Canada’s manifold crisis carries lessons for U.S.

Posted Dec. 08, 2008, at 7:12 p.m.

Prorogue is an archaic, intentionally obscure term being used to hide an abuse that hasn’t gone out of style. Facing the likelihood that his minority government would lose a confidence vote and that the opposition might form a government, Stephen Harper asked the governor general, Michaelle Jean, to dissolve (prorogue) the House of Commons. She obliged. Harper will govern without the inconvenience of an opposition until Jan. 26. While the U.S. has been absorbed by a presidential election and tanking economy, our northern neighbor has faced a metastasizing multifaceted crisis of its own with some cautionary lessons for us.

Canada’s interwoven crises surfaced after what one CBC pundit called “an election nobody wanted that turned into an election on a topic nobody wanted.” In early September, hoping to consolidate his power when the Liberal opposition was weak and divided, Harper called an election for mid-October. At that time, neither Canada nor the rest of the world economy was widely seen as on the verge of an economic cataclysm.

The election initially touched but seldom clarified many issues. Stephane Dion emphasized climate change and a carbon tax. The center-left New Democratic Party promised NAFTA reform but offered little in the way of concrete initiatives to improve working class circumstances. The Bloc Quebecois and the Tories engaged in a nasty fight over arts funding for Quebec.

Nonetheless, in politics timing is everything. By the end of the campaign, markets were in turmoil. Dion’s carbon tax seemed increasingly scary to a world facing deep recession, Harper’s stay-the-course agenda and culture war turned off Quebec and failed to inspire many anxious voters elsewhere. The Tories achieved some gains, but the NDP also won more seats. Harper ended up still well short of a majority.

The yawner of an election inspired extraordinarily low turnout — at least by Canadian standards. Despite the lack of any clear mandate, however, the election was followed by what Harper’s harshest critics have long feared. Even without a majority, he would treat a divided and leaderless opposition as an opportunity to impose a harsh conservative agenda. As markets deteriorated and even many business economists on both sides of the border demanded that government become the spender of last resort, Harper proposed budget that emphasized government austerity.

Either because they were motivated by principle or because they saw a political opening, the other parties devised a counterstrategy. The Bloc agreed to support a liberal and NDP effort to vote no confidence in the government’s budget and form a Liberal-NDP coalition government. Harper responded by persuading the governor general to dissolve Parliament.

This saga, yet to be complete, already suggests some warnings. However compelling the evidence of economic failure, some influential voices will oppose substantial nonmilitary spending. In the U.S. even a minimally adequate and timely economic reconstruction package is far from assured. (Ideally, all advanced industrial societies need coordinated government spending boosts.)

Second, the reluctance to intervene in markets, except when the well positioned are threatened, is hardly accidental. Canada’s winner-take-all elections, like ours, disadvantage minority parties. The NDP consistently polls a larger portion of the vote than is reflected in its MP totals. It has become increasingly centrist. That re-treat in turn alienates discontented citizens from the political process. As in the U.S., absent strong grass-roots pressures, politics gravitates to the dead center.

Third, domestic emergencies — or the perception of emergency — can be as opportune occasions as wars to curtail rights and vilify opponents and minorities. Thus Harper’s budget took a gratuitous swipe at unions and curbed financing of political parties. Harper accused Liberals and the NDP of conspiring with “separatists,” despite the fact that his government had often relied on Bloc votes. (U.S. legislators use the auto crisis to demand that union workers give back health benefits. The best bailout for automakers and most U.S. business, however, would be government- financed United Auto Worker-style health benefits for all citizens.)

Flawed democracies are at risk of further contraction. When government discourages the emergence and clarification of discontents, turmoil — followed by demands for imposed order — can result. No constitution can anticipate all the dilemmas governments may face, but the actions by the prime minister and the governor general amount to an unwarranted contraction of democracy and set a dangerous precedent.

John Buell is a political economist who lives in Southwest Harbor. Readers may reach him at jbuell@acadia.net.

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