The key issues that divide others, unite us

by Chantal Hebert

Looking back on the year since voters handed Justin Trudeau a majority mandate it is impossible to overstate the contrast between post-election Canada and the pre-election United States.

Much, of course, has already been said about Trudeau’s knack for connecting with people, his relative youth for a government leader, his enduring popularity at home and his rock star debut on the international scene.

But notwithstanding the stardust that sticks to the prime minister, the contrast is more than skin-deep. It is based on a high level of consensus that transcends party lines.

Free trade: On Friday, the Belgian region of Wallonia voted against the ratification of the agreement – known as CETA – between Canada and the European Union negotiated under Stephen Harper’s government. That vote is part of a larger CETA battle in the European Parliament. But in Canada, no provincial government opposes the accord. To varying degrees, the three main federal parties have been onside. One has to go back more than 20 years to 1993 and the advent of NAFTA for the last time free trade was a major issue in a federal election campaign.

Public health care: Trudeau’s government is about to enter into talks with the provinces to negotiate a new health accord. As in every instance where big federal bucks and provincial expenses intersect, the discussion will see Ottawa and the provinces butt heads. But not a single participant is coming to the table to challenge medicare. There is not, in the House of Commons, a party that champions doing away with the basic tenets of the public health insurance program.

Climate change: Earlier this month, the Trudeau government declared its intention to set a floor price on carbon so as to try to live up to the latest global accord on climate change. That triggered a spirited discussion in Parliament and raised hackles in some provincial capitals. But no party is arguing that Canada should not adhere to the Paris Agreement.

Immigration: The American election, France’s upcoming presidential campaign, Great Britain’s Brexit vote to leave the European Union, to name just those that have in common a hardening of attitudes about immigration.

In Western Europe and in the U.S., proposals that would have been the exclusive purview of extremist parties a decade ago have become mainstream.

Canada increasingly stands out for not having an anti-immigration party and, so far, not much of a buyer’s market for one. In Quebec, the Parti QuÈbÈcois’ flirt with coercive measures to impose secularism in the province’s public space did not raise enough support to keep the party in government.

In the last federal election, the Conservative attempt to turn the niqab into a profitable wedge issue and its foray in dog-whistle territory with a proposed “barbaric cultural practices” tip line backfired.

Social rights: One of the first big debates of the new Parliament involved medically assisted suicide. A law was passed with multi-party support. An upcoming Commons vote to protect transgender Canadians from discrimination is similarly expected to elicit support from MPs of every political stripe. Meanwhile, last spring, the federal Conservatives belatedly synchronized their position on same-sex marriage with that of the other parties by formally dropping the man-woman definition of marriage from their policy book.

That is not to argue that unanimity reigns supreme in Canada or that it should.

A high-profile court challenge to medicare is currently unfolding in British Columbia.

There are potentially heated debates coming up in Parliament and in Quebec’s National Assembly over immigration levels.

The NDP did not oppose CETA, but it did spend the last stretch of the federal campaign beating the drums against a megatrade deal involving the Asia-Pacific region, the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

There is within the Conservative party a staunch social conservative contingent that is wildly unhappy about recent party developments on same-sex marriage and transgender rights.

The issue of carbon pricing divides the conservative movement along regional lines with its Ontario leadership on the pro-side and their Alberta and Saskatchewan counterparts on the other. Those divisions mirror fault lines in public opinion.

But clashes over the best approach to policy are symptoms of a healthy democracy, as is dissent. The noise that attends both does not alter the fact that on many of the principles that polarize other comparable societies there are Canadian consensus views that stand to outlast the popularity of the current prime minister, just as they did the Harper decade.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2016-Torstar Syndication Services

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