Cover

HARD TRUTHS

We really haven’t got much reason to be so smug about the United States

JOHN GEDDES December 6 2004
Cover

HARD TRUTHS

We really haven’t got much reason to be so smug about the United States

JOHN GEDDES December 6 2004

HARD TRUTHS

Cover

We really haven’t got much reason to be so smug about the United States

JOHN GEDDES

FOR THAT OVERWHELMING MAJORITY of Canadians who would have voted against him, wiping the smirk off George W. Bush’s face is a shared fantasy. But since even his own image-shapers haven’t been able to coach him out of it, why don’t we move on to something easier, like losing the smug, superior expressions that have been frozen on our own mugs since he won re-election. First, it will be necessary to stop gorging at the all-you-can-stomach buffet of punditry that tells us Canada is continuously bathed in progressive Nordic sunlight, while the United States has plunged into neoconservative darkness. No need to risk toxic shock by switching to a steady diet of Ann Coulter columns and Fox News, though. Instead, try a little

something from this special presidentialvisit policy sampler menu, even if these items can’t be guaranteed to go down easy.

KYOTO Science shows that global warming is real, and failing to do something about it might turn out to be this era’s worst example of political cowardice. That would seem to give us comfortable grounds for feeling superior to Bush, since he walked away from the international climate change treaty, while Jean Chretien’s government ratified it. If only we actually had a plausible plan for meeting our greenhouse gas reduction targets. So far, we’re not even close. Federal strategy now relies on voluntary measures from industry, including automakers. Fat chance. And John Bennett, the Sierra Club of Canada’s senior policy adviser on energy, says he has “grave concerns” about Ottawa’s political will to adopt a more forceful policy mix. Meanwhile, although the U.S. is offside on Kyoto, energy efficiency rules are often more stringent south of the border. One unnerving example Bennett cites: Texas’s nation-leading regulations forcing power companies to adopt wind generation. Those passed in 1999, when a certain future

president was perfecting his swagger as the state’s governor.

MARRIAGE We’re aghast that the Americans would re-elect a president who opposes same-sex marriage, and even wants to amend the U.S. Constitution to entrench the heterosexual marriage monopoly. That sort of backward thinking we would never accept. Except from our present and previous prime ministers. They both voted with the majority of MPs in favour of sticking to the traditional definition of matrimony when the issue was put to a vote in the House in 1999. That was before the courts started ruling that gays must be allowed to marry. Faced with those decisions, Martin—agonized reluctance all over his face—changed his stance. When the House voted again on the

GAY marriage has momentum in Canada thanks to some judges, not to enlightened political leadership

matter last fall, the Liberals’ decision to accept what the judges had wrought passed by a slender 137-132 margin. A shift of just six votes and our Parliament would have gone over to the red-state side in the culture wars. Let’s be straight with ourselves: gay marriage has momentum here thanks to some judges, not because of political leadership or public enlightenment. Bush needn’t worry about feeling all that out of place.

POVERTY So we’re still getting our heads around gay weddings. On bedrock socialjustice issues, though, we just know we care more. We don’t need your war machines, we don’t need your ghetto scenes, and all that. More Americans might be rich, but it’s better to be poor here. Yet consider Martin’s main claim to social-progressive bragging rights from his long tenure as finance minister: the National Child Benefit. This reform boosted payments to struggling families, ending the perverse taxing away of income from poor parents striving to work their way to a better life. Hard to argue with that. Yet Michael Mendelson, senior scholar with the Caledon Institute of Social Policy, points

out that U.S. tax benefits to the working poor, even in the Bush era, are more generous. With figures adjusted into Canadian dollars, and taking purchasing power into account, a single mom with one kid and income around $25,000 is about $1,300 ahead under the U.S. system—and that’s real money when you don’t have much to start with. “Although we’ve made progress,” Mendelson says, “we’re not particularly generous.”

PEACEKEEPING Maybe our domestic advantage isn’t always what we imagine, but surely out in the wide world our superiority is unassailable. They’re warmongers and we’re peacekeepers. We can keep patting ourselves on the back about not joining the Iraq war until callouses form. But we might take a break just long enough to look into

who is turning the painful lessons of Iraq, and Afghanistan, into new ways of doing things. Colin Powell, Bush’s departing secretary of state, has set up a new Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization. Its intriguing mandate: ensuring close civilian-military coordination when the U.S. mobilizes to help a country riven by violent conflict, presumably not always by invading. U.S. officials insist the office will have real clout. Ottawa Foreign Affairs mandarins have long pleaded for just this sort of peacekeeping-plus innovation. We just haven’t done anything about it. It’s still not too late

to update our approach, and now we’ve got a U.S. model, of all things, to help us along.

Had enough? There’s lots more. Along with, of course, plenty of compare-and-contrast exercises that work out to our advantage. But haven’t we had enough of those? A little constructive anti-Americanism never hurts—from Sir John A. Macdonald on, we’ve gotten some of our best ideas that way. But that’s no excuse for letting what’s bad in U.S. politics blind us to what’s good. Or, even worse, letting our pride in what we like better about our way make us lose sight of what we shouldn’t like at all. li1]

LOTS TO TALK ABOUT-BUT WILL THEY?

MENDING FENCES, talking big ideas, fixing festering problems—presidential visits are supposed to be about something, and all these themes are in the running to define George W. Bush’s trip this week to Ottawa and Halifax. Preparations were unusually rushed, so officials downplayed the chances of anything concrete being accomplished. But here are some angles to keep in mind:

Charm offensive, or just offensive? Bush’s main aim is thawing chilled bilateral relations, mainly through a speech in Halifax to thank Atlantic Canadians for taking care of all those airline passengers stranded after Sept. 11, 2001. One problem is the speech’s better-late-than-never quality. As well, by avoiding the bigger protests that would likely have swirled around any address he gave in Ottawa, Bush risks appearing to be on the run from Canadians who don’t like him.

As I was saying in Santiago, George... Paul Martin might try to highlight what he’s taken to calling the “new multilateralism,” a potentially awkward contrast to Bush’s good ol’ unilateralism. When the two leaders chatted at the recent Asia-Pacific summit in Chile, Bush was cool to Martin’s idea for a new L20

group, which would bring leaders of key rich countries together with those of developing nations.

Will Martin bother raising the plan again? Say, Paul, this Iraq vote is coming up ... Canada is considering helping out with the Iraq election slated for Jan. 30. While officials would not speculate on the chances of an announcement during Bush’s visit, getting one would be a breakthrough, following the prolonged strain after Canada refused to join the U.S. invasion of Iraq last year. The election is bound to be difficult, so Martin will have to be cautious about Canada’s role.

One hot issue shot down in advance. While federal sources were cagey about what’s on the Bush-Martin agenda, they were clear about one thing that’s not: national missile defence. Pressure from Washington for Canada to sign on to NMD has eased dramatically in

recent weeks. It seems Ottawa’s agreement last summer to change the pact governing the bilateral North American Aerospace Defense Command, allowing NORAD to feed information on possible missile threats to Bush’s interceptor network, has gone a long way to satisfying the Pentagon.

What’s bilateralism without the trade feuds?

Also down in Santiago, Bush pledged to finally move to get the U.S. border opened again to Canadian live cattle imports, which have been banned since last year. No such luck, though, on softwood lumber. In fact, Ottawa has recently warned it might retaliate against the U.S. law that allows duties collected on Canadian softwood imports to be funnelled to American lumber companies. Not much chance here for Bush or Martin to smile for the cameras. JOHN GEDDES