On May 2, the headlines screamed that al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden had been killed by a US Navy SEAL team. Later that evening, a secondary US TV channel carried Canadian election coverage, determining by 11 p.m. that the Tories had won a governing majority in Parliament. These results were carried in two paragraphs on an inside page of the Washington Post the following morning (and in slightly more detail on May 4). Yet, satisfying as the first event was for US psyches (it is not only the Mounties who always get their man), the second was unquestionably more important for American foreign policy.

Essentially, the egregious Bin Laden was part of our past and, despite reported planning of attacks, he was no longer the existential threat he had been since 9/11; in contrast, a secure Tory governing majority provides substantial potential support for US foreign policy and domestic economics.

It is important for Canadians to appreciate this reality before they stumble into the trap of believing themselves to be ignored to the point of being disrespected.

To be sure, you doubtless can find many more Americans who knew nothing about the election than those who did — as you can find Americans who believe igloos are low-cost Montreal suburban housing. The incredible developments in the Middle East and North Africa since the beginning of 2011 and our domestic contortions over the federal budget sucked up most of the oxygen even for attentive political observers. And Canada is irrelevant to Detroit auto workers (if there are any left), Nevada home builders (ditto) or other people across the US who are digging out from massive storms/floods or preparing land for spring plowing/planting. In the same way, their political concerns are irrelevant to severely normal Canadians from sea to sea to sea.

However, it is pertinent for Canadians to remember that those Americans who do follow bilateral developments in Canada do so with the same intensity that policy- and decision-makers in any field accord to their specialty.

So for those who do follow Canadian politics, the May 2 election was an important test for the bilateral relationship and a harbinger of the near- and medium-range future. It is a development that will benefit both Canada and the United States for at least the next four years.

Although the most exciting developments in the election were the surge of the New Democrats to official opposition status and the collapse of the Liberal Party and the Bloc Québécois (BQ), the most important reality for Canada was the end of seven years of minority government. For the United States, it is always easier to deal with a majority government; to point out the obvious, Ottawa will be able to make decisions on controversial/challenging issues and be confident that they will become policy/law and be implemented. The Canadian government will not wake up every morning with the knife-at-the-throat awareness that the day may bring its collapse into an election. A minority government is constantly firefighting; it has no time or willpower to think of building firewalls, let alone contemplating fire prevention, as it rushes to cope with the blaze of the day. President Barack Obama now knows Stephen Harper will be here past 2012.

Thus the Canadian government now has the luxury of time. Time to bring nascent ideas to fruition, time to give substantive consideration to alternatives and the authority to make pending issues fact. Many of these actions will be purely domestic: for example, restructuring federal funding for political parties, eliminating the long gun registry and implementing assorted criminal justice measures. But other potential action is of bilateral and international significant concern to Canada and the United States.

For the United States, it is always easier to deal with a majority government; to point out the obvious, Ottawa will be able to make decisions on controversial/ challenging issues and be confident that they will become policy/law and be implemented. The Canadian government will not wake up every morning with the knife-at-the-throat awareness that the day may bring its collapse into an election.

As we take comfort in and assess the results of the Tory majority, it is useful to look briefly at the —path not taken— by Canadians. A Tory majority was far from assured and, indeed, not the oddsmakers’ betting choice. A Tory victory, yes; but another minority. And in the election endgame, the NDP surge (and impending Liberal collapse) generated hypotheses of a political alignment that could result in a relatively rapid Tory defeat on a confidence measure (the budget) in the 41st Parliament. One focus of speculation was the —opposition coalition— alliance/support group of NDP and Liberals with implicit BQ backing, perhaps ending with NDP Leader Jack Layton as prime minister. While this construct proved to be an effective scarecrow to make some Canadian voters switch to the Tories, it was not any more impossible than the actual filled-with-firsts election results.

And that would have meant a very different Canadian government. Even discounting NDP ritualistic rhetoric and the —where you sit is where you stand— political reality altering ideological policies, such an alliance could have substantially altered our bilateral relationship. Some likely results would have been:

  • full Canadian withdrawal from Afghanistan and an end to Canadian air operations in Libya
  • cancellation of the F-35 purchase
  • intense skepticism of any further bilateral economic deepening or regulatory reform and amused indifference to US government proposals for intensified continental perimeter security
  • ritualized hostility toward the United States

When the NDP’s senior Quebec MP, Thomas Mulcair, expressed on May 4 that —I don’t think…that those pictures exist [of the dead Osama bin Laden],— he implicitly called President Obama a liar. It was stupidity to be sure; but it was predictable mendacity. Such a style of comment would not have been significantly countered by Liberals; recall then Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff saying during the campaign that what he learned in dealing with the United States was that —you don’t believe what the American tells you.—

If we thought that our bilateral relations had reached a low point with Carolyn Parrish jumping up and down on a plastic President George W. Bush doll for the delectation of a TV audience, an NDP/Liberal/BQ government would have plumbed new depths of frigidity.

The US government is not anticipating Canada will be a military partner in future coalitions of the willing, although such would certainly be appreciated. Nor are we going to be pounding on doors in Ottawa touting the virtues of continental missile defence. Instead, approaches will remain low key: a continuation of the sophisticated support given in Afghanistan under domestically difficult circumstances (with every casualty nationally mourned) will be appreciated. The Canadian segue from combat operations into training Afghan military and police was adroitly managed, and such action may ultimately be more productive for Afghan stability than killing more Taliban combatants.

Moreover, Canada now has a highly trained, combat-experienced light infantry army. The Tories, with a majority, may have greater flexibility to deploy such a force (under appropriate UN/NATO mandates). Such developments will further enhance US-Canada military cooperation, permitting Canadians to take prominent positions such as commanding NATO’s Libya operations.

In addition, we can look forward to joint military equipment purchase/production. One could argue the military merits of the F-35 (and note in passing that no major piece of combat equipment has been delivered on time and/or under budget). But if Canada wants the capability to cooperate with the United States and other major allies on a high-tech basis, it needs 21st-century equipment to do so. A Tory victory means no repeat of the invidious 1993 Liberal decision to scuttle the purchase of EH-101 helicopters, leaving Canada still without comprehensive replacement for totally antiquated Sky Kings almost 20 years later.

Since 9/11, the United States has put a —security trumps everything— face on its policy. The irritating and frustrating security procedures that now dominate air travel and border crossing seem to infuriate Canadians disproportionately. Many refuse to recognize that while the 9/11 terrorists did not transit Canada (and Americans now recognize this fact), they easily could have done so.

One solution is continental —perimeter security,— which would, however, require significantly more sharing of information and would raise privacy questions. Washington does not believe such issues are insurmountable; hopefully, the new Canadian government will be able to move past shibboleths to implement regimes in seaports and airports that will enhance security while facilitating 49th-parallel transits for individuals and manufactures. It is absurd that auto parts moving between the US and Canada can require a half-dozen border clearances, while fully assembled foreign cars can enter with a single review.

Canada and the United States struggle with the problems of balancing compassion for refugees with concerns about security and trafficking in persons. But Washington has often concluded that Canadian policies are lax rather than compassionate, and that security concerns are a tertiary consideration. Canadian refugees all too frequently disappear into the population, never face judicial review and may well end up in the United States. Bill C-49, which died when the election was called, was a first step to rectify the compassion/security balance. (Naturally it was reviled by the opposition.) Its reintroduction and passage would suggest a more serious appreciation in Canada for and recognition of US (and Canadian) security concerns.

Without detailing specifics the following are short illustrations of potentially positive developments.

Intellectual property. This is probably the number one US economic priority. Although intellectual property includes patents and trademarks, the primary US concern is copyright protection, specifically Canadian-based Internet and other pirate operations copying and redistributing US film and musical productions. These have become a major US export and protecting them is a major US objective. This problem is addressed in a global treaty, but it requires each signatory to adjust its national legislation. Canada acceded to the treaty, but throughout multiple minority governments has not passed implementing legislation. Most recently Bill C-42 died when the election was called. With a majority government, however, the opposition can no longer obstruct parliamentary committee action indefinitely. Consequently, the US hopes for early reintroduction of the legislation, expeditious committee review and parliamentary passage. Intellectual property has been a tedious, neuralgic bilateral issue; it is resolvable and should be resolved.

Energy. The Tories adroitly foot-dragged against the tides of the Kyoto and Copenhagen accords, emphasizing that Canadian action that was out of step with US decisions would be counterproductive. In the interim, the lure of the cap-and-trade approach, ostensibly identified as ultimate US policy (and touted by Canadian opposition parties), has faded in the face of fiscal disasters where it was implemented. The Tory majority permits steady development of an Alberta-based energy superpower, dismissing the canard of —dirty— oil and providing the United States with —democratic—oil.

Regulatory reform. This is an arcane bureaucratic issue that has little political impetus behind it. Reportedly, any action will require Canadian pressure — now possible with a Tory majority government. Nevertheless, each specific problem carries its own baggage and qualifies as a nontariff barrier to our trading relationship, so progress will be item by item.

A cautionary note: At 166 seats (155 gives a majority), the Tories have a solid but not massive victory. It is difficult to secure a majority when 60 percent of the electorate stands to your political left. There was no —Harpermania— driving the victory; instead, it was a careful construct based on exploiting the weaknesses of the major opposition leader, adroit identification of ridings where extra attention to constituents could win support and intense message control in media management. The electorate does not love the Prime Minister, but they recognized his managerial competence in addressing their greatest concern: the economy. This correlation of positive factors may not be repeatable in four years, given that the Tories will then have been in power for nine years, a point often regarded as the —best before— date in Western democracies.

The NDP as official opposition may prove to be a one-off phenomenon, subject to implosion from internal contradictions between its massive Quebec contingent and old-line NDPers. And it reflects Jack Layton’s personal victory, one that is perhaps not sustainable if he is no longer leader. Nevertheless, the cycle in democracies leads to oppositions becoming governments, and a sincere socialist NDP — regardless of whether it continues its plod toward UK Labour Party-style democratic socialism — would be a very different North American partner. In the aphorism that we are best friends, like it or not, the emphasis would be on the “not”.

Photo: Shutterstock

David T. Jones
David T. Jones, a former minister counselor at the US embassy in Ottawa, follows Canada-US relations from Washington.

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