushing the Prime Minister back into the moderate Chrétien wing of the party and diminishing any right-left Liberal split. One look at polls in Quebec and elsewhere on Bush Republicanism and Mr. Martin had no choice. Jean Chrétien can give thanks to Mr. Bush, too; he has given him a big legacy item — the decision on Iraq.

All in all, it's hard to discount the Bush value north of the border. Liberals at their annual caucus meeting in Regina this week should raise a glass to George. Maybe we all should. For all the foment, he's done us many a good deed.

Is Martin right? To a point, yes. Bush managed to bring together Europe's traditional rivals (minus Britain) in response to his irresponsible venture into Iraq. And now it seems increasingly that much of the rest of the world views America — America under Bush's leadership — as a threat to world peace.

And, to an extent, he has managed to bring together the disparate elements of Canadian liberalism (a general ideological consensus that spans the middle of our political spectrum, a bit to the left of the American center), loosely and often unhappily unified under the umbrella of the ruling Liberal Party, in opposition to anything that smacks of Americanism. This is one of the reasons why our Conservative Party, which should be the natural opposition party and a threat to alternate in government with the Liberals, is having so much difficulty securing traction anywhere outside its home base in the populist West (Alberta, parts of British Columbia) and, less so, in parts of the traditionalist Maritimes in the East (where even many old-fashioned Tories, once known as progressive conservatives, have gone Liberal). Electoral success in Canada requires a solid showing in central Canada (Ontario and Quebec), and here the Liberals continue to dominate.

Indeed, anything that even remotely resembles the Republican Party is, with Bush in the White House, doomed to fail, and so the Conservatives' attempt to blend economic neo-liberalism and social libertarianism with religious evangelicalism (which is politically unpopular, anyway) under a rival umbrella has gone nowhere. Prime Minister Martin's minority government, supported on key budget votes by the socialist New Democratic Party and on key social policy votes like same-sex marriage by both the NDP and the separatist Bloc Quebecois, has withstood the Conservative challenge this summer and should at least be able to continue in government past the next federal election, expected in February.

Of course, Canada remains bitterly divided in many respects, and Martin (the columnist) glosses over some of our most pressing problems. Separatism may be on the rise again in Quebec after a decade of dormancy. There is an astonishing fiscal imbalance among the provinces, with the wealthier ones (like Ontario) propping up the sagging economies in the poorer ones. Plus, I'm not so sure that Liberal hegemony is such a good thing. The Chretien-Martin Liberals have been in power, virtually uncontested, since 1993. It may have been a sound decision not to join Bush's "coalition of the willing," but there have been few Liberal accomplishments during the past 12 years. Same-sex marriage was a huge victory for Canadian liberalism, but in many other regards we're exactly where we were in 1993. Except that the Liberal Party has grown flagrantly arrogant and miserably corrupt, operating a powerful political machine at the expense of open democracy and focusing on its own stay in power rather than on guiding Canada through the challenges that confront it.

Bush may have done wonders for Canada, and it may serve our fragile sense of national identity to have such a visible "Other" in the Oval Office, something to identify against, but even he isn't enough to keep us together for long.

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