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Canadian Elections Primer

by Ben P Mon Jan 16th, 2006 at 08:47:47 PM EST

Look for a Conservative Minority Government as a result of next Monday's federal elections.

My seat predictions, a week out from the voting.

Conservatives (center-right by European standards, although a combination of quite right wing American GOP types, traditional Christian Democrat types, and "fiscally conservative, socially liberal" types) : 130 to 140

Liberals (centrist by European standards, center-left by American standards, "natural party of government"): 80 to 90

Bloc Quebecois (leftish party primarily concerned with asserting and improving Quebec's position within the Canadian federation, possibly leading towards eventual national indenpendence): 55 to 60

NDP (traditional social democratic party, clearly left of center, would be considered center-left in a European context): 30 to 35


Why are the Conservatives going to win? Well, to put it very simply, the (centirst, in a Canadian context, center-left in an American context) Liberals have now been in power for something going on 12 years. While Canada has generally done well under their leadership, and while the Liberal Party is considered the "natural party of government" in Canada (having been in power for 78 of the last 110 years), the Liberals have been wracked by a series of scandals. On their own, the Liberals might have been able to whether these scandals, but combined with being in power for such a long strech of time, many Canadian voters have come to believe that is time for another party to be in charge too ensure that Canadian democracy remains vibrant. Liberal dominance during the '90s (sometimes having overwhelming majorities, at one point controlling 101 of 105 "ridings" or seats in Ontario) was greatly aided by a split between the traditional party of the center-right, the Progressive Conservatives (typically called the Tories, as in Britain) and a new more explicitly right wing party, called, over time, Reform and the Alliance, largely born in Canada's most conservative province, Alberta, whose goal was largely to create a party in the mirror image of the American GOP. This project largely failed, as the Reform/Alliance were viewed as too closely aligned to the sectional politics of the Canadian West and too right wing by most Canadian voters, especially in the crucial province of Ontario. In 2004, Reform cum Alliance thus merged with the Progressive Conservative Party to form the new Canadian Conservative Party.

 In 2004, the Conservatives looked poised to win power, but new leader Stephen Harper's ties to the old Reform Party, his ideologically-driven think-tank past (largely seen as advocating the kinds of policies - vis-a-vis Canadian federation as well as more conventional right wing policies), his poor campaigning, the undiscipline of his newly formed party, doomed the Conservatives to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. However, the subsequent Liberal minority government - while not especially bad in terms of economic management, and quite good from a progressive social perspective - has continued to be dogged by scandal, a lack of new ideas, and new PM Paul Martin's generally mediocre leadership skills. Thus, in 2006, with a newly revamped party, platform, and campaign style, Stephen Harper appears set to become Canada's 22nd PM.

What does this mean? Certainly Harper is ideologically sympathetic to the right, mostly in terms of the economy. He is also ideologically a "decentralist," as in the past he has advocated a strategy of building a "firewall" around the province of Alberta, protecting it from federal imposition vis-a-vis the use of the province's extensive natural resources (oil, above all) and undesireable "welfarist" mandates (from whence he hails). However, his recent campaign has largely tried to muffle (what in Canada, although not in the US) are regarded as extreme social/cultural positions, if not from Harper (who is not esp. seen as an agent of the the Canadian cultural right), but from his candidates, upon whom the Party has imposed a strong and effective discipline. Certain of the more "flamboyant" "socons" have been deselected as candidates. His campaign has largely focused on the following: Liberal corruption, arrogance, and sleave, targeted tax cuts (for the "masses," a reduction in the national sales tax, for business a reduction on capital gains), a small increase in the Canadian military's size, a stipend of $1,300 to all Canadian parents with small children, some noises on law an order, and a promise of a "free vote" on the recently passed Same Sex Marriage law passed by the Liberal government.  He is also recently backed away from earlier (in 2003) support for the Iraq War and has promised not to send Canadian troops to the conflict if elected. Frankly, there is not much here that will look out of place in the Democratic Party campaign in 2006 and 2008.

Many in Canada remain skeptical of Harper, not believing that the new Conservative agenda will in fact be the agenda once elected, and that a "secret platform" will be unveiled. There are good reasons for this skepticism, as Harper past work with the Reform Party and as think tanker, particularly in the 80s and 90s, suggests he would (or at least, would have) desired to replicate a kind of northern Gingrich-style revolution. However, in must be said that even though I think Harper would like to govern to the right of where his current platform is, I think he changed to a degree since becoming more intimately involved in electoral politics, esp. on a national stage. The Reform project failure, the experience of 2004 in particular have chastened at least elements of the old Reform Party/Albertan wing of Canadian politics, recognizing that, in order to govern Canada, one has to make compromises with the ex-Progressive Conservatives (who are a not insubstantial part of the new Conservative Party) as well as with "middle Canadian" sentiment, esp. in Ontario. Finally, the fact his government will almost certainly be that of a minority will limit any "secret agenda" he may possess. While I personally think Harper's calculations and what he believes is possible (if not his fundamental ideological orientations) has changed over time, we really will not know the upshot until he begins to govern. Evidence for a "stealth agenda" exists (and some have made the comparison to Bush's 2000 "compassionate conservatism" schtick, although I think this comparison is quite superficial), but I personally think that something like the Bush in 2000 vs. 2001 will not play out, for reasons of principle, electoral calculation, and internal Conservative disagreement.

The Current State of Play

I think the result will be the Tories, with somewhere between 130 and 150 seats. I betting on the lower end right now, as several of the tracking polls have showed the Tories plateau at about 38% support, while the Liberals have stabilized at 28%/29%. There does seem to be a bit of a run towards the NDP (Note: the NDP, or the New Democratic Party, is a social democratic left wing party) at the moment. While that would seem to translate into more seats for the Tories - hence a majority - one has to realize that there surge in support has largely come in two areas: metro Toronto and rural Quebec. I think the Liberals are going to get swamped in Toronto's suburbs, and that is basically where the Tory minority government is going to come from. However, this surge isn't coming so much elsewhere. And besides, the Tories already hold significant majorities in places like Alberta and Saskatchewan, so there is only so far they can go. Many of the other liberal seats in trouble - in BC, in poorer regions of Ontario - are threatened by the NDP.

Trying to apply a strictly left-right American definiton will often obscure more than it reveals. Probably a more important axis is between where one stands on Federal versus Provincial relations: while this is certainly true in Quebec, this is true of other provinces as well. I would also say that the kind of "blood sport" ideological politics so characteristic of the United States is not really existent in Canada. Indeed, although the Bloc is a "left" in a sense, this is not primarily what the party is about. And in terms of federal politics, any issues beyond those of federalism are decidely secondary in Quebec, which has a high degree of lattitude to conduct its internal. And Harper is promising them even more, including a seat at UNESCO usually reserved for sovreign nations. Which Quebec might become soon anyway.

Basically, what Harper has done is reassemble the Mulroney coalition, except this time, the Bloc Quebecois exists - it didn't in 1984 - and is winning a lot of seats that Mulroney and the Tories won. (Note the federal Bloc - not to be confused with the provincial Parti Quebecois - was itself formed by the defection of sovreigntist Tory MP Lucien Bouchard) Now this might not make much sense if you view Quebec politics at the federal level in strictly right-left terms. But it does make sense if you view the primary issues in Quebec politics - nationally - as revolving around federalism and sovreignty. The Liberals have always been regarded as the most "centralizing" force in Canadian politics (well, at least in the modern era), and this isn't a majority position in Quebec.

Furthermore, the Tories are going to win by playing within the Liberal consensus, not breaking it - which is, I think, implicitly why many Canadian - esp. in Ontario - finally felt comfortably enough with the Tories. Read the Globe and Mail (basically Canada's version of the NYTimes) editorial endorsing the Tories from Sunday, which I think is a perfect expression of this zeitgeist.  What they offering is actually quite similar than what I would imagine a national Democratic candidate offering in the US - beyond all the platform stuff about Federalism. Basically, the "middle range" voters in Canada wanted to vote Tory, but they wanted to reassured that what they were voting for would not be substantially different than the LIberals. The Tories were unable to do this in 2004, but they have been in this campaign - as the polls suggest.

However, I think if anything the Tories might have peaked too early to be able to form a majority government. I think enough undecided or weak NDP/weak Tory voters are going to decide to vote tactically to prevent this outcome. Basically, not because they think this will elect a Liberal government or even that they want to prevent a Conservative government, but because they figure a Tory minority government is the ideal outcome. Because it will force Harper to be more consensual, as his campaign has suggested the Conservatives will be. However, with a majority, the need for consensus lessens as a practical matter. So the wingers in the Tory caucus might get too frisky.

To me your piece seems predicated on the idea that Canadians (perhaps rather Ontarians?) have enough information to vote tactically with confidence. Is this due to the reliability of the Quebec vote? Is it really the case that people can actually vote with confidence for a minority Cons govt? (WIth confidence that they won't accidentally get a majority Cons govt?)
by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Tue Jan 17th, 2006 at 05:45:24 AM EST
Harper himself is a very interesting man. I warm to his political abhorrence of soundbites and stunts. From a quick read about him today it seems like he has a coherent idea about the linkage of policies in different areas (There's always a linkage)

I mean by coherent, that the manager of a country has to have all departments working together on a single clear social mission. The typical mission is 'to sustain the welfare aspect of society by justly creating conditions for the growth of the wealth and national pride that pays for it'. Not an easy task, as things take time - during which people suffer. But at least Harper sems to have a plan.

But I can understand that he has maybe toned down his real thoughts for the election.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Tue Jan 17th, 2006 at 12:10:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
In part. The nature of the vote is well known in each province. Certain parties basically don't exist nationally. Although the NDP and the Bloc are signficant parties, they don't have a national presence (especially the Bloc, which doesn't run candidates outside of Quebec)

Basically, Quebec has about 50% of its vote that will go to the Bloc, which will translate into about 75% of the Quebec seats. The other 25% will be fought out between the Liberals and the Tories.

Ontario is evenly split between the Liberals and the Conservatives, with the NDP pulling a respectable 20 to 25% of the vote. The NDP is strong in Native areas, heavy union towns (Hamilton, Windsor), and inner Toronto. Its much weaker elsewhere.

Alberta is overwhelmingly Conservative. The Tories currently hold 26 of the provinces' 28 ridings, and will most likely hold them all after the election.

BC's politics are probably the weirdest in Canada. And in some ways resemble the red state/blue state divide in America. BC is often called Canada's California. The interior small town parts of BC tend to be strongly Conservative, but there are pockets of NDP strength, in the heavily native areas and also in some of the old mining/logging regions. Vancouver is very liberal with the contest there being between the Liberals and the NDP. Suburban Vancouver is a "swing" Liberal/Conservative region. The Green Party - which is actually not that leftwing, more like the German Green Party than the American Green Party - is quite popular in BC as well - it is currently polling about 10 to 12%.

The prairie provinces, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, have a history of left wing agrarian populism, that still has significant traces. However, especially in the case of Saskatchewan, the province has become quite Conservative in orientation (more at the federal level), largely for cultural reasons and populist antipathy towards "Ottawa". Whereas the Albertan form of Conservative is more economic in nature and revovlves around the issue of oil. This is less so in Manitoba, where the NDP remains a signficant force and will likely do well in Winnipeg and the North.

The Atlantic Provinces, are a whole other ball of wax. This will be the one region of the country where the Liberals win. The Liberals, Conservatives, and NDP will all win seats here, however.

The Northern Provinces - Yukon, Nunavut, the Northwest Terriotires - are geographically huge but have a very small population whihc is largely indigenous. They only have 4 seats amongst them, which will go to either the Liberals or the NDP.

By far, Ontario is the largest province. It posseses over a third of the potential seats. Quebec is not far behind, and has about a quarter of the seats.

A final point worth making is that Canadian federal politics is significantly different than internal provincial politics. For example, in BC, the primary battle at the Provincial level is between the BC Liberal Party (which is actually a conservative party, and is not related to the national Liberal Party) and the NDP. In Quebec, the current division is between the leftish sovreigntist party, the Parti Quebecois (not to be confused with the federal Bloc Quebecois), the Liberals (again, who do not have a relationship to the Federal Liberals), who are kind of ideologically amorphous and who are primarily held together by opposition to seperatism, and the Action Democratique, led by Mario Dumont, another rather vague party that is kind of center-right economically (perhaps the best comparison would be with the German Free Democrats), although it is kind of hard to get a handle on where they stand on basically any issue.

by Ben P (wbp@u.washington.edu) on Tue Jan 17th, 2006 at 08:35:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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