Some people find the differences between the Canadian and American political systems to be a source of endless fascination. The rest of us mark off the days leading to the Grey Cup. Some few Canadians can do both.
One major difference surfaced this week in reports on U.S. President Barack Obama’s efforts to push his campaign for a universal health-care insurance plan.
Intellectually, we know even the most principled politicians make compromises on their way to achieving power and implementing their agendas.
But, for a Canadian, this report was an eye-opener.
The Globe and Mail’s Washington correspondent Konrad Yakabuski reported how Obama was approached by Cardinal Sean O’Malley at the funeral of Senator Ted Kennedy last summer. Apparently, it was a short conversation but a powerful one.
O’Malley later boasted in his blog that he warned Obama: “The bishops of the Catholic church are anxious to support a plan for universal health care, but will not support a plan that will include a provision for abortion or could open the way for abortions in the future.”
Now, U.S. bishops have the right to lobby politicians on issues of interest to them, no less than anybody else. What is of interest is that Obama — on the record as supporting a woman’s right to choose — acceded to the lobby. With his quiet consent, the House of Representatives passed a health-care reform bill this month that includes what the Globe calls a watertight prohibition on federal funding for elective abortions.
Another version of the bill tabled by Senate majority leader Harry Reid offers a compromise: that women can purchase health-care insurance from the government that includes coverage for abortions, but that premiums for that must be paid separately.
U.S. bishops called the compromise “an enormous disappointment.”
In Canada, the Catholic church once threatened sitting prime minister Paul Martin with excommunication over his government’s plan to legalize same-sex marriage.
The bill went through anyway and we have seen no fatwas as a result, so far. Martin, elected with somewhat less vote on basic principles than Obama, was able to face that threat and move forward.
Obama was not. That says something about the power structures of both our countries, if not of our leaders.
The same tactic is also being used in Washington on the issue of gay marriage.
Archbishop Donald Wuerl recently warned the councillors of the District of Columbia that Catholic charities that feed the hungry and give shelter to the homeless might be shut down if they adopt a same-sex marriage bill.
In Canada, the media would immediately challenge the church to do just that. Go ahead, refuse the hungry, shut out the homeless. Just make sure you tell everybody why you’re doing it.
The separation of powers between church and state are part of the U.S, constitution, but American church leaders feel they can bully as popular a president as Barack Obama with a spiteful refusal to assist in any good at all, if the leader does not do what is perfect in their eyes. No compromises, except for the president.
In Canada, the prime minister can privately examine his own soul and then do what he thinks is right — or, to be fair, what is the best compromise possible.
Some people might find this difference to be notable, while we wait to discover whether our own health-care system might become more like that of the U.S. or if theirs might become more like our own — and who it is that really thinks the effort is worthwhile.
Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.