Friday, November 25, 2005

What U2's Lead Singer Doesn't Understand About Canadian Politics

Lately, the normally mellifluous Irish superstar Bono has been sounding less like the most popular singer on the planet and more like Woody Allen. The source of his dissonance and disillusionment has been the disappointing performance of Prime Minister Paul Martin in the area of foreign aid.

"I'm crushed.....I'm mystified, actually, by the man," the U2 leader singer told a news conference Friday. "I like him very much, personally. "I just think that it's a huge opportunity that he's missing out on. This is important to the Canadian people. I think the prime minister will find out if he walks away from the opportunity to (boost foreign aid) he will hear about it in the election. I am absolutely sure of that."

Like most international humanitarian celebrities, Bono knows about the most storied highlights of Canada's progressive past: Lester Pearson's Nobel Prize for Peacekeeping, all that social legislation, John Lennon's ringing endorsement of Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney's and Stephen Lewis's spirited fight against against apartheid, Canada's penchant for multilateralism, and the simple fact that it was Canada's Prime Minister Pearson who first proposed the goal of dedicating 0.7% of GDP to foreign aid, over 40 years ago.

Having met Paul Martin, Bono had no doubt of his direct lineage from Pearson and Trudeau (although a word with Jean Chretien might have sewn some doubts.) Bono also knows that Canada has been given to brag about its affluence, its rate of job creation, its perennial top rankings on the Human Development Index, and the fact that it has been running up fiscal surpluses more consistently than any other G7 country.

Hence Bono's mystification. Why does this Good Man drag his feet?

Bono's blind spot is his understandable ignorance of what lies inside that big black box known as Canadian domestic politics. First, there is the nature of the Liberal Party and its history as the natural party of government--it's geographical and class basis, and its ideological flexibility.

Bono is precisely the kind of man that McKenzie King or Louis St. Laurent would have patronized as a "Liberal in a hurry". I get the feeling that Paul has that same attitude, although he is too smart to actually say it.

Next, there is the right mix of historial conditions that must exist before the Liberal Party's progressive promises can bloom. The Pearson Governments of 1963-1968 and the Trudeau Government of 1972-1974 were both minority governments, a fact that was crucial to the evolution of the Canadian Welfare state. McGill historian Antonia Maioni has documented the crucial role that the likes of Tommy Douglas, Stanley Knowles, and David Lewis played in pressuring Ottawa to accept medicare and other social legislation. Indeed, one Liberal MP in the Pearson Government actually castigated Pearson for being "gutless" for dragging his feet on medicare after Tommy Douglas's Saskatchewan government and a federal Royal Commission chaired by Justice Emmett Hall had demonstrated its value and viability. So, Bono is right to identify Martin with Pearson, though perhaps not for the reasons he imagined.

Finally, there is the mystifying conundrum of Canadian federalism. It is much easier for federal governments, who have all the revenue raising abilities and few of the spending responsibilties that provinces have, to balance their books. At the provincial level, where social policy actually is formulated and implemented, money is scarcer than Bono may have been led to believe. That being the case, although the Liberals are breaking records for election eve spending announcements, most of that money is being targetted where it can be expected to get the biggest electoral bang: daycare, tax breaks, pine beetle, softwood lumber, transportation, municipal infrastructure and (more nobly) First Nations poverty and economic development. (Actually, I have a preference for foreign aid, if only because it is one of the few areas that are genuinely a matter of federal jurisdiction.)

Hopefully, Mr. Martin will be emboldened by a rise in public support for foreign aid to increase funding for AIDS and development in Africa. But don't expect him to even restore Canada's foreign aid spending to historically high levels on his own volition. As I am sure Stephen Lewis could tell Bono, that is more likely to happen when the NDP has a clear balance of power in Parliament.

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