I’m a Canadian. I was born in Canada, schooled in Canada, and went to university in Canada. But I haven’t lived in Canada for nearly 20 years. Though my wife and I have regularly brought our children (now 10 and 12) back to Ontario for summer visits with grandparents and family, we never stayed for an extended period until last year, when we all came back for six months — the second half of 2004.
I’m a law professor and was lucky enough to arrange a sabbatical at Dalhousie Law School as the Bertha Wilson visiting professor of human rights. This gave my family and me the wonderful chance to drive extensively around the Maritimes, as well as down the Eastern Seaboard to Virginia and back, and even across to Toronto.
In many ways, the visit back was magnificent. Our children were raised in New Zealand for a decade and now live in Australia, so it was great to expose them to a Canadian school, to say nothing of big snowfalls in October. And then there was the charm of Halifax, the friendliness of Haligonians and Maritimers, and the kindness of the many people I met at Dalhousie.
There was also the magic of autumn in Cape Breton, where the changing hues of the leaves seemed even more vibrant and colourful than those I remembered from long ago in the Gatineau. There was even the pleasure of coming back to the sports I’d grown up with, including my favourites: U.S. college basketball and Sunday NFL. After 11 years of rugby, there’s a certain comfort in seeing contact sports played in enough equipment to weigh down a small car.
Much of our trip back, then, was terrific. It was the politics that were so depressing. And since our return to the southern hemisphere in January, they seem to have gone from bad to worse.
Let’s start with this. To many non-Canadian eyes, Canada looks a lot like a one-party state, albeit of the elected variety. Over the last 40 years, the Liberals have been in power for all but what, about 10 years? People here in Australia ask me how one political party can be in power that long without corruption creeping in. I generally change the subject at that point.
And let’s not forget that in Canada — unlike Australia or the United States — it’s the federal government, the Liberal government, that appoints all the top judges, even those of the various provincial Supreme Courts and Courts of Appeal. So it’s the Liberals in Ottawa who appoint the top judges even in Alberta. I can assure you that had John Kerry won the presidency in the last U.S. election, he would not have been able to appoint the top judges in Texas. That’s a matter for each state.
The Canadian set-up, coupled with the overwhelming dominance of the Liberals these past four decades, means the vast preponderance of top judges in Canada have all been appointed by one political party. Nothing remotely like that is true of Australia or the United States, nor even of New Zealand. Nor is it obviously a good thing.
When I raised this point during my time back in Canada — that any well-functioning democracy needs the voters to kick parties out of power on a fairly regular basis — I was met every time with this reply: “But Harper and the Tories are so right wing. We agree in theory, but really, no one could vote for them.”
The same sort of message could be heard implicitly on CBC radio and in most of the mainstream media.
But here’s the odd thing. In global terms, it’s simply not true. Take today’s Tories and Stephen Harper out of Canada and plunk them in New Zealand and they would be to the left of Helen Clark’s Labour government. Down in New Zealand, there is a two-tier health system; there are civil unions but no gay marriage; the economy is far less heavily regulated in terms of labour laws, tax policy and tariffs than anything Harper is proposing.
The same goes for Australia. Compare the policies of the left-wing Labour Party there (on defence, immigration, the environment, health, education, you name it) to Canadian Tories’ policies and Harper consistently stands to the left of Australian Labour, not the right.
And this is the same Tory party that is demonized in Canada for being “too right wing.” Frankly, it was disorienting to return to Canada and to be met, continually, with this total lack of global perspective.
All I can say to that is that people down in Australia and New Zealand, even in the U.K., must be made of sterner stuff. They would never rejoice in such self-emasculation.
Thank God for the natural beauty of Cape Breton and Algonquin Park. As for the politics, Canadians clearly deserve what they get.
James Allan is Garrick professor of law, University ofQueensland, Australia.
© National Post 2005