Peeking In on Canada's Election


Last year, Canada's Liberals—the party of Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien, the party that held power for most of the 20th century—suffered a crushing electoral defeat. Its representation in the House of Commons was cut by more than half, and for the first time in its history, the Liberal Party fell to third place in the number of seats, behind Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives and the more leftist New Democratic Party (NDP). Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff immediately announced that he would step down, triggering a leadership campaign that officially begins this November. The early favorite is Trudeau's son Justin, but a number of other candidates have entered the race. We interviewed one of them, Alex Burton, a prosecutor and party activist from Vancouver, about his campaign to lead the Liberals, the differences between American and Canadian politics, and his views on his neighbors to the south.

This year, Mitt Romney spent $233 million during the Republican primaries. According to Liberal Party rules, you aren't allowed to spend more than $950,000 to become party leader. Are there things you wish you could do in this campaign but just aren't possible within the spending limit?

The spending restrictions do not limit the campaign I want to run. For me it is about actually traveling the country and meeting people, rather than bombarding them with attack ads. We will, however, be utilizing our cutting edge digital to connect with Canadians. Canadians follow the U.S. presidential election pretty closely and generally we do not respond well to the kinds of tactics that are used there. That said, the Conservative Party has ushered in a new era of American style political campaigning that has likely permanently changed the way politics are done in Canada.

How so?

Canadian politics have changed with the arrival of the Harper conservatives. [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper's approach [has been] a constant campaign, using negative advertising, and attacking personally not just politicians, but other prominent people who oppose his policies, including scientists and high-level public servants.

Too much of our national political discourse has become about attacking the other guy, and we are losing the traditions of open dialogue, real debate, and the critical exchange of ideas.

Since Harper's arrival the politics of division have also played a more prominent role, with specific messages targeted to specific groups. The result is a country that is becoming more divided, more insular, less interested in the ideas and concerns of others. We are in danger of being a country that listens only to those views and people whose opinions we share, instead of being a country of dreamers, innovators, and people who can respectfully disagree with one another.

Are there particular techniques and methods you'd borrow from American campaigns? For instance, in recent elections in the United States, the campaigns have gotten increasingly sophisticated about voter targeting. How do you go about identifying potential supporters and getting them to participate in the party convention?

Targeting specific groups or demographics is a newer phenomenon in Canada, and is an area in which the Liberal Party needs to improve. That said, there is a real danger in targeting specific messages for a particular group. The Conservative Party recently came under fire for targeting members of the gay community in a direct communication. There was a lot of legitimate concern about how the Conservatives, a political party which traditionally has not be very welcoming to the gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgendered community managed to identify gay voters.

Also, in Canada because of our unique history and our bilingual traditions, people are very aware of politicians saying something to one group and something else to another.

In a leadership race like the one I am in, the core group of voters has historically been pre-identified because only members of the Party could vote. However, the Liberal Party has introduced a new approach to this race, by creating the supporter category. For the first time in Canadian history, non-party members will have the opportunity to vote in a leadership race if they sign up as a Supporter. No membership dues are required, and people not traditionally involved in this stage of the political process will have a chance to pick the next leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

Our perception is that Canadian campaigns aren't driven by divisive social issues the way ours are, like abortion and same-sex marriage. Is that accurate, or are there "identity" issues that divide Canadians and drive contentious political fights?

Although abortion and same sex marriage are not as divisive in Canada as they are in the U.S. there are still strong, vocal groups who oppose both. The Prime Minster says he does not want to re-open these debates, but just recently there was an attempt in Parliament to start a debate on the question of when life starts. Trial balloons on not recognizing the same sex marriages of foreign nationals were also floated in the past year.

That said, there are identity issues that go to the core of who we are and who we want to be, as a country. Our unique history means that there continue to be debates over our identity. The debate over Quebec independence and its place in Canada; minority language rights and the protection of French language and culture; the rights of First Nations people and their place in Canada, our official policy of multiculturalism; even the structure of our national government have been the subject of fierce political debate. In many ways Canada is still a young country and the process of defining ourselves is on-going.

Lately Mitt Romney has been claiming the United States can achieve "North American energy independence," meaning we'll get most of our oil from Canada. He's also been a big proponent of the Keystone pipeline, which is meant to bring oil from the tar sands in Alberta down to the US. Environmentalists would tell you that oil from the tar sands is one of the most environmentally destructive sources of energy there is, yet here in America, climate change has fallen off the political agenda. What's the current state of the debate in Canada about the tar sands?

Canada is blessed with abundant natural resources. One reason our economy has come through the recent financial crisis better than some is because of those resources (and not as the Harper government claims because of any of their particular policies or economic management—another reason is how our banks were regulated, but that is a different questions).

The political consensus in Canada now appears to be that the oil sands will continue to be developed. The debate is now focused on where the oil should be senteast or west [either to Canada's eastern provinces or for export to Asia]. There does seem to be a lack of focus on the southern route, but many Canadians feel that will change right after the U.S. election, no matter who wins, and that a southern pipeline will be built.

Norway is one of the world's leading oil producers, as well as a leader in environmental standards and safety. We can and should be equally successful in utilizing our resources and protecting our environment.

You spent a few years living in the States, working as a prosecutor in New York. Was there anything you saw in American politics when living here that you hadn't quite grasped observing it from outside before then? And what did you take back (about politics or anything else) that influences your perspective today?

When I moved to New York I harbored some of the same beliefs and prejudices that many Canadians have about the United States. I held these views despite having many American friends, a mother who was born in Chicago, and I even lived in Tucson for a year as a child.

My time in New York was a rich and rewarding experience, and I did learn a lot about the U.S., its politics, but also about myself and my own values. I was able to see firsthand some of the things in American politics that disturb many Canadians. I worked on the Gore campaign, fundraising, in Portland, Oregon. I also worked on Hillary Clinton's Senatorial campaign, working for her election day legal team in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

One of the things I learned was the importance and prevalence of money in American politics. Who was raising more money was as important a news story, if not more important, than key policies or ideas. It does take money to run a political campaign—but the elevation of money to exclusion of all else, was something that shocked and disappointed me.

I also was surprised by the lack of real political choice. For my entire life, Canada has prided itself on having three major parties that offer real choice to voters. As a potential candidate in the race to lead the Liberal Party of Canada, I believe having reasonable political choices strengthens a democracy. In a dual party system like in the States, if you do not like the party in power, you are only left with one real alterative – what if that is not to your liking? What if the particular candidate for that single alternative is someone who you do not think is suitable for the job?

I was also surprised by the absolute dominance in some states of one particular party. New York was a good example. Although the mayor was a Republican, no one really saw him as such. As for the other elected positions, they were almost all held by Democrats. While I obviously supported Democratic candidates, I was disturbed by the lack of choice. When one party controls too much, for too long, no matter which party it is, that is not good for accountability or for democracy.

Finally, my experience scrutinizing polls in Bedford-Stuyvesant was a wake-up call, and gave me real concern for the health of democracy in the U.S.; something that was re-enforced by the debacle in Florida and the on-going voter suppression tactics I see across the United States.

While monitoring the polls, three large men came and said they had been sent to take away three voting machines (after many votes had been cast). They could not or would not say who sent them. Fortunately, the woman running the polling station was having none of it, and she basically told these guys, you are taking these machines over my dead body. She insisted that if they wanted the machines their boss would have to come down personally and then she and practically marched them out of the station.

Perhaps I was naive, but I was shocked to see such open and blatant attempts at voter manipulation. Unfortunately, voter suppression has recently raised its ugly head in Canada–another American-style tactic introduced by the Harper Conservatives. It should be of grave concern to anyone who values our free and open democratic process.

This interview was edited for length and clarity

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