Tuesday, November 17, 2015

New versus Old in the Liberal Government

As the Canadian government transitions from the Harper to Trudeau leadership it may be useful to consider the changes Canada has experienced since the last time Liberals held power federally. While political parties are institutions that help preserve continuity the Liberal Party that has formed the government is very different from the one that last held power in 2006 under Paul Martin.

One of the strangest aspects of the Liberal win in October was the fact that their caucus contains such a huge group of rookies. From 36 to 184 seats in the House of Commons, even with some returning MPs, there will be a steep learning curve, and difficulty managing the green caucus. When selecting a cabinet Trudeau relied upon experienced former ministers such as Ralph Goodale, Lawrence MacAulay, Stephane Dion, and John McCallum to balance out new faces. Still, the Liberal Government is hardly a return of the one that was defeated, and the country it seeks to govern and the world it finds itself in has changed.

The political transformation over the last nine years have been dramatic. We saw the unification of the Conservative Party, which was table to construct a durable coalition to hold power, the separatists were obliterated/marginalized from federal politics, the NDP developed into a national force with a strong presence in Quebec, and the Green Party has gained a foothold in Parliament. Oddly, despite all the shake ups at the federal level continuity has been the name of the game in the provinces. Many of the provinces have seen premiers in power several terms, and successfully passed onto their successors. Notable exceptions, of course, include places such as Alberta. The new Liberal government must consider themselves in a two-front struggle more than any previous government in the preceding 20 years. The NDP represents a real challenge on the left and not the rump it was in the 1990s. However priorities have clearly changed as well. The Martin Liberals was a party who embraced balanced budgets and a tighter spending than what Trudeau has signaled, a definite shift.

Elsewhere on the domestic front Canada's economy has continued its evolution. The last nine years saw an economy buoyed by decent financial regulations and high resource prices. Canada's strength compared to G8 peers largely has to do with the fact that natural resources kept our economic growth going and Canadian housing increasingly became an attractive investment for international buyers. With China's economy flagging the demand for raw materials is plummeting. Prices for oil and other natural resources have declined, and with them the resource-dependent economy they brought. Canadian manufacturing continued is sad, steady erosion, and with it the provinces of Ontario and Quebec languished. Due to this changes Ontario seems far less willing to make sacrifices on behalf of the rest of the country, and is looking for tangible support from the federal government. This may become clearer given the importance Ontario played in the Trudeau majority. As a country we move forward to a potential demographic crisis as the Boomers prepare to retire. The looming economic and social problems associated with the graying of our population has not been adequately tackled or addressed by our leaders.

When reflecting on the past nine years economically the looming presence of the Great Recession is hard to avoid. So much of Canadian life has been marred by its shadow. Instead of stable periods of growth or contraction we seem doomed to this prolonged limbo of stagnation. As a member of the struggling Millennial generation it is particularly evident in the lack of opportunities for my peers and I. Barring some international recovery Trudeau will have to manage growing social expenses while revenues remain low. This problem is already evident in the provinces which carry a much larger proportion of social service expenses.

Perhaps most striking thing for Canada's new government is the changed international landscape from 2006. In the early 2000s it was easy to continue to hold the post-Cold War image of 'America as the only Superpower'. Developments since that time has again and again shown that America does not have the power and influence to act alone and impose its agenda unilaterally. It has been my opinion that the world has returned to an era of Great Powers, such as in the 19th or early 20th centuries. Two striking examples of this has been the rise of China and Russia's belligerence on the international stage. Russia remains a threat to world peace: the invasion of Georgia, pressure on the Baltic States, and the military interventions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. China likewise has become more aggressive in its sphere of influence and appears to be making investments in its military to ensure its dominance is harder to challenge. Meanwhile the past nine years has seen a crippling crisis slowly unfold in the European Union. Canada will have to navigate a more adversarial international scene and perhaps might have to find a faction to align its interests with besides the United States.

In 2003 PM Chretien's choice to keep Canada out of the War in Iraq felt fitting, but the position of non-intervention and peacekeeping-only seems more and more naive in a world where ISIS and like-minded revolutionary movements burn across the Middle East and North Africa. Add in the Syrian refugee crisis a refusal to engage in global affairs, with military force if necessary, seems irresponsible. When countries such as Belgium and Denmark are getting involved in these international crises it will be difficult to excuse Canada's absence from these conflicts. Likewise Canada may have to finally take military spending much more seriously to effectively participate in the global community.

In 2006 there were 32.6 million Canadians, today there are roughly 35.7 million. Much of that growth can be attributed to immigration. Many thousands of Canadians, increasingly from the "Global South" move to Canada every year. In time this has changed the character of our country, fueled growth of our cities, changed the nature of our classrooms, and streets and enriched our lives. At the same time, while broad multiculturalism is accepted by many Canadians there is a growing tension. During the recent election the niqab debate was a strong indication that our belief in diversity may be more surface level than we like to assume. If you recall the Marois Government in Quebec tried to introduce the Charter of Values, which would also have restricted clothes associated with minority groups. The place of minority cultures that challenge Euro-Canadian ones still remains up for debate.

It is not as though the Canada of 2015 and 2006 are unrecognizable from each other, but I think it is clear that the nine years that Stephen Harper was in power saw significant transformation of the country, and not all of it due to the social and economic policies of his government. The Liberals under Trudeau cannot simply pretend that returning back to the policies and practices of the 1990s will work in the current context. Perhaps Trudeau, like many new governments, will find oddly more to take from his predecessor than he first assumed. 

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