Canadians have had summer vacation interrupted with a federal election call. It appears we have to make a choice between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservatives or Thomas Mulcair and the New Democrats, who are hoping for a repeat of the Orange Crush phenomena which made them number one in Quebec in the last federal election and brought them to power in Alberta’s recent provincial election. Of course, Justin Trudeau will not sit idly by: his Liberals will strive to regain the position as Canada’s governing party, long enjoyed prior to the Conservative decade of rule. During the campaign, Canadians will no doubt hear how difficult things are in our country; one party will seek a mandate to continue implementing its policies to avert disaster, while the other parties will seek a mandate to alter the course, given the disaster into which the governing party has already taken us.
As the tail end of summer gives way to a fall election campaign, Canadians must appreciate how well off we are relative to most of the world. We need only look to two recent developments in Europe to understand that. A potential economic disaster was barely averted, and allied military decisions to intensify air strikes against Islamic extremists have exposed western nations to greater calamity. Indeed, the challenges to good governance in Europe have become more complex and messy.
Saving Greece and the Euro
For those of us who love to watch the political intrigue of The Game of Thrones (GoT) play out, the theatrics of Greece – the cradle of democracy – flexing its waning strength against its European Union creditors, fronted by the Teutonic forces of Germany, certainly helped supplant GoT’s summer hiatus. In retrospect, the early summer’s brinksmanship was the inevitable outcome of the election in Greece of the leftist Syriza party, led by Alexis Tsipras, in January of this year. His party rode to power promising to challenge the austerity measures that accompanied the European Union bailout.
Greece is saddled with a growing debt burden as spending outpaces its revenue generation. While its debt to GDP (Gross Domestic Product) ratio, a common public debt severity measure, has risen to over 175 percent, the public debt ratios for Spain, Italy and Ireland, have all improved, down to the 110 to 130 percent range of GDP. (In contrast, Canada stands at about 85 percent, and has experienced a drop in the ratio in the last two years given the government’s surpluses.) In addition to its significant debt burden, Greece also reports the highest unemployment rate in western Europe, with over a quarter of its labour force out of work.
Mr. Tsipras believed he could achieve a better outcome for Greece in confronting his fellow European leaders, which included leading his country into a surprise referendum where he successfully lobbied Greeks to overwhelmingly reject a bailout offered to his government in June. What Tsipras and his Greek supporters failed to appreciate was the resolve of the European Union members to welcome Greece’s exit from that Union (“Grexit”) if his country did not accept the austerity measures. This would have required a reintroduction of Greece’s own currency, the drachma. Tsipras did appreciate that the drachma’s trading value would have been severely restrained, throwing Greece into greater economic uncertainty. Unable to overcome the hardline position his fellow European Union leaders continued to hold, Tsipras was left with little choice but to go to his parliament and get members to acquiesce to a bailout package that many maintain is more severe than the one he rejected in June. No doubt Greeks will remember the calamitous negotiation skills of Tsipras when they next determine parliamentary leadership.
Turkey’s southern gambit
The war against the Islamic extremists, by whatever name you call them, appears to have reached a territorial impasse. ISIL’s (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) early battlefield successes gave rise to ongoing retaliatory airstrikes led by the United States, in which Canada also participates. This has enabled an uneasy coalition of Mideast ground forces to regain some ground. While skirmishes and deadly suicide bombings continue on most fronts, the quagmire that was once Syria hosts ongoing battles.
Turkey, a NATO ally, has now agreed to permit the United States to use its southern airbases to attack northern Syrian positions held by ISIL. The ostensive purpose of these sorties is to create and maintain a northern perimeter within Syria where Syrians fleeing ISIL attacks can seek safe haven. However, it is not clear how this will be accepted by Kurdish ground forces in northern Syria, who have proved to be the most capable allies in attacking ISIL positions. The Kurds view any Turkish moves into their territory as part of Turkey’s ongoing suppression of the Kurds’ desire to establish an independent state in the area, which would include a part of Turkey.
It is also far from certain as to how the new United States airstrikes in northern Syria will affect Syria’s ongoing civil war. Notwithstanding most of the world’s resolve to have President Bashar al-Assad removed as leader of what remains of a Syrian government, he tenaciously holds on to power, enabled somewhat by his most strategic ally, President Putin of Russia.
What is most troubling about Turkey opening its airbases, and its ready acceptance by the United States, is the NATO doctrine. NATO allies are pledged to go to the defense of any of its member states that are attacked. If for any reason ISIL is able to muster up an attack across Turkey’s borders, NATO members, including Canada, could be drawn into a ground war that no one wants in the Middle East. While such a turn of events is very unlikely, the risk of it happening has now increased. Imagine if it were to arise during Canada’s federal election.
Canada’s blissful solitude
Canadians enjoy a world which is well removed from the serious issues faced by so many each day. As a result, according to the Reputation Institute, for example, Canada ranks as the number one place in the world to live and work (for the fourth time in six years). This is based on an assessment of a nation’s government effectiveness, environment and economy. So while we react to the electioneering that is surely going to come our way in the next month, we should be mindful of how well we have it. We will want to look at which party is not only best able to help keep us in this enviable position, but, more importantly, which party can use our strengths on a world stage where sound leadership is often severely lacking and where we should better use our vast providential blessing.