Beef, wood, ballistic missiles, and Quebeckers

Prime Minister Paul Martin is between a rock and a hard place. He sits as Prime Minister presiding over Canada’s first minority government in 25 years and is faced with one of those decisions he would have rather faced with a majority, a Jean Chrétien type of majority.

George W Bush, the newly re-minted US president is in legacy mode, yet clearly with lame-duck status as evident by his frustrations with his own party in passing key intelligence reforms through Congress. George Jr. returns to office with a renewed majority in the House and the Senate yet while the GOP’s concerns of Executive re-election have been satiated, Bush is alone in seeking a more favourable place in history.

Therefore, there will be intense pressure, from the U.S. President on Mr. Martin to sign up as a partner in the Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) plan. We’re told that beef is going through the U.S. bureaucracy, while softwood lumber remains unresolved. The lifetime of a minority government is measured in months instead of years and Paul Martin can ill-afford American red-tape when it comes to re-opening the border.

The two regions of the country which saw pithy Liberal fortunes during the last federal election were the West and Québec. The former is adamant about joining up with the U.S. on BMD while Québec is quite diametric on the topic. Evidential to this was the Paul Martin’s Québec Liberal caucus voted, to an over-whelming margin, against entering into such an agreement with our American allies. Even Stephen Harper has been spooked by the prospect of the regression of his efforts to gain a solid foothold for the Conservative Party of Canada in that province over this very divisive issue. Jack Layton, of course, is clearly against BMD, or “George Bush’s Star Wars” (as he’s found is easier to spoon-feed to his supporters).

Can Paul Martin use BMD as leverage with the Americans to expedite the re-opening of the border to Canadian cattle and perhaps initiate normalization of lumber exports? If he does, he’ll need to deliver and this will shut his party out of Québec for another election. Indeed, the objection to American BMD has been a plank of the Bloc platform for years. However, if he doesn’t play ball, he’ll further alienate the West and Canadians concerned about frigid relations with our largest trading partner and traditional ally.

How does Stephen Harper use this shaky Liberal decision to his advantage when he essentially has to declare his position on the same issue? Québec and the West while on the opposite ends of this issue, share one common concern and election strategy: greater power at the provincial level to have influence in matters of federalism which concern them. Stephen Harper could successfully play his decentralization card to his advantage by promising every province a seat at the negotiating table to outline the details and conditions of the bilateral agreement with the Americans. He also has the luxury of being for BMD at the same time while promising provincial input and direction. This could be the issue that splits the Liberals left and right and brings down Paul Martin’s minority government. Stephen Harper could capitalize on the essence of the Conservative argument for democratic reform and play it to his gain in the West and Québec.

Sorry Paul… the next election isn’t going to be based upon the ol’ stalwart Liberal red herring issue of healthcare. We’ll just see if Stephen and Jack can handle a wedge properly.