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My Election 41 Rant

A story from my childhood that’s stuck with me is one my dad told me of first moving to Montreal in the 1970s. Fresh out of university, unsure of what to do next, and just settling into a big(ger) city, he took a job working in a factory. He was promoted from the floor about a week later. Many of his co-workers that week had been in the same positions for years, if not decades. The key difference was not my dad’s Bachelor of Sciences degree, it was that he spoke English, and his co-workers didn’t.

A generation later, in the wake of a revived sovereigntist movement, and second referendum, my late grandmother – a resident of the west island suburb of Lachine, told me a story of how a neighbour hoisted a Canadian flag on the veranda, only to see it burned. Linguistic and cultural tensions were already high because Lachine had elected an Anglophone mayor, owing to a vote-split amongst the Francophone candidates.

This is all to say that, while I was raised and live in Alberta, I’m not unaware of – or insensitive to – the politics of Quebec, and the long-time disadvantages most Quebecois faced. I studied political science in university, focusing mostly on contemporary Canadian politics. In my experience – theoretical and practical – I’ve yet to see any indication that another round of constitutional negotiations is what’s going to settle historical grievances or federal imbalances (that, likely, would get worse) or any other tensions between two of our founding peoples.

In a very different context (the assination of Martin Luther King Jr.), Robert F. Kennedy implored an audience simmering on racial tension to “understand. We have to make an effort to understand”. Those words strike me as apt in almost any situation where there’s great tension. We have to understand both sides – not just our own, and attempt to reconcile the two. I’ve never been convinced that increasingly assymetrical federalism, and/or economic concessions, will settle this issue. But an effort to understand our own country, what makes regions and peoples different, and more importantly what binds us as a country – and a nation – is a pretty significant first step.

It’s my opinion that another round of constitutional talks – even just raising the prospect of it – will lead to no good. In the worst case scenario, it becomes another broken promise from English Canada that will make Quebecois nationhood a more enticing concept. I really hope we don’t go down this road.

With that being said, here are some abridged, largely stream-of-consciousness thoughts before the polls start closing in Atlantic Canada.

Le Ciel est Orange
The NDP looks set to make a historic breakthrough in Quebec, giving them the boost to become the official opposition, or – if crazy things happen, and who’s to say they won’t – the government, for the first time in their history, pushing the Liberal Party into third place standing (again, a first). They’re drawing support from all corners – the soft national/sovereigntist one being the concern – but one way or another, they could win anywhere from 25-55 seats, depending on which numbers you believe. Which will be a big jump from their previous record of 1.

Add in their standing as the most prominent alternative to the Conservatives in most places west of Ontario, and their slow growth in Atlantic Canada over the past dozen years, it’s hard to see the NDP failing to supplant the Liberals, and having a pretty good chance of making this a permanent situation.

And while I am more often than not a Liberal voter, this wouldn’t bother me, except for their position and actions on reopening the constitution. Frankly, I think that 1) in government, they’d govern no different than the Liberals (as history at the provincial level shows), and 2) having a unified centre-left option in a true 2 party system would be a positive development for Canada (brokerage parties FTW). An even NDP-Liberal split, where they spend a few cycles beating each other up (like the PCs/Reform Alliance did) will probably bring this merger about. Or the Liberals will implode, and it will happen by attrition regardless. In any case, whatever centre-left alternative emerges in the next couple of election cycles is unlikely to be an affront to moderate voters. My apologies to the few people who still think the NDP are a social democratic party. The fact is you’re miles away from the Regina Manifesto.

What’s Good for the Liberal Party is Good for Canada
The giant of the 20th century in federal politics looks poised to hit a record low in at least 2 of 3 categories – popular vote % and standing in the House of Commons look assured, but they have a good chance of staying above the record low 40 seats they won in 1984 (which was good for second place against the Mulroney landslide).

Nonetheless, few would disagree that this represents a political all-time low for Canada’s Natural Governing Party, one that they will have a difficult time recovering from (unless they default back into second place due to a NDP implosion). Michael Ignatieff hasn’t excelled as leader, but he will take an unfair burden of the blame, as the leader who happens to be at the helm at this point in time.

The Liberal Party has been in decline for 50 years. Electorally, they lost their base in the west to Diefenbaker in the late ’50s. They benefitted for 60 years from a toxic Conservative party in Quebec, but lost that advantage when Mulroney took over as Tory leader, then after his party’s implosion, to the Bloc Quebecois. Their Ontario base is receding, and the polls are showing stagnation and NDP growth in the Atlantic. Save for the historical quirk of the PC/Reform-Alliance vote split in Ontario, this is a party that is incapable of winning a majority, and has been for 30 years now.

More worrisome is the fact that nobody seems clear what the Liberal Party stands for. The progressive strain of Liberalism (not neo-Liberalism) has failed to fashion a response to the changes in our society over the past 40 years, namely declining industrialization, and increasing globalization. Even politically successful centre-left leaders (Chretien in Canada, Clinton in the US, Blair in the UK) achieved their success by following neo-liberal/neo-conservative agendas. Unless you see social issues as wedge (and practically, they’re not in Canada), there’s not much to distinguish a liberal identity from a small-c conservative one.

Specific to the Liberal Party in Canada, beginning with the “nation” vote in 2006, they’ve shied away from their traditional, strong defense of federalism. It was with utter disappointment that I watched them fail to take a strong stand against the NDP’s approach to Quebec and the constitution this election. Another piece of their traditional agenda seemed to have passed on.

Without a clear agenda, it’s hard to say why a political party should exist. History at the provincial level shows that a centre-left government – whether it’s Liberal or NDP – will be fairly similar. Partisans of both the orange and red variety will surely bristle at this notion, but I’d be interested to see them explain how the governments of Romanow or Doer or Dexter fundamentally differ from those of McKenna, Charest, or McGuinty. For most voters in that ideological ballpark, they want to see a coherent centre-left agenda, and they don’t care under whose umbrella they find it.

My advice, then, to Liberals is that if the party is worth saving, it needs a contemporary ideological foundation to be built on. You’re not being punished for bad behaviour, you’re being punished for irrelevance.

An Electoral Majority, Not a Political Majority
Ryan McNutt made a good point yesterday about Prime Minister Harper seeking an electoral majority, not the broad, consensus-based majorities we’re used to. Should the election night results match the polls, it will be well worth asking whether this is a realistic goal. To take nothing away from the NDP – who have run an excellent campaign, and Jack Layton – who has done well connecting with voters and staying on message – an element of their surge has to owe to a frustration voters are feeling with the Conservatives and Liberals. There has to be a point where the Conservatives ask themselves how far this approach can take them.

With that said, I think they’ll move incrementally closer to a majority, and we’ll see the NDP-Liberal flip the polls are indicating. The BQ, who like the Liberals seem to be searching for an identity, will hit a new low as well. Duceppe will lose his seat, May will fall short of winning hers as well.

Prediction: Conservatives 146, NDP 79, Liberals 61, Bloc 22. Voter turnout will tick up, but I think the surge in the advanced polls owed more to them being on a long weekend than renewed interest from the public.

Enjoy the results, go vote if you haven’t and still can, and stay just as involved and active as a citizen after the election ends. Democracy is a regular function, not something that happens for 36 days after a non-confidence vote. We as Canadians will get the parliament we vote for, and the government we deserve.


Canadian Politics in Flux

Christopher Flavelle of Slate, also a former speechwriter for Stephane Dion, on Canada’s political climate.

First Election Prediction

Taking a cue from Mustafa, I submitted my prediction to the James Bow Federal Election Pool.
I will probably revise it in a week or two, but for now my gut says this:

We’re Better Off With Harper and His Sweater Vests: 142
The Green Shift: 100
The Socialist Sovereigntists: 34
Jack Layton, of the NEW Democrats: 29
Without Party Affiliation: 2
The Liberal Candidate for Central Nova: 1

Voter Turnout: 56%

By early October, the Conservatives will flirt with majority territory, but in the end the Bloc will hold enough of their support in Quebec. Add in the Liberals continued strength in Ontario and the Atlantic provinces, and Harper will get closer, but not quite there.

The Liberals and NDP tread water, which is probably the worst case scenario for them. Well, not the worst case, and certainly better than being decimated, but it leaves them in limbo. Dion and Layton both hold the fort, more or less (Dion up 5 seats, Layton down 2), so it’s not a ringing endorsement of their leadership, but it’s not a defeat, so they won’t be compelled to resign.

The outlook will probably change, but through 3 1/2 days I see a pretty similar landscape to the one that was just dissolved. Nobody’s had a really good first week, except for Elizabeth May, and as Andrew Steele of The Globe has pointed out, getting into the debate is actually a mixed blessing for the Greens.

On Debates…

In light of the decision to exclude Elizabeth May of the Green Party from the national leaders debate, I think there are a few issues here:

Who’s to Blame?
If you oppose the decision, I think there are three groups at blame here:

1. The media outlets for not calling the bluff of the Conservatives and the NDP. Were they really going to skip the debates? I find that hard to believe.

2. Messrs Harper and Layton, while entirely within their right to oppose Mrs May’s inclusion, should have a real good reason for doing so.

3. The electoral system is at fault, since there is no regulation regarding the debates.

What Should Happen This Election?
In the short term, if the networks want Elizabeth May there, I think they should call Harper and Layton’s bluff. And if they decide to sit out, it’s their loss.

What Should Happen in the Future?
There should be an amendment to the Canada Election Act which provides for sanctioned debates.

Participation should be open to the leader of any registered political party who has achieved any of the following benchmarks:

1. Election of a Member of Parliament (under that party’s banner) in the previous general election, or a by-election since.
2. Official party status in the House of Commons.
3. Earned 5% of the vote in the previous general election (or other vote benchmark that would demonstrate support).
4. Having candidates in a specific number of ridings, say 75%.

To me, any of those would demonstrate a national presence, and merit inclusion in a debate.

Hopefully someone will run with this concept so we don’t have these issues in the future.

Jack Layton Wants To Be Our Barack Obama

Just read the text of Jack Layton’s kickoff speech, which seems to read like a “best of” list cribbed from the various Democratic primary candidates. You might as well call it “The Campaign to Bring Change We Can Believe In to Canada on Day One”.

Overall it’s not a bad speech, probably because it feels like a blatant ripoff of Senator Obama’s speeches from the past two years, especially phrases like “doing things the way they’ve been done for the past 25 years” (Obama says 8 years) and “don’t let them tell you it can’t be done”, variations of which appear in almost every Obama speech. How about some original material?

And Mr. Layton, you’re no Barack Obama.

Also, I’m curious if the constant refrain of “Stephane Dion is not the change we need” in their policy section was introduced before or after that slogan made its debut south of the border.

But on a more humorous note, I agree about The Simpsons reference being thrown in as well.

Update: More from Aaron Wherry.

No Reason for an Election Yet

Despite the insistence of our prime minister that parliament can no longer function, the Governor General should refuse to dissolve parliament until such time that this is proven.

Parliament has managed to function for 2 1/2 years. Budgets and legislation have been passed, and leaving the inability to get Conservatives in front of a committee aside, things have gone pretty smoothly. That the Prime Minister no longer wants to work with this parliament, and prefers instead an election, is not reason enough to send Canadians to the polls.

Here is what should happen:

Let’s say that Prime Minister Harper visits the Governor General tomorrow (Tuesday, September 2) and asks her to dissolve parliament, which she would have the authority to do according to the Canada Elections Act, notwithstanding the generally fixed dates of our elections according to law.

The Governor General should ask for evidence that parliament will not function. Should none be produced, she should ask the leaders of the opposition parties if they are willing to make parliament work in some form or other until October 2009.

If their response is anything but an absolutely firm “no way, no how, no parliament”, she should present our prime minister with two options:

1. Continuing to govern until October 2009 or the government loses the confidence of the house on a vote, whichever comes first.
2. If he is absolutely convinced he can no longer govern in this parliament, he should resign.

In situation 1, I assume Harper will try to engineer his own defeat, without looking like he’s doing so, as soon as possible.

In situation 2, the Governor General should ask the leader of the official opposition, Stephane Dion, if he wishes to attempt to govern. It would also be reasonable to me, given that Dion’s party holds less than 1/3 of the seats in the house, to give him a deadline, say next Monday or Tuesday, by which he must demonstrate evidence that there is at least a good chance he can govern until next fall.

This would likely involve some sort of agreement with the NDP and/or the Bloc. No two of those three parties can combine for a majority of parliament. Nonetheless, even a Liberal-NDP coalition (formal or not) would be roughly equal to the size of the Conservative caucus. It should be given the chance to pass legislation and a budget, either with the Bloc supporting it or agreeing to abstain in some form to allow its passage.

Fixed election dates, an initiative I support, were meant to help level the playing field between the different parties. No longer could sitting governments call for an election when the polls and the timing suited them best. I can understand the need to go to the polls before the four year mandate is up if the parliament, as currently configured, just couldn’t pass legislation. That hasn’t been proven to be the case so far, and I see no reason why it would be the case going forward.

Until we have evidence that this parliament cannot function, I see no reason for an election. I hope our Governor General feels the same way.