Canada's progressive democracy


For many Canadians and Australians, our two countries have much in common. We are both post-settler societies with a substantial Indigenous presence; we have residual links to the colonising founder, the UK, and a federal system of governance.

But the cultural and political outlooks of these vast lands are moving further apart. And for those Australians who are disturbed by this nation’s retreat from liberal values and independent foreign policy, Canada provides a model of what we can be post the Howard era.

Two events last week provided more concrete evidence of the disconnect between Canada and Australia.

Firstly, last Friday, the Canadian Parliament voted to allow same sex marriage. The Liberal government of Prime Minister Paul Martin combined with the leftist parties, the New Democrats and the Bloc Quebecois to defeat the Conservative Party’s opposition to the measure.

Contrast this with the same legislation before the Australian Parliament prior to this year’s election. There, a ‘rainbow’ coalition traversing left and right combined to cement a heterosexual definition of marriage into the Marriage Act. The Australian Democrats and Greens were the two parties that opposed this act of discrimination.

One of the key reasons for such a contrasting attitude to gay marriage between the two countries is that Canada is unified and underpinned by its twenty-two year old bill of rights “ the Pierre Trudeau inspired Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Charter is overwhelmingly popular among Canadians “ even those who live in the conservative western provinces such as Alberta.

On the twentieth anniversary of the Charter in 2002, the Centre for Research and Information on Canada (CRIC), released a survey that indicated eighty eight percent support for the Charter “ an astonishingly high figure, given the controversy surrounding the Charter’s birth.

The CRIC noted, ‘The Charter has become a living symbol of national identity because it defines the very ideal of Canada: a pluralist, inclusive and tolerant country, one in which all citizens can feel equally at home. What Canadians like most about the Charter are precisely those aspects that underpin the maintenance of unity “ protection of official languages, multiculturalism, and equality rights.’

And it is this sense of Canada as a progressive democracy and as a protector of liberal values that is underpinning its foreign policy outlook.

Canada refused to participate in the Iraq war “ a decision about which the vast majority of Canadians are uncharacteristically vocal about in their support for that decision by former Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien. This refusal was brave, given that eighty percent of Canadians live within one hundred kilometres of the US border and that NAFTA dominates their economic well-being.

But that act of independence seems to have encouraged the Canadian government to assert a constructive and human rights focussed leadership role in world affairs.

This was evident at the APEC meeting in Santiago, Chile ten days ago. While John Howard appeared content to tuck in behind a Bush Administration view of international security, Mr Martin, supported by New Zealand’s Helen Clark, introduced the notion of a ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine. As the Toronto published Globe and Mail reported it on 22 November, what Mr Martin has in mind is a strategy that ‘would allow the United Nations Security Council to authorize intervening in a country with military action or peacekeepers when there is a humanitarian crisis, rather than a full-fledged genocide.’

Mr. Martin raised the issue of the appalling suffering currently being meted out in Sudan’s Darfur region. He apparently told President Bush, ‘I simply made the point that if there was ever a reason for the responsibility to protect it is the absolute nonsense of having to discuss, when people are losing their lives, to discuss legal terms.’

Martin’s innovative and human rights driven approach to foreign policy is underpinned by a concept that he first spoke about in September 2002 at the University of Toronto “ that Canada is a ‘post-modern’ nation.

What Martin meant was that as a diverse, independent and enriched nation, Canada understands the need to govern on this planet as ‘one humanity’. That globalisation means that we have to ‘come together to try to figure out how in fact in an age of migration of peoples, the migration of disease, the migration of environmental problems, we as a world begin to govern ourselves.’

This bold and optimistic approach is one that Australia could adopt. Like Canada, we are a middle ranking power, and there is a capacity as such to contribute to global security and welfare through refusing to align ourselves blindly to one power bloc over another.

This was once the case. The Cairns Group of agricultural trading nations has been a successful forum for influencing global trade debates in favour of developing world countries. The Keating government’s 1995 international commission to examine ways of eliminating nuclear armaments was another example of this middle power independence.

But such an attitude seems a distant memory. Today, Australia’s foreign policy approach is tied to a unilateralist and force driven world view that emanates from the Bush White House. It is a view of the world that ignores the Martin description of a globe where common values and governance structures should be the inevitable outcome of globalisation.

The Howard era will eventually pass “ nothing lasts forever. Australia’s long standing belief in its capacity for equity and tolerance has been tested and undermined during this period of our history but as Canada demonstrates, it does not have to be this way.

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