Friday, October 05, 2012
Canada's next political drama: past is prologue
Canadian politics is heating up. The recent election of a separatist (and xenophobic) government in Quebec may give a new lease on life to the national Liberals, the party to whom federalist Canadians have traditionally turned when national unity was menaced by the threat of Quebec secession. In the last national election, talk show pundit and Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff led the Liberals to the most humiliating and devastating defeat in their history. Many said the party no longer knew what it stood for in the 21st century.
The new uncertainty about Quebec could be a game changer.The Conservatives, who are in power today, have always done well when they could appeal to soft Quebec nationalists-as have the social democrats (the NDP) who are the current official opposition. But in the struggle against the hardline separatists it is the legacy of liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau that most Canadians remember. In what must seem to outsiders like Greek political theatre, Trudeau’s eldest son Justin and his former lover Deborah Coyne are now competing to lead the federal Liberals. (Coyne had a daughter with Trudeau, who seems destined for the rather different theatre of Wall Street finance).
Whatever the outcome of the race, Deborah Coyne and Justin Trudeau are fated to be on the frontlines of the federalist effort to preserve the unity of Canada in the face of a new separatist offensive. Justin Trudeau is a 40 year old parliamentarian, former high school teacher and social activist. He is notoriously handsome. Justin is passionate and sincere. What he lacks are policy depth, a defined vision for Canada, and, quite simply, gravitas. For some, his playful stunts (such as a boxing match with a Conservative senator) bring back fond memories of his father’s antics as a young politician. But Pierre Trudeau entered politics as a former law professor, who had published tomes on political philosophy and constitutional theory. While Pierre could afford to lighten up a bit, Justin runs the risk of coming off as an overage party boy.
If the Liberals worry about that image in a leader who will be defending Canada against yet another bid for Quebec independence, they will certainly find a stark alternative in Deborah Coyne, an engaging policy intellectual with a mind like a steel trap, an enormous level of energy, and proven experience in building a grassroots citizen movement. Coyne came to national attention in the 1980s and 1990s, when she launched a Canada-wide campaign opposing Conservative constitutional reforms that would have given concessions to Quebec nationalists and decentralized power in the federation. Ultimately, these changes were defeated in a federal referendum in 1992.
Coyne taught me constitutional and international law at the University of Toronto around the time that she was growing her coalition, on which I had the chance to work. (We became friends. In the interests of disclosure I support her leadership bid, though I'm not really involved: the Liberal Party has had enough for a while of Canadian-born professors at East Coast American universities).
The party establishment that brought in Ignatieff is backing Justin, with money and a lot of hype. But there are those in the rank-and-file who can’t forget what happened when the old guard bet on the wrong horse the last time. Coyne has been building a network of supporters steadily but surely, reaching out to people as individuals not herd-animals, in the way she did in her constitutional campaign a couple of decades ago. But now the pace is greatly accelerated thanks to the internet and social media. In fact, the contrast between Coyne and Justin Trudeau is displayed by the difference between their websites: Coyne’s http://www.deborahcoyne.ca/ contains detailed policy positions on most major national questions; Justin’s http://justin.ca/get-the-latest/ has a one-page “message” full of platitudes.
The most specific statement of Justin on foreign policy (found in a recent speech) is that he wants one that “will give us hope in the future and that will offer solutions to the world.” He astonished many by objecting to the Conservative government’s characterization of honor killing as barbaric, suggesting he is on the opposite pole from Ignatieff’s human rights hawkishness. Coyne, who studied international relations at Oxford ( Anne-Marie Slaughter was among her classmates) will likely make a pitch that Canada should be more vocal and more committed on global issues, from climate change to the reform of international financial regulation. She will almost certainly take her outspokenness about the importance of women in political life to the international stage. Coyne served on Canada’s refugee tribunal and has a strong interest in questions of migration in relationship to security issues and human rights.
We won’t know until April who the Liberals’ new leader will be. In the meantime, as with the battles that Pierre Trudeau fought in the last century, Canadians will witness a personal and political contest that may define the country and its place in the world for long to come.
Posted by Rob Howse on October 5, 2012 at 10:52 AM | Permalink
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Many thanks for this informative and interesting post. As someone with ties to Montreal, I very much enjoyed and benefited from it.
Posted by: Dawinder S. Sidhu | Oct 5, 2012 12:31:57 PM
Fascinating account. Thanks for posting. The never-ending secession issue irritates the heck out of many Canadians, I'm sure -- but it also makes for some juicy politics.
Posted by: Jason Marisam | Oct 5, 2012 12:42:32 PM
Posted by: Todd Weiler | Oct 5, 2012 2:12:14 PM
Posted by: Todd Weiler | Oct 5, 2012 2:14:26 PM
Great post, Rob. Where a lot of people had written the Liberals off as dead a year ago, there does now seem to be some wiggle room for them to come back. Indeed, a recent Forum poll asking voters who they would vote for if Trudeau led the Liberals suggested the Libs could get enough votes to win a majority (details here: http://www.threehundredeight.com/2012/10/tories-lead-in-forum-poll.html). But, at this point, I tend to think it's still too early to predict what's going to happen. The poll reminded me a lot of those from last year showing François Legault's then-unnamed/unformed Coalition Avenir Québec winning the next provincial election, when the party ultimately came in (a relatively close) third. That is, Trudeau is still largely undefined and can thus represent whatever voters want in a federal Liberal party, but as he defined himself and the party, a lot of that support could disappear.
As for the continuing threat of secession, we're again stuck in a "who know's what's going to happen next" point in time. The results of last month's vote really suggest Quebeckers have no desire to have another sovereignty debate. The PQ should have won by a landslide, given the unpopularity of the Charest Liberals, the ongoing corruption investigations, etc. But instead they barely won—less than 1% and only four seats ahead of the Liberals. Now, it would be a miracle if the Liberals can do this well at the next provincial election, which might be only a few months down the line, but the CAQ is just as likely to benefit by the Liberals' collapse, especially if the PQ spends the next few months focusing on their very unpopular "identity" platform instead of dealing with the economy, broken healthcare system, corruption in the construction industry, etc. So, the "renewed threat of a sovereignty fight" may never actually arise in any meaningful sense.
Regardless, if Trudeau does win the Liberal leadership, we might see a very interesting federal election in 2015, since both the Liberals and NDP would be led by Quebeckers. Among other things, I anticipate a hilarious level of hysterics by online commenters about the threat of a Quebec-dominated Liberal/NDP coalition.
Posted by: Charles Paul Hoffman | Oct 5, 2012 4:00:50 PM
Thanks for these encouraging comments. To Charles in particular: yes, not sure yet whether and in what form a new sovereignty fight will materialize-but the post-election uncertainty in Quebec I maintain does introduce a new factor into the present political game at the federal level. While you note the fragile popular support of the PQ government, its ugly rhetoric and taste for inter-group conflict may polarize and intensify politics in Quebec, unleashing a dynamics that brings the province closer to separation than at any time in the recent past. I was in Montreal post-election, and people were already worried about their real estate becoming worthless.
Posted by: Rob | Oct 5, 2012 4:26:30 PM
Very true. I just saw a story on the CBC website a day or so ago about Ontario realtors getting lots of calls from Quebec anglophones and allophones. So there are definitely serious worries, though at this point they are mostly overblown (I do not, for instance, see Marois as having any hope of passing her amendments to Bill 101 during the present mandate). That said, the PQ's nationalistic/xenophobic approach has been successful in the past and it's quite possible that at least some voters will respond to a worsening economic/political situation by moving into the sovereigntist camp.
As for federal politics, everyone seems to be waiting to see how the NDP is going to respond. At times it's infuriating—the National Post, for instance, has published a number of op-eds, etc., basically demanding that Mulcair state his position on every aspect of the debate—but given the NDP's current position in Quebec, it seems logical that they would be at the front lines of a renewed sovereignty debate.
Posted by: Charles Paul Hoffman | Oct 5, 2012 4:57:49 PM
"Ignatieff’s human rights hawkishness."
After his (at least fairly significant) support for torture, does he still get to have this reputation? I'd not be in favor of it.
Posted by: Matt | Oct 5, 2012 10:15:57 PM
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