Canada slumbers while Obama shakes up U.S.

If there is one feature of the Obama administration that transcends all others, it is its level of activity. Not a single day passes without a policy initiative being launched, a decision being announced, or a commentary being offered, either by Obama himself or through a government spokesperson. A second and more important characteristic is the strategic content associated with its policy making. This guy has a plan. Whether or not you agree with Obama, you know there’s a sense of direction and a view of a bigger picture. No wonder, then, that Obama is more popular than all our leaders combined.

Even his adversaries concede that Obama is transforming the conduct of his office and is moving in directions that will have long-term repercussions on the nation and the rest of the world. Although there is strong opposition to many of his proposals, at least there is a strategy to be debated and a sense that things are changing. Young people are engaging in numbers not seen since the baby boomer generation came of age. In the lead-up to the anniversary of their nation, there is today a sense of hope, excitement, and optimism shared by a majority of Americans. But while the U.S. is on the move, where is Canada headed? Where is Canada going to be in the next decade? Put more bluntly, is Canada asleep at the switch?

In an earlier post, I stated that Canada has legitimate concerns about America’s direction on energy, free trade, border security, and global warming. It was not meant as a critique of Obama’s general direction—though we should challenge some aspects of it—but rather as a comment on the lack of real debate in our country and the fact that we are not promoting our comparative advantages around the world. It is one thing to claim Obama is bad for Canada, but it’s quite another to say so when we cannot even clearly define where we want to go. When was the last time a Canadian politician was courageous enough to stray from his scripted sound bites and press lines?

While America is trying to restore its image abroad, exert some leadership, and restructure its economy through the partial nationalization of the auto and financial sectors, we spend our days speculating about whether the Harper government will be defeated and whether we will have a fall election now that the summer showdown has fizzled. The politicians down south are debating implementing a cap and trade system for carbon emissions, comprehensive reforms to healthcare, and energy independence; meantime, our politicians are obsessed with parliamentary gamesmanship. While the Obama juggernaut rolls on, the Harper government brags about the impact of its anti-Ignatieff attack ads. The Liberals, meanwhile, have left us waiting to see what the alternative would look like.

And yet, we have every reason to be arguing about the direction of our country and the state of our economy. For better or worse, Obama should be forcing us to think strategically. Otherwise, we will remain in reactive mode, fretting over “Buy American” provisions and border restrictions. Canadians deserve more than that from their politicians. A minority parliament is not a signal for prioritizing parliamentary ruses. It should be a signal for developing laws and policies that go beyond political ideology. The voters want and expect this. My experience with the minority parliament of Quebec has convinced me that the public wants a different kind of politics. At the federal level, all parties have failed to see the opportunities that cohabitation provides in a minority parliament. The Conservative government has adopted a stimulus package that even progressive liberals could live with, but the ballooning deficit has drawn criticism not from conservative thinkers but from the same Liberals who pushed for it. The NDP and the Bloc Québécois may have interesting policy ideas, but they both seem to relish being a nuisance when it comes to the brinkmanship over a possible election call.

Meanwhile, Canada registers declines in areas like research and the economy, and is not leveraging our diplomatic reach in the world. As former ambassador to the U.S. Alan Gotlieb pointed out recently to illustrate our complacency, we did not build on the NAFTA deal in the decade following its signing and then we nearly panicked when Clinton and Obama spoke of re-opening the deal. As rich as we are and as respected as we have been, why are we spectators rather than real players at G8 and G20 forums? Perhaps we are effective behind the scenes, but there is little evidence that is the case.

In spite of all this, we remain the envy of the world in many regards and deservedly so. We are a gentler and more compassionate country than our neighbour to the south; our people are among the healthiest in the world; we have a competitive education system; we all have universal healthcare; we have been inventors and innovators; and we have a consensus on most of the social issues dividing Americans. We work for peace and a better world, and have every right to cherish our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But we can be leaders in the world.

Happy birthday, Canada!

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.