Canada’s Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, won a majority government in a recent round of elections. The country’s Liberal Party, meanwhile, continued a long-running decline. We examine the impact that new government is likely to have on relations with the United States.


  • John Ibbitson Ottowa Bureau Chief, The Globe & Mail and Author of Open & Shut: Why America has Barack Obama, and Canada has Stephen Harper


  • 13:06:42

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, how widespread rape and sexual mutilation in the Congo also demonstrate the resourcefulness and strength of women. We discuss the play "Ruined," currently at Arena Stage. But first, in case you missed it, Canada held a federal election on May 2nd and the results have shaken up the political order for our neighbors to the north.

  • 13:07:21

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhile Prime Minister Stephen Harper has managed to eke out a majority of seats in Canada's parliament, the Liberal Party, long referred to as the country's natural governing party, has continued a long decline. Meanwhile, the New Democratic Party under leader Jack Layton made significant gains to become the official opposition and effectively eliminated the Bloc Quebecois, whose leader has resigned.

  • 13:07:46

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to discuss the significance of these results and the impact they may have on Canada's relationship with the U.S. is John Ibbitson. He is the Ottawa bureau chief for Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper and the author of "Open & Shut: Why America Has Barack Obama and Canada Has Stephen Harper." John Ibbitson, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:07

    MR. JOHN IBBITSONIt's a pleasure to be here.

  • 13:08:09

    NNAMDIStephen Harper has been Canada's prime minister since 2006 and now he's ruling a majority government. Meaning, he'll have an easier time, presumably, setting the national agenda. What does that mean as far as Americans need to know?

  • 13:08:24

    IBBITSONWell, it sets a reset button on Canada-U.S. relations. In Canada, whoever gets the majority of seats in the House of Commons gets to form the government. But since 2004, no one party has ever had a majority of seats in the House. So the party that got the most seats, the liberals from 2004 to 2006, and then the conservatives from 2006 until May 2nd had to govern with the consent of at least one other party. If they didn't, then they'd be defeated in House, and there'd be an election. And we've had a lot of elections since 2004.

  • 13:08:58

    IBBITSONThat means that whoever is in government has to be very careful. Has to make sure that they're not doing anything that is too terribly controversial. And there is nothing more controversial than Canada-U.S. relations. There is a strong body of opinion in Canada that we need to get closer to the United States in terms of trade. The border is sickening, as we say. Since 9/11, more and more security arrangements have been in place, passports are required. It takes more time for goods to get across the border. This affects your industries as well as ours.

  • 13:09:31

    IBBITSONBut there's another strong lobby in Canada that says we don't want to get too close to the United States. We don't want to get swallowed up by our American neighbor. It's a perpetual Canadian complaint. So what this allows the conservative government to do is begin to have a serious dialogue with the Obama administration and with Congress. But what exactly the two countries can do on to two fronts? One, can we better integrate security so that there is something, what, like a continental security perimeter in which both Canada and the United States jointly control the continental borders.

  • 13:10:05

    IBBITSONIn exchange for that, can we have a new economic agreement, sort of the first big agreement since the free trade pact of 1993 that will make it easier for goods and people to cross the border? This will be a very contentious conversation here in Canada and with our American cousins as well.

  • 13:10:23

    NNAMDIContentious especially because, since 9/11, security measures between the U.S. and Canada have been stepped up. Correct?

  • 13:10:30

    IBBITSONThat's correct. There is a misperception on the part of a lot of Americans that somehow the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon came from Canada. It came through the Canada-U.S. border. That's not true at all. They came from Europe. But nonetheless, the perception exists that Canada lets in -- I talk to one fellow from Homeland Security a few years ago at a cocktail party and I told him I was a reporter from Canada. And he said, oh, you guys let in a whole lot of people and you don't know who they are.

  • 13:10:59

    IBBITSONWell, we do let in a whole lot of people, about 250,000 a year, more than any other country in the world on a per capita basis. But we do know who they are. And we believe that in fact our borders are pretty secure. But convincing the Americans that they are secure, convincing Janet Napolitano, the Homeland Security director, that they're secure, that the borders are secure has been a tough sell. As a result of which, as I mentioned earlier for example, Americans now require that anyone crossing the Canada-U.S. border, be it Canadian or American, must have a passport.

  • 13:11:29

    IBBITSONThat's had a big impact on our tourism trade, on our convention trade. And if you're trying to ship goods across the Canada-U.S. border, there are manifests, there are checks, there are different forms that have to be filled out. As a result of which, the line up can take hours. Well, in the auto industry, for example, Ontario and Michigan are deeply integrated and it gets harder and harder for GM and Ford to, you know, make products together on the Canada and U.S. side. If those trucks are being held up at Detroit. So these are all areas in which we're trying to convince the Americans that Canada is a good and safe partner. But it's a tough sell.

  • 13:12:04

    NNAMDIWe're talking with John Ibbitson. He is the Ottawa bureau chief for Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper and the author of "Open & Shut: Why America Has Barack Obama and Canada Has Stephen Harper." You can call us at 800-433-8850 if you'd like to join the conversation. That's 800-433-8850. Or go to our website, What do you think about the Canadian election results, especially in terms of what they will mean for the relationship between the U.S. and Canada?

  • 13:12:32

    NNAMDIJohn Ibbitson, with regard to domestic policies, will a majority conservative government mean a change in Canada's approach to social issues, abortion, the penalty, for instance, the way those issues are approached by social conservatives in this country?

  • 13:12:49

    IBBITSONWell, certainly the conservative critics fear that it will. I don't believe that it will. The Conservative Party took a long time to get its act together. There were many years that they spent in the wilderness. They were driven by faction and schism. Stephen Harper's great achievement was to be able to bring the various conservative factions together in one broad-based party, that was his first achievement. His second was to convince Canadians, at least enough to make him the government, that the party was centrist, was safe on social issues.

  • 13:13:19

    IBBITSONHe has sworn that as prime minister of a majority government, for example, the government will not revisit the issue of abortion, which is legal throughout Canada. There will be no revisiting of capital punishment, which is prohibited in Canada. There is a socially conservative base in this country, but it is much, much smaller than it is in the United States. And Stephen Harper recognizes, I think, that if he were to appeal to that social conservative base on any of those major issues, gay marriage, for example, which is also legal across Canada, that he would risk alienating the party in the affections of the broader public.

  • 13:13:57

    IBBITSONSo I don't think he's going to go there. He'll be -- he's very tough on crime legislation, extending prison sentences, toughening parole requirements and the like. That will be an attempt to mollify his socially conservative base. But I don't think it will go any farther than that.

  • 13:14:16

    NNAMDIConservatives here don't like national health insurance. How do they feel about it in Canada?

  • 13:14:21

    IBBITSONWell, I was asked to give a talk once to some possible administrators in Colorado. And the talk was 45 minutes, at least it was scheduled. And I said this to them, this was a couple of years ago, I said Canada spends 10 percent of its gross domestic product on health care. The United States spends 17 percent of its gross domestic product on health care. Our life expectancy is two years longer than yours, we win. Questions?

  • 13:14:47

    IBBITSONThe fact is that public health care in Canada is broadly, deeply, in effect, passionately supported. It's not just a social program. It is a deep value for us, as it is in the United States as well. We have problems here, waiting lists are long for some procedures. It can be hard to find a family doctor. But it is a deeply embedded principle in Canadian society. I think you would find near universal acceptance of this principle that your need for health care should be the only determining factor in your getting that health care.

  • 13:15:20

    IBBITSONThat your wealth, your means, who you know, what connections you have and how much money you personally could spend should have no factor in determining what kind of care you receive. This is a national value. There are things that we need to do to improve the system. I for one have argued that we need to introduce some private sector competition in order to make the public sector more competitive and accountable, just as the United States, I believe, needs to introduce more public sector care in order to make the private sector accountable.

  • 13:15:50

    IBBITSONBut the fact remains that our health care system works pretty well, serves people's needs and woe betide any government at the provincial level or the federal level that threatens to mess with it and the conservatives have promised that they won't mess with it either.

  • 13:16:05

    NNAMDIBack to politics, in Canada's parliamentary system, what limiting role does the official opposition play to assure that the ruling party governs, in Stephen Harper's words, for all Canadians?

  • 13:16:17

    IBBITSONWell, in a minority parliament, such as we had for the last three parliaments, they have a lot of say because the opposition can unite to defeat the government. But once you have a majority of seats in the House of Commons, which Stephen Harper now has, the role of the opposition is much more limited. They have a bully pulpit. Every day they get up in the House of Commons and the leader of the official opposition, the leader of the third party are able to ask the prime minister questions and demand that he explain and account for his actions.

  • 13:16:43

    IBBITSONOf course, they had the ability to go to the press and warn about this and that. In parliamentary committees, they can raise objections to legislation and propose amendments. But at the end of the day, there are few things quite so powerful as a majority government in a Westminster democracy, whether that's Australia or Canada or Great Britain. Once you have a majority, in the end, you can do pretty much what you want. In Canada, in fact, the greater constraint comes not from the opposition party in the House but from the provincial premieres.

  • 13:17:10

    IBBITSONOur provinces are much more powerful than American states. They have a much bigger responsibility for running social programs. They have much more taxing powers. And it is a given that the federal government cannot act in areas of social policy, education, health care, cities, you name it. If in fact the provinces are opposed or even if the big provinces are opposed, essentially if Ontario and Quebec decides that they don't like what the federal government is doing in an area of provincial jurisdiction, then that's the end of the proposal. They have an effective veto.

  • 13:17:41

    NNAMDIUnlike the United States, Canada's parliament has a multiparty system and the New Democratic Party has made significant gains as presumably an alternative to conservatives and liberals. How do what Americans would call third parties play a different role in Canada? And tell us more specifically about whom the NDP represents.

  • 13:18:02

    IBBITSONWell, the NDP is traditionally the third party in the House. It has traditionally had the support of about 15 percent of Canadians, up to about 18 percent on a good day. Now the government alternated between liberal and conservative, Conservative and liberal with the NDP as the sort of conscience of parliament, the social conscience of parliament. Well, lo and behold, in this election, the liberals went from second place to third place, something they have never been in the past. They are in the deep state of panic over the election result.

  • 13:18:32

    IBBITSONAnd the Bloc Quebecois, which was a separatist party in Quebec, which was also a social democratic party as well, suddenly collapsed. Quebec has decided they were tired of these old sovereignties who've been kicking around for 20 years and perpetually talked about separation. They decided they wanted in fact to go looking for a new party. And the party they chose was the NDP, to the considerable surprise of the NDP, along with everyone else. I think NDP leader, Jack Layton, is as surprised as anyone else that he has 100 and some seats now in the House of Commons.

  • 13:19:03

    IBBITSONThere are NDP MPs who were elected in Quebec ridings who never had even visited their riding, who don't speak French. One candidate is now the MP for a riding near the city of Trois-Rivieres, who had never been to her riding once, who doesn't speak any French and who spent the entire election campaign in Las Vegas.

  • 13:19:22

    IBBITSONIn fact, Vegas is her new nickname. So it's a surprise for all of us. But the -- so the question is, is the NDP a traditional third party that just had a really, really good election and everything will revert to normal in the next election? Or are they emerging as a new possible alternative to the conservative government. We don't know the answer to that yet. It's going to take four years to find out, but it certainly is the abiding political question of the day here in Ottawa.

  • 13:19:47

    NNAMDIExplain please, then, maybe, why we got this Facebook comment from Patricia. "I am part Canadian and grew up in Buffalo. The lack of attention paid to this election in the United States was appalling. There are some odd things happening in Canadian politics nationally and provincially, we ignore this at our peril." Odd things, John?

  • 13:20:08

    IBBITSONWell, I don't think odd things are happening. Of course, Canadians, you know, typically lament the fact that the United States doesn't pay a lot of attention to what's going on in Canada. I was Washington Bureau Chief for a number of years in the United States and my answer always back was, "Well, why should they?" Obviously people in Buffalo and in Seattle and in the other border cities do pay more attention to what's going on in Canada. They are major markets, NPR and PBS are on our television and radio stations.

  • 13:20:35

    IBBITSONAnd the two peoples cross the border back and forth a great deal. But for the broader American population, it's not tremendously important that anything is going on in Canada unless and until Canada becomes less safe and less secure. And that is, unfortunately, the only time that you do pay attention to us. I don't think anything particularly odd is going on in Canada right now except for the fact that we are, in fact, in far better shape financially then you are.

  • 13:21:03

    IBBITSONOur federal government is much more fiscally sound. We have had surpluses since 1997 that federal government went into deficit in 2010 to fight -- 2009, excuse me, to fight the recession, but will very soon be back out of deficit again, our bank...

  • 13:21:16

    NNAMDIWhich brings me to this, John Ibbitson...

  • 13:21:18


  • 13:21:19

    NNAMDI...because Canada was also hit by a recent recession, hasn't had the lasting impact there that it has here, especially in terms of a national deficit. What lessons do you think that the U.S. government can glean from how Canada solves its economic crisis?

  • 13:21:32

    IBBITSONWell, we had the good luck or the good fortune or maybe it's just because we're so darned conservative in our ways, that our banking system is -- was sound. There are only five major banks in Canada. They are very tightly regulated by the federal government. And when they tried to get into international investments and foreign ownership and strange mortgage vehicles and the like, they were quickly told to do nothing of the sort by the federal government.

  • 13:21:55

    IBBITSONAnd so they didn't and when the recession hit, our banks, as I say, were in very good shape and, in fact, they've been on a bit of a buying spree. When I was in Washington, the Toronto-Dominion Bank took over one of the larger banks in D.C. So that was our good luck. But it's only partially our good luck because the United States remains our most important market, by far. The Chinese are increasingly coming in and buying up Canadian goods and Canadian natural resources.

  • 13:22:21

    IBBITSONThe -- Indians are making moves as well. But the fact remains, that the United States is our major market. If you had to get your houses in order, if your economy remains weak, if your mortgages are under water and if you can't tackle your very large structural deficit, ultimately it affects the ability of Americans to buy Canadian goods and that affects our prosperity as well. So we take a keen interest in watching you try to get your house in order.

  • 13:22:44

    NNAMDIAfter its defeat in the election, the leader of the Bloc Quebecois, Gilles Duceppe, has stepped down but for the last few decades the Bloc has been a significant force for Quebec's independence as a nation. Is this a sign that the movement is fading?

  • 13:23:00

    IBBITSONI don't think so. The Bloc Quebecois had two roles. One was to speak for the voice of sovereignty in the federal parliament. The other was just to represent Quebec's interest. And Quebec is a special case. It has a distinct culture, it has, obviously, the French language. It is not just another province. It is a nation within the Canadian state. And the Bloc represented that nation. But whether the Bloc is there or not, the national interest will be served by the Quebec government, by the separatist party in New Quebec National Assembly, the Parti Quebecois.

  • 13:23:31

    IBBITSONAnd I don't think we can interpret from this result, that the separatism is disappearing in Quebec. It is on the wane, it has been on the wane for about 15 years now. But none the less, Quebec governments, be they separatist or federalist, are intensely engaged in protecting Quebec interests and advancing Quebec interests. And in fact, if separatism is on the wane in Quebec, I would contend, it's only because so many powers have been transferred to Quebec from the federal level that they have most of what they want.

  • 13:23:59

    IBBITSONThey are internally, at least, affectively sovereign now.

  • 13:24:02

    NNAMDIThe liberal party has called itself Canada's Natural Governing Party which assumes that it controls a political center. Can we take the results of the election as a sign that politics in Canada are becoming, maybe, more polarized?

  • 13:24:15

    IBBITSONWe can take the results to suggest that they may be getting a bit more polarized. Canadians don't get very polarized about anything as a rule. But we certainly do have a center of right party, a conservative party. And we now have a large center left party, the New Democrats in opposition. And the party of the Militant Center as the liberals like to call themselves, are very much on their wane. I don't know whether that will resolve into a left-wing and a right-wing party with the liberals squeezed out the way they have been squeezed out in Great Britain.

  • 13:24:44

    IBBITSONI do know that our idea of conservatism is very different from your idea of conservatism. I like to say that, I went from being one of the most conservative commentators in Canada, to being a liberal democrat, just by crossing the border. Because the conservative party, as I said, does not want to reopen abortion, does not want to reopen capital punishment, does not want to reopen gay marriage and is committed to publicly funded health care through the future.

  • 13:25:07

    IBBITSONSo tell me what's conservative about that from the American point of view?

  • 13:25:10

    NNAMDISo to sum it up, and because I’m sure our listeners are intrigued by the title of your book, why did Canada get Stephen Harper while we got Barack Obama?

  • 13:25:20

    IBBITSONI think because, essentially, Canadian society is consensual, it -- there is broad agreement and as a result of that consensus on areas of social and physical policy, we tend to have a closed system. It tends to be run by elites. Party leaderships are chosen by elites within the party. We don't have a primary system where Canadians generally get to vote on party leaders. And, I think, one of the great admirable aspects of the American system is that it is so much more open.

  • 13:25:49

    IBBITSONThat people like Barack Obama or Bill Clinton, for that matter, or Jimmy Carter, can capture their parties from the outside, despite the opposition of elites. And, I think, the great American strength is that, you have this resilience, you have the capacity to come back because you have a very open system. Our closed system works well for us in times, like, when we're keeping our banks under control. But it also keeps the debate, somewhat, more limited.

  • 13:26:12

    IBBITSONFrankly, in the end, it just makes politics up here, that much more boring.

  • 13:26:16

    NNAMDIJohn Ibbitson is the Ottawa Bureau Chief for Canada's Global and Mail Newspaper and author of the book, "Open and Shut: Why American has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper." John, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:26:27

    IBBITSONIt's been a pleasure.

  • 13:26:28

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, how widespread rape and sexual mutilation in the Congo also demonstrates the resourcefulness and strength of women. We discuss the play, "Ruined," currently at Arena Stage. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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