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Canada’s Strange and Marvelous Election – A Preview

If you are frazzled by the endless American election campaign, go to the Canadian press and television and look into the brief, spirited federal elections that began up North a little over a month ago and will end in eleven days. If for no other reason than that it is enjoyable to watch a campaign where one is intellectually, but not emotionally, invested, Canada’s election campaign offers a fascinating escape for Americans. We might even learn a thing or two.

Start with adjusting one’s ideological perspective. Some in Canada apparently regard the incumbent prime minister, Stephen Harper, as a frustrating and even dangerous right winger. But he surely would be viewed as a moderate Republican or Democrat in the United States. Nonetheless, until recently Harper’s Conservative Party — an amalgam of the old Progressive Conservatives that were nearly wiped out 15 years ago and the western-based Alliance party — was on its way to gaining a majority in the parliamentary elections October 14.

This may be changing. In the past couple of weeks Canada began to catch the economic jitters that already are shaking the United States hard. The Toronto stock exchange followed Wall Street down. The Canadian dollar, the “Loonie”, weakened a bit, though it is still close to the U.S. dollar (94 cents). Objectively, Canada is in better shape than most Western countries, but that doesn’t stop people from worrying—and premptively planning blame as conditions deteriorate. Undoubtedly, the Conservatives wish the election could be held right away, while they are well ahead.

It is not that most people love Harper or even trust him, it is just that he seems competent, frugal, unflappable and honest. He is mild mannered and yet deceptively decisive. To some those traits are reassuring, to others they are infuriating and sinister. Leftists call him radical because, well, as a leader of the minority five years ago he backed the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He has since recanted and he even has agreed to put a two year limit on further Canadian participation in the war in Afghanistan. He cut the hated GST (the value-added Goods and Services Tax). He throws money at the arts and various social ailments, though never enough to satisfy the various organized constituencies. He has begun to build up the military, but only to the extent that Canada no longer is embarrassed by its navy ships being declared unseaworthy, as was was the case a few years ago. Canada seems more assured and confident now.

A major reason Harper and the Conservatives aren’t in even better shape is simply that Canada is not, in any sense but temperament, as conservative as America. It is a fluke of the Canadian multi-party system that Harper’s plurality in the 2006 election, when the Liberal Party’s long dominance was ended, resulted in a minority-run Conservative government. It is the continuing good luck of the Tories that the opposition parties, while all to the Tories’ left, are numerous, small and don’t play well together. That means that the Tories don’t have to get a majority, they just have to keep their opponents divided and maintain a few points’ lead on the nearest competition as the polling begins.

Accordingly, having broken through in Quebec in the 2006 federal elections and thereby becoming a true national party, the Conservatives have a shot at a “majority” led government in Parliament, albeit one elected by a decided minority of the electorate. Right now the CBC, Canada’s public television station, has a poll showing the Tories with 36 percent of the vote, ten points ahead of the Liberals.

The formerly formidable Liberals, under Stephane Dion, are stuggling under a misguided decision to start wearing a campaign costume of green just as ideas like their carbon tax proposal are beginning to annoy voters who suspect anything with “tax” in it. Dion is an able French speaker who, however, can get tangled in a fast-paced English debate. The Liberals are a true national party, too, but a weak one following the scandals that helped defeat its former leaders. Crowds are sparse for Dion this fall.

The New Democrats, under Jack Layton, play to a limited labor and social libertarian base and are plumping for a cap and trade energy idea that is hard to explain. They have been embarrassed by candidates who seem to approve trafficking in marijuana or hold other exotic views that are a bit outside the Canadian mainstream. The NDP is a perennial also-ran on the national level, but this year, thanks to the campaign ardor of Layton and sagging enthusiasm among Liberals, the party may do do better than usual. The NDP stands at 19 or 20 percent in the polls.

The Bloc Quebecois, under Gilles Duceppe, never does well nationally, of course. Its whole game is in Quebec. Since the exciting days when it seemed on the verge of leading provincial voters in a transfer of sovereignty to a new and independent state, the separatist cause has waned and, with it, the fortunes of the Bloc. Now the Bloc is left with a laundry list of ethnic French cultural and welfare demands that probably don’t excite young people, let alone business people and many academics. Liberals and Conservatives both eye the Quebec vote.

Finally, gregarious, ebullient Elizabeth May of the Green Party, scored big in this election campaign by forcing her way into the national televised debates. (The party has no votes in Parliament, despite a large, diffuse following.) Permitting the Green representative into the debates supposedly came over the objections of the Conservatives as well as the NDP, but it is hard to see how the Greens’ growing prominence can but help the Tories in the long run. They will cut deals with Liberals in certain ridings (electoral districts) and May is clear that she supports a government headed by Dion. But might not the Greens also cut into Liberal numbers, and the NDP’s, too? Could they cost the Liberals certain Quebec ridings? As of now, the Greens have nine percent support in the polls.

In the two televised debates held this week, Dion reportedly did well in the first one, conducted in French, while the dreary, kitchen table gabfest conducted in English last night, was probably a draw. It would have been a draw-and-quarter of Harper, since everyone wanted a piece of him, except that the overall impression was one of stupifying kibbitzing. Imagine five candidates trying to talk at once!

So, the Conservatives should be on their way to a substantial victory, right? Their ten point lead over the Liberals, and 15 points over the NDP, should translate into a majority in the new Parliament. In public, Tories have been modest, not claiming a majority government, but that is what many have expected.

Until now. Canadians are just as human as anyone else and part of human nature in politics—even in a country of modest size, sitting next to the gargantuan USA—is to imagine that the people in charge of one’s government at the moment are responsible for any problems that exist. Canada has relatively low unemployment, low inflation, ample domestic energy (unlike the U.S.) and mortgage laws that did not permit the hideous credit crunch that has its American neighbor. Harper points all of this out, but even the media have joined the opposition politicians lately in hand wringing.

Instead of looking around the world and being grateful that they are as well off as they are it may well be that Canadians will vote to keep their Parliament splintered and their government hobbling on splints.

There is much to be said for a parliamentary system, a blessedly short national campaign being near the top of the list. But there is also something to be said for a two party system where someone is more likely to come out on top with a mandate.

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NOTE: Discovery Institute will host a post-election review of the Canadian election results, and what we can learn from them, on October 15 at Discovery headquarters, 208 Columbia, in Seattle. I will be joined by Canadian studies professor Don Alper of Western Washington State University and former Canadian Counsel General Roger Simmons. It should be fun. Please join us for lunch. Check the Discovery “Events” column on our Home Page for details. Canadians especially welcome!

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.