Sunday, December 04, 2005

Canada: great economy; crappy politics

That's the view of The Economist this week.

On the economy:

Fifteen years ago, ballooning deficits and a prostrate economy made Canada look like a candidate for an IMF rescue. That would have been a bitter humiliation to a member of the G7 rich-country club. Against expectations, a Liberal government elected in 1993 under Jean Chrétien turned the public finances around, so much so that Canada is now the only big industrialised country to notch up consistent surpluses both in its federal budgets and in its trade and current accounts. For five years it has had the G8's fastest growth, driving unemployment to its lowest levels for three decades and producing big gains in incomes, profits and tax revenues. In December 2003 Mr Chrétien's finance minister, Paul Martin, won his reward for presiding over all this by pushing out his boss and taking over as prime minister himself.

But on politics:

So the Liberals may survive the sponsorship scandal. But the affair points to a deeper malaise in Canada's politics. It is worrying that the Conservatives are considered unable to win even when the Liberals are laid low by scandal. Long periods of domination by a single party are not good for the health of any democracy, let alone one in which power at the national level is highly centralised. Canada's prime minister enjoys remarkable powers of patronage: it was, for example, Mr Martin who appointed Canada's glamorous new governor-general. He also controls appointments to the Supreme Court and the Senate. Such a system would matter less if there were more frequent rotation in government. Why is there so little?

It is not just the person and position of their present leader that holds the Conservatives back. They are a party divided, formed by a merger in 2003 between the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance. These western roots may have tugged the merged party too far to the right to win a majority in a country where two out of three people tell pollsters that, if they could vote in American elections, they would vote Democrat rather than Republican.


Canada is indeed peaceful and orderly, just as its founding arrangements say it should be. But its compliance with the third constitutional requirement, good government, is less impressive. It desperately needs national parties able to mediate between the centre and the provinces. And yet the Conservatives are trapped in their western base; and Quebec, though declining, has a lock on the national leadership. Albertans almost always have Conservative governments, and Canada as a whole almost always has Liberal ones. Single-party government is no healthier in a province than it is at the centre. The only effective opposition to the Conservatives in Alberta is the federal government. And the main opposition to the Liberals in Ottawa is not the opposition parties there but the provincial premiers.

“The parties have really failed this country,” says Roger Gibbins of the Canada West Foundation. “In that sense we are locked into a dysfunctional system.” Perhaps this does not matter so very much. Canadians like to quip that Canada works in practice even if it doesn't work in theory. But couldn't it work a little better?


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