Thursday, April 21, 2011

Calling All Canucks: Are We For Democracy Or Not?

A simple yes or no would do. Everybody's been waiting for this for five long years now, all the parties say they support it, and the shameless inter-partisan mewling and foot-shuffling about it has gone well past the point of international embarassment.

It was in 2005, in the dying days of Paul Martin's Liberal government, that all the main federal parties at least nominally united behind the proposition that Canada should show some foreign-policy spine in the global advance of democracy. Strongly backed by Conservatives, the idea of a well-resourced Canadian Democracy Promotion Agency even won grudging support from the New Democratic Party and the Bloc. Ever since, the Liberals and the Conservatives have competed with one another for the mantle of the agency's champion.

The cause was taken up by Stephen Harper in his first days as leader of Canada's reconstituted Conservative Party. It was raised in two Conservative throne speeches. The Agency proposal was even specifically endorsed in the Conservative Party's 2008 election manifesto. Earlier this month, it emerged again as a specific and distinctly sturdy plank in the Liberal Party's 2011 campaign platform.

And here we all are, in the middle of the fourth federal election in seven years. If this election will mean anything at all to "the issues," as all the parties are hectoring us to believe that it must, could we not tell the lot of them to rise above the partisan spitballing for once and actually get on with something useful?

In November, 2009, the Senate Advisory Panel Report on the Creation of a Canadian Democracy Promotion Agency called on the government to just bloody well do it and set it it up with an annual budget of up to $70 million. That is hardly asking for much for the cause of democracy, considering the vast and bloated expenses involved in aid-agency interventions when despotisms collapse. Late last year, the Agency proposal was considered by the Prime Minister’s office. Nothing happened. Even so, earlier this year Steven Fletcher, minister of state for democratic reform, insisted that the Harper government was still behind it.

To get a sense of how embarassing this is and just how marginal Canada has allowed itself to become on this thing that is described in the parochial Canadian vernacular as "the world stage," all you really need to do is read this headline: "Dream of Canadian democracy centre melts as Arab world boils." But you should read more than just the headine. Jennifer Ditchburn's excellent article provides rare insight into the extent that Canada has been rendered useless to the cause of democracy's global advance at precisely the historical moment of its astonishing flowering across the Middle East.

Given the absence of leadership on global democracy that has afflicted all the federal parties (see if you can set aside for the moment your partisan pick of which one is worse), it should come as no surprise that none of them has made a big deal about this. It's a disgrace, and not one of the party leaders comes off looking good in it.

The Opposition parties and the Ottawa press corps appear perfectly content to drag any debate about these things back down into that boring soap-opera agony narrative about how Ziocon Hegemonists have besmirched the stainless reputation of a certain Montreal GONGO known as "Rights and Democracy." The Conservatives have been pleased to let that little drama unfold as its scriptwriters wish. After all, it's only $11 million a year, and more than a third of that money is spent in Montreal rather being dished out as dubious R&D disbursements to such dictators' clubs as the Arab League and the UN Human Rights Council.

It would all make for a good laugh we could have at the expense of Canada's political class, but the idiocy involved has real-world implications for Canada's national interests, to say nothing about how it makes a mockery of "Canadian values" and leaves the goodwill of ordinary Canadians, no matter their party preferences, swinging in the wind.

"As we witness the promise of change in the Middle East, and as the pro-democracy movement spreads outward from that region, it reaches throughout the Muslim world, where the thirst for democracy and freedom is palpable. Polls in many countries of the Middle East and Central Asia show that the majority of the people in these regions support democracy and see it as the only alternative to the dictatorial, corrupt and oppressive governments under which they live for now," writes Babur Mawladin of the Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee.

(I confess: that's me who shows up as author of the Solidarity Committee's March 2010 Keeping Our Promises report, a key recommendation of which was that Ottawa get to work and kick a Canadian Democracy Promotion Agency into high gear).

"Afghanistan’s newborn democracy gives hope to the region, but the challenges ahead are still significant and Afghan democracy still very fragile. Yet, should democracy in Afghanistan succeed, the implications for the region as a whole could be profoundly positive, giving momentum to the pro-democracy movement in the surrounding region, and entrenching stability in a country that has too often served as the pawn for interfering neighbours and, under the Taliban, for the multinational terrorist network of Al-Qaeda. The stakes are very high and the international community cannot afford to forfeit the opportunity to ensure that Afghanistan’s nascent democracy only progresses forward, rather than collapses on itself. . ."

And that's just the kind of stakes involved in Afghanistan.

Related and encouraging news: The new CF mission will be centred on Kabul, Herat, and Mazar-i-Sharif. Worth noticing: Unsurprisingly, pretty well every reference to Mazar these days immediately associates the city with the April 1 UN compound massacre. Too quickly forgotten is that only a week earlier, without a single security incident, hundreds of thousands of Afghans descended on the city for the ancient and happy Nowruz celebrations, which the Taliban had outlawed as a heresy.

The Afghan National Security Forces handled the security for the massive event, and required only backup assistance from American and German ISAF forces. But there's still a desparate need for military training and equipment and support in Afghanistan's north, just as there is now more than ever a desparate need to nurture and shore up Afghanistan's fledgling democracy. Failing to finish the job will risk the whole thing crumbling back into jihadist savagery again.

It's just the way the world works, and it would be really nice if just for once our politicians were honest about it. If advanced democracies like Canada invest in democracy abroad, now, we won't be saddled with the crushing costs of trying to build democracies from scratch when tyrannies collapse, later, as they always do.


Blogger SteelCityGrit said...

Something appalling is about to happen to the anti-fascist Left in Canada. Would love to hear your voice on the calamitous rise of Jack Layton before then.

11:52 AM  
Blogger Terry Glavin said...

Something appalling happened to the anti-fascist left in Canada a long time ago, if being wholly eclipsed by the counterculture left (for want of a better term) can be called appalling. I think I've said my piece enough times about it.

Layton's NDP is an establishment party. It is now getting the rewards that are due such parties. A case could be made that it is reaping those rewards out of the back door: no one has considered the NDP a contender even for second place, so nobody has taken the NDP's politics seriously - at least not on Quebec, on Afghanistan, on "the Middle East" and so on. I've tried to take the NDP seriously on these issues - fat lot of good that's done me or the NDP.

It would be nice if people started taking these things seriously now, and subjected these aspects of the NDP and the politics of its activist base to a degree of scrutiny resembling what the other major parties are routinely subjected to.

8:42 PM  

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