Stephen Harper may not dance, but he can sing. In every photo we’ve seen of him with other political leaders and the lithe hacks that circle power, he stands out as awkward. Yet he has consistently guessed accurately what he could ask others to do, and how to survive their opposition.
Canada’s pre-eminent calculator now must brace himself for what America’s pre-eminent calculator decides to do with the Keystone Pipeline Project, and how he can exploit or just survive Obama’s decision.
Harper’s ability to win another election rests on the "economy issue" and on the grudging appreciation that he knows how to negotiate with other powerful governments. "Yes" by Obama on Keystone will thrill Harper’s base, broaden the employment and investment boom in the West, abate escalating problems with swing voters in British Columbia who don’t want an alternative pipeline to cross their extra-special province, and, also, assure image-conscious Ontarians that he hasn’t utterly befouled Canada’s good name in the States.
Conversely, a simple "no" by Obama could finish him off.
The mystery right now is not what Obama thinks on this relatively minor American issue or what further gesture Canada could make to alter prejudices about the oil sands in Washington — it's how Harper might exploit a "yes" and survive a "no."
First off, there’s no reason for Harper not to give the issue considerably greater public attention and profile — immediately.
Waiting quietly for Obama’s decision or mounting a Mulroney-style "charm offensive" won’t make a difference to Obama or impress opinion-makers in Canada. They’re already sure that Harper is ideologically and temperamentally unable to relate to their cool Democrat president.
Canada’s savvy Ambassador Gary Dewar assured us this week that our two leaders have a “professional” relationship. But acting professional will only make it easier for Obama to anticipate that whatever he decides will be seen as professional as well.
Harper’s best bet on Keystone may be to raise the stakes — to be more aggressive and more optimistic. In fact, why not be more dramatic on both the environment’s and the continent’s economic interests? After all, Obama hardly walks on water on either file.
For instance, here are a few sound bites Harper could work up to enliven his year-end media interviews:
—Our government stands with Obama’s government in global negotiations on climate change, but it isn’t prepared to sacrifice Canadians' jobs to American workers in trying to lead Americans by example. It would be irresponsible to impose substantially higher taxes and more expensive regulations on Canada’s fossil fuel industry and customers, unilaterally. That wouldn’t change votes in the Congress or in swing states, or make a scientifically significant difference to this global environment challenge.
—After Keystone is resolved positively and the White House has re-affirmed its respect for our continental energy market, Canada would be ready to develop jointly a common, nondiscriminatory set of measures to cut CO2 emissions.
—Further, our two countries’ economic and political cycles couldn’t be better aligned for negotiating a genuine EU-style common market. Canadians like and trust President Obama and they’ve supported our efforts, so far, to open the border. For our part, we’re prepared to see whether the two biggest barriers can be lifted entirely: our separate currencies and two border security regimes.
—Civil libertarians, free enterprisers, monetarists, and Keynesians, and environmentalists in both our sovereign countries, are equally concerned about how their federal government secures stable economic growth, protects the environment, and respects our privacy while keeping us safe. These concerns can be even more effectively asserted and monitored after we act together openly where we can — as governments and as their masters, as citizens.
These aren’t radical ideas by any modern definition of the word, but they aren’t incremental either. Maybe they can’t be fully realized during the last years of Harper or Obama’s political careers. However, Harper would be on his surest ground if he decides to make the North American economy a choice and not an excuse to talk about the last decade rather than the next.
These statements would upset those who want change in Canada to wait until they hear the beat of a Canadian drummer: why respond so fundamentally to presidential whim about a vulgar pipeline project? These people should google "Santa Claus" with their teenage children and get out of the way.
Canada’s transformative prime ministers — Macdonald, Laurier, Trudeau, and Mulroney, for instance — made history when they responded to stronger, often arbitrary outside powers and copied important ideas from other successful societies. Harper could at least open for debate in Ottawa and Washington ideas that are making history elsewhere around the globe.