January 27, 2006

January 27, 2006 | Commentary on

A warming trend from the North Canadian Conservatives back in power

After watching elections in the Southern hemisphere produce a disheartening turn towards socialist populism, it was encouraging to see a win for Conservatives in Canada in Monday's elections. The result could be a far more civil tone in the U.S.- Canadian relationship and more international cooperation. This is good news.

The election victory of Canada's Conservative Party under the leadership of 46 year-old economist Stephen Harper will bring an end to12 years' of Liberal rule. Or perhaps one should say, "help bring an end," for the government of Prime Minister Paul Martin had not only run out of steam, but also got entangled in a major kick-back scandal, which brought it down in a vote of no-confidence in November. In this week's election, the Conservatives came away with 36.4 percent of the vote to the Liberals 31.3. Like the Liberals before them, therefore, the Conservatives will constitute a minority government, which of course, does not mean an altogether easy road ahead.

Unsurprisingly, Canadian media has tried to paint Mr. Harper as a dangerous extremist. Is there any conservative who is not, in the media's view? He has been accused of wanted to stop regional development, tamper with social security, restrict immigration, and open up capitol punishment and abortion to a national referendum. And then there is the issue of same-sex marriage, which is now legal in Canada, on which Mr. Harper has been suspected of wanting to turn back the clock.

The reality, however, is that Canada's Conservative leader emerged in this election as a fiscal, tax-cutting conservative, but more of a liberal on social issues. He has pledged not to touch abortion, and proposed a parliamentary vote on homosexual marriages. He favors a ban on handguns, and the creation of a national childcare program. This is by no stretch of the imagination a conservative radical.

As far as foreign policy became an issue in the election, it was Prime Minister Paul Martin who reached for the last refuge of Canadian politicians, anti-Americanism. As former Prime Mister Jean Chretian once commented, "I like to stand up to Americans. It's popular." Mr. Martin even got into a spat with the U.S. Ambassador to Canada, David Wilkins over the Kyoto Treaty, a subject on which Mr. Martin accused the United States of lacking a "global conscience." He persistently told Canadians that he would stand up to President Bush - unlike Mr. Harper. But as in the recent German elections, anti-Americanism wasn't enough to swing the vote this time.

While Mr. Harper has taken pains to emphasize that he will take an independent stance from the United States, there is reason to believe that his government will place fence mending high on their list of priorities. An apt comparison might be the changing tone of the U.S.-German relationship under newly elected Christian Democrat Chancellor Angela Merkel, who by her recent visit to Washington showed an early commitment to overcome the discord characterized U.S.-German relations under her Social Democratic predecessor.

Mr. Harper would do well to consider the success of Mrs. Merkel's January visit to Washington, and make a similarly early gesture of reaching out to the Bush administration to repair relations. He has, for instance, promised to reconsider Canadian support for U.S. missile defense, which would be a practically cost-free gesture, seeing as the United States is not actually asking Canada to contribute any physical assets. Mr. Harper has also pledged to increase Canadian defense spending and with it Canada's contribution to NATO. On Homeland Security, where cooperation has generally been good, Mr. Martin has talked about further tightening security on the U.S.-Canadian border.

Canada should not be expected to add troops to Iraq, but an increased profile in Afghanistan and Haiti are on the table. Canada already has a sizable contingent of so Mr. Harper has proposed moving beyond the stalled Kyoto debate by looking at different sets of environmental controls. While he is promising to be a tough negotiator on trade issues, such as Canadian lumber, Mr. Harper has also pledged to take a leading role in negotiating the Free Trade Area of the Americas.

In other words, while getting our hopes up for a major warming trend in U.S.-Canadian relations might be too early, at least today, the atmospherics from the North look more promising than they have in a long time.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom