Stalemate: On the By-Elections

Last night’s three by-elections produced…the status quo. The Conservatives held their two seats, and the NDP held their one.

Nonetheless, there’s good and bad news for every party in the results:

Conservatives
Good News: They held their 2 seats, winning convincingly in Durham, and still pulling 37% in Calgary-Centre with a controversial candidate.
Bad News: Their vote share dropped substantially in Calgary-Centre, supporting the idea that it could become competitive. They lost a significant share of votes in Victoria, as well, dropping to a distant third.

NDP
Good News: They held on to Victoria, and held their second place standing in Durham, gaining vote share to put further distance between them and the third place Liberals.
Bad News: Their vote share was down 13% in Victoria and they nearly lost what should have been a safe seat. They lost 11% in Calgary-Centre, finishing a distant fourth with less than 4% of the vote. Even though they were a clear second in Durham, they’re still nowhere near competing to win.

Liberals
Good News: They finished a strong second in Calgary-Centre, up 15% in vote share from 2011. The comments from David McGuinty and Justin Trudeau may have stalled their momentum, if they had any significant impact at all, but they didn’t cause the vote to crater. Harvey Locke finished on the high end of where the three polls conducted had him placed. Vote share-wise, they at least stopped their bleeding in Durham and Victoria.
Bad News: They got fewer votes cumulatively in the three ridings than the Greens, and were not a factor in either Durham or Victoria (where they finished third and fourth, respectively). There’s an argument to be made, as Colby did, that they simply turned out the loyal base in Calgary-Centre.

Greens
Good News: They finished a strong second in Victoria, nearly tripling their vote share from 2011, and a strong third in Calgary-Centre, where they more than doubled their share.
Bad News: Not much, actually. Both Donald Galloway (Victoria) and Chris Turner (Calgary-Centre) are strong candidates with local profile, so it would remain to be seen if they could hold their gains without these candidates running again in 2015.

3 Things We Might Have Learned
By-Elections Can Rarely Be Extrapolated for Broader Trends
It’s tempting to look for trends (A Green Wave in Western Canada? Stalled NDP growth? Liberals hit their ceiling? Conservatives drop votes?)

There may be local trends to watch, though. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that the Greens could be growing a beachhead on Vancouver Island (Liz May’s riding is next door), in Calgary, the Liberals still have life, and Chris Turner has local appeal, and Durham is rock solid Tory country.

The Political Climate is Still Unsettled
2011 may yet prove to be a realignment election, but further movement to solidify that was absent from last night’s result. The Liberals held their share in two ridings, and nearly doubled it in another. The Green Party saw the major growth last night, not the ascendant NDP. As mentioned, they themselves nearly lost an incumbent seat, and barely factored in another.

What I take this to mean is that we’re in an unsettled period, and while a two-party CPC-NDP system may be the end result, it’s still too fluid to call.

The Vote-Splitting and Unite-the-Left Arguments Miss the Point
In Calgary-Centre particularly, vote splitting was named as the cause of the Conservative Party victory. Let me be unequivocally clear: no party lost because of vote splitting. They lost because of a failure to appeal to and/or turn out enough voters. No party of the left will win unless they understand this.

As the Conservative Party experiment teaches us, 1+1 does not = 2. I put together a table of votes by party from 1984-2011, combining the ‘right’ and ‘left’ vote. For the latter, there’s a column for it with and without the Green Party. As you can see, it took three elections for the CPC to reach the combined vote of the PCs and Canadian Alliance from 2000. The party has never reached the vote share earned by the PCs in 1988. 1993, in fact, saw a major shift from the NDP to the Reform across Western Canada, which would seem incomprehensible if voters made decisions strictly on ideological grounds. This piece makes a good argument that last night, the Greens gained, more than anyone else, from Conservative losses. Rather than being seen as a third pillar of the progressive/left, the Greens, like the Bloc, probably pull from all across the spectrum, or at worst, being a safe place to park a protest vote.

There is some merit to the argument when examined another way. Rather than looking at votes in raw numbers, we need to examine voting coalitions. Our system, for better or worse, rewards brokerage parties – those that appeal to a broad spectrum of interests. When I have argued in previous posts that no progressive/left-centre party can form a majority government, it’s based on the fact that none of them have a broad enough coalition. Merger may bring this about, but it’s likely that voters from one or both previous parties would park their votes elsewhere, or stay home. The same would happen with attrition. Strategic voting, or dividing ridings won’t accomplish this, but brokerage will.

The way to a progressive government in this country is for one of the three current options to find a way to appeal to enough citizens and interests groups to form a coalition that can appeal to 40-45% of voters on a regular basis. The big lesson for me from last night is that the window for either the NDP, Liberals, or Greens to accomplish this is still wide open.

The Left’s Calgary-Centre Challenge

Tomorrow, three by-elections occur across Canada. In two – the Conservative stronghold of Durham, and Victoria, where the NDP have won comfortably the past three elctions – the incumbent party is expected to win by a large margin. The third, Calgary-Centre, has unexpectedly turned into a hotly contested race.

Calgary, as a city, last elected a non-conservative MP (PC/Reform/Alliance/CPC) in 1968. The closest thing to a disruption occured in this riding in 2000, when the non-Canadian Alliance vote coalesced around Progressive Conservative Party leader Joe Clark, boosting him to victory.

Now, the riding appears to be close. The Conservatives opened the door to a challenge by nominating a controversial candidate in Joan Crockett, and exacerbated it by shielding her from most public forums. All three opposition parties nominated strong candidates in their own right – the Liberals with notable conservationist Harvey Locke, the NDP with Dan Meades, the Director of Vibrant Communities Calgary, and the Greens with notable author Chris Turner. (Personal disclosure: I have some acquaintance with Harvey Locke, and serve on a board with his wife).

Two polls from Forum Research show a potential three-way race with Crockett ahead, Locke just behind, and Turner as the stalking horse in third. A poll from Return on Insight shows Crockett just ahead of Locke, with Turner comfortably in third, but far behind.

While I would love to see Harvey Locke (or Chris Turner) win this seat, safe money is still on Crockett. While by-elections do often produce abnormal results, one has to figure the floor for a Conservative candidate in this riding is in the mid-30s even with a weaker candidate. If you have the third and fourth place candidates pulling in around 30% of the vote (in ROI) or higher (in Forum), that leaves about 30-35% of the vote, if the Conservatives hit their floor. In other words, not a lot of space for another candidate to pull ahead.

This is a problem that will continue to repeat itself, until the three left of centre parties sort themselves out. I expect this to happen over the next two election cycles through attrition or merger. If three survive as viable entities, it will be because at least one retreats to becoming a largely regional entity.

Win or lose tomorrow, the Calgary-Centre by-election points to some key challenges centre-left parties, no matter which ones survive or emerge, need to overcome to be a true threat to government.

Calgary Tower
Calgary-Centre is a bellwether for progressive hopes in the west.

The Need to Stop Beating Up Your Own
The most biting attack of this campaign was a Chris Turner mailer where…he attacked Harvey Locke. Echoing the Conservative “he didn’t come back for you!” attack on Michael Ignatieff, Turner chastises Locke for spending many years away from Calgary. These are far harsher words than he has for Crockett at any point. Reminiscent of the PC/Reform battles in Ontario through the ’90s, the centre-left is likely to continue beating itself up in order to try to become the alternative. In the meantime, the Conservatives will be able to largely coast into office until this is sorted out.

Someone suggested to me that Locke and Turner are drawing strengths from two different constituencies (more established liberals vs. young civic activists), and while this may be true, the broader point is that it is unlikely that any non-Conservative candidate can win regularly without the support of both.

The Need to Be Competitive Across the Country
To their credit, Liberal Party leadership candidates have grasped the need to reach out to the west, and Alberta in particular. The NDP have made inroads in Edmonton, winning one riding in 2008 and holding it in 2011. The province is not only influential because of its role in the economy, but because of its fast growing population. It will gain another 6 seats prior to the 2015 election.

It is still possible for a party to win a majority based on strength elsewhere in the country (Ontario, Quebec, and BC remain seat-rich), but it’s hard to see any party but the Conservatives winning a majority without at least some seats from the prairie provinces, Alberta in particular.

Another consideration is this – the need to simply make this area of the country more competitive. At the moment, the Conservatives can effectively bank at least 24 of 28 seats in Alberta prior to the writ drop (that’s being generous by including Calgary-Centre, along with NDP-held Edmonton-Strathcona, and once Liberal/NDP-held Edmonton Centre and Edmonton East). That means that the party can redirect advertising dollars and human resources elsewhere, both organizers and its leader (and leading cabinet ministers). While other parties need to defend their home turf, so to speak, the Conservatives can focus on swing ridings and areas of growth. Simply making at least Edmonton and Calgary more competitive would help centre-left parties across the country in that respect.

As an aside, it’s striking how few centre-left MPs of significance Alberta has produced in the past 80 years (if not longer), aside from Anne McLellan. While many prominent Liberals or CCF/NDPs have carved out notable careers at the provincial level or as Mayor of Calgary or Edmonton, none have made a successful breakthrough to the federal level. While the province gets labeled as a bastion of conservatism, that list of prominent centre-left politicians would include Laurence Decore, Grant Notley, Grant MacEwan, Nick Taylor, Ivor Dent, Jan Reimer, Al Duerr, and Dave Bronconnier, to name a few. Every other province can point to both prominent progressive and conservative politicians it has produced, even if it reliably supports one party (or ideology) over others.

The Need to Win Across the Country
Having said all that, Calgary-Centre is precisely the type of riding that a centre-left party will need to win in order to compete for and win government on a regular basis. It’s demographics largely resemble areas that support centre-left parties across the country, and provincially, it includes parts or all of ridings that have elected Liberals in recent elections, such as Calgary-Buffalo and Calgary-Currie.

Without a major realignment, it’s hard to see any centre-left party winning government except, as I said earlier this year, in case of a charismatic leader who disrupts voting patters or when scandal and voter fatigue catch up to government.

In figuring the road to a majority government for the NDP, Liberal Party, Green Party, or some combination thereof, it’s hard to see how that happens without winning 3-6 seats in each of the prairie provinces.

Some pundits are predicting a historic upset, and I do hope to see it change hands. However, what I think is more likely is that Calgary-Centre can the launching pad for progressive inroads in the west. In this respect, Edmonton-Strathcona is a model. While most remember “Liberals for Linda”, and how the progressive vote coalesced around her as she squeaked out a win in 2008, fewer seem to remember that she effectively kept campaigning from the 2006 election onward. The NDP also targeted that riding with regular mailings and appearances. If the Liberals, Greens, or NDP are serious about winning Calgary-Centre, they can’t give up after tomorrow night, should they be unsuccessful. If they do, it will start inching back towards the status quo. Tomorrow’s by-election should be the start of a consistent, steady campaign to build inroads and support so that it’s a true race come 2015, and if it doesn’t change hands then, that it’s poised to soon afterwards. Making the necessary inroads to win support in Western Canada is going to be a long process. Done right, tomorrow night can be a catalyst for that.

The Battle for Alberta

Monday is election day in Alberta. Normally, this is a ho-hum affair, the suspense being not about who will win, but about by how much the governing Progressive Conservative party will win. The PCs first won government in 1971. Starting with their first re-election campaign, they have won more than 60 seats in every campaign (the total number of seats available growing over that time from 75 to 87 today). The lone exception, 1993, is seen as the high water mark for competitive elections in this province. Even then, once the dust settled on election day, the PCs had won 51 seats, 19 more than the opposition.

All this back story is a way of saying that exciting provincial campaigns, where the outcome is truly in doubt, are extremely rare in Alberta. The upstart Wildrose Party is leading in all the polls, and it’s a realistic possibility that they will form the next government. If nothing else, it has been encouraging, and exciting, to see a truly contested election happen. It has also, however, been in many ways a disappointing election. The absence of debate on important issues, and focus instead of namecalling and fear-mongering, doesn’t fill me with confidence for the future, regardless of who forms government. An election is an important milestone in politics and government, but it’s not the only thing that matters. If we can’t have a rational discussion of candidates, parties, and ideas during a campaign, I don’t know if it’s going to get better after the fact.

Danielle Smith
Danielle Smith, possibly our Premier-designate after Monday’s vote.

In the hysteria, some important things have been lost. Energy, the foundation of Alberta’s economy, has received scarce attention. Critique of Wildrose has focused on a few extremist candidates who would likely never get into cabinet, rather than the policies and people who may actually be central to their government. People have embraced the PCs as a positive alternative, without critically analyzing how similar the two parties are in terms of some of their members’ beliefs, and the likely outcomes. It’s also received scant attention from the public that Premier Redford is unlikely to survive even if she wins another (slim) majority government. If she does, it will likely be by making compromises with the party establishment, moving it back towards the “conservative” side, and further away from what “strategic” PC voters think they’re getting – or avoiding by defeating the Wildrose.

We’ve also ignored the fact that almost every government moves towards the centre upon taking office, whether they campaign on the right or left. In terms of ideology, the Saskatchewan Party and federal Conservative Party are likely better comparisons for anticipating a Wildrose government than assuming a throwback to the Social Credit or Klein PC days. Whether or not this is a good thing is a matter of one’s view, but it’s the frame through which they should be examined. Truth is, like with the PCs, almost every Albertan would find some outcomes they like, and some they don’t (the balance of good vs. bad would vary greatly depending on your view). But the sky will not fall Tuesday morning if they’re elected. If they are as extreme in government as some fear, they’ll get tossed out next election. That’s how politics works.

Now, I do hope people get out and vote, regardless of who it’s for. More importantly, though, is for people to own their votes. If voters hold their nose and vote PC because they’re scared of Wildrose, they should be prepared to live with, and own the fact that they will still be getting a conservative government (one more so than they may expect). I won’t have any sympathy for the Aviva Zimmermans of the world if they’re unhappy with what they’d get out of four more years of PC government. If you vote for the Wildrose, it’s important that, as a supporter, you hold them to their pledges, especially the one on accountability, as that’s one of the fundamental tenets of their argument for change. If you support the Liberals, NDP, or Alberta Party, it’s important to ensure that the MLAs who are elected are being a positive force for change in the Legislature, rather than just hecklers and conspiracy theorists, as opposition MLAs often have been in this province.

No matter who you support, however, the most important thing is to not disappear for four years, but to keep working in your community, and through the political system, to help realize the change you want to see happen.

Alison Redford, campaign stop
Alison Redford during the campaign. Her time as Premier has brought forward a lot of positive initiatives, but she’s weighed down by her party’s record.
Flickr/Dave Cournoyer

Now, I have mixed feelings on every party. I think the PCs have brought in some legitimately good policies and initiatives in recent years. In this respect, the governments of Premiers Stelmach and Redford have been a notable improvement over their predecessors. That said, inheriting a government more than 30 years old comes with inherent drawbacks. A culture has developed around government that promotes cronyism, a lack of transparency, and bullying the opposition. Were Premier Redford building a party from the ground up, I suspect I’d quite like the product. Her time in office, however, speaks to just how hard it is, despite her best efforts, to reform a party – and government – that is so entrenched. Should she continue on, there’s no guarantee the task will get easier.

As for the Wildrose, it’s probably clear to most readers that I don’t see eye to eye on many policy issues with them. I do, however, support most of their accountability pledge. I also have a lot of time for Danielle Smith. She’s a policy-minded leader, and I think that a Wildrose government under her leadership will surprise many with how they’d approach some issues.

The Alberta Liberal Party looks like a group that’s run out of steam, politically-speaking. That said, I respect the fact that they’ve put forward some controversial ideas in their platform, like raising taxes, and eliminating post-secondary tuition (the latter I disagree with, by the way). It’s important to have parties willing to push the boundaries, and encourage debate on important issues, no matter how unpopular they may be.

The NDP has proven to be an effective opposition, always raising important perspectives and flagging key issues to hold the government to account on. Losing this contribution would be a bad thing.

Finally, it’s no secret to many that I’ve been an Alberta Party supporter for the past year and a half. My endorsement for a party is for them. Despite running candidates in fewer than half the ridings province-wide, a vote for the Alberta Party would be an endorsement of community-driven politics, and a message that we can do politics in a better, more inclusive and collegial manner. My support is driven in large part by the genuine commitment I see to citizen engagement, and a more collaborative approach to politics, as well as the high regard I have for many of the people involved in the party. Nonetheless, I feel like the party will need a more defined (or better articulated) set of values and policies going forward in order to be a true competitor for government.

Glenn Taylor - Alberta Party leadership candidates
Glenn Taylor, leader of the Alberta Party, hopefully an MLA-elect tomorrow night.
Flickr/Dave Cournoyer

There are also good candidates running for every party. On the PC side, losing bright minds like Dave Hancock and Doug Griffiths would be a bad thing. Whether or not Wildrose forms government, I hope Danielle Smith wins her seat, as she’d bring an important perspective to the Legislature. I’ve also gotten to know Shannon Stubbs through mutual friends and involvements over the years, and have a tremendous amount of respect for her. In a Wildrose government or opposition, she’d be a strong contributor.

Incumbent Liberal MLAs like Laurie Blakeman, David Swann, and Kent Hehr would be valuable members in opposition, contributing to debate and representing their constituents well. In a minority government, I’d be optimistic about their ability to affect change, and support reasonable legislation.

On the NDP side, Rachel Notley is a lock to hold her seat, which is a good thing, and I hope David Eggen is returned to the Legislature as well. He was a strong performer in his first term from 2004-08, and has demonstrated his ability as an advocate in leading Friends of Medicare since. I’ve always been impressed with Shannon Phillips, in the almost 10 years since we’ve known each other. While we haven’t always agreed, I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for both her ability and conviction. She’s the kind of person we need more of in politics, and I hope voters in Lethbridge-West agree.

I’m also hoping for an Alberta Party breakthrough, as there are a number of candidates who would be assets to their constituents and the province as a whole in the Legislature. Both Michael Walters and Sue Huff are true community-oriented leaders, and would bring a collaborative, positive approach to politics. Michael’s history as a community organizer and Sue’s work on the Edmonton Public School Board bear witness to the quality of work they’d do as MLAs. I consider both of them friends, and have been proud to support their respective campaigns over the past several months.

Glenn Taylor, the party leader, is a respected former Mayor of Hinton, and in the time I’ve gotten to know him, has proven to be a thoughtful leader with an eye for bringing people together. Tim Osborne, who I know more by reputation than personally, would be a great addition to the Legislature. His background in the social sector, and passion for helping people at risk and in need, is important to have, especially with a government who has an eye on balancing the budget (which will almost certainly involve spending cuts). Having people like Tim in the legislature would be important to balance this out.

On the whole, I’d be happiest with a minority government – whether it’s led by the PCs or Wildrose – that has representation from all five parties. It would give us a chance to see which parties and MLAs are seriously committed to working together, and getting results for Albertans. In other words, which ones are true representatives, and which ones are just politicians. I also hope the outcome provides opportunity for all five parties to engage in some self-reflection and growth. For the established parties – PC and Liberal – a chance to reflect on what they stand for and why they exist (especially in the former’s case, since they are no longer the automatic ‘governing’ party). For the NDP, to consider whether they want to occupy a more moderate space, like their federal cousins, or pursue their traditional path of being the conscience of government. For the new parties – Wildrose and Alberta – to prove themselves to voters, and define where exactly they stand when they have to make the tough decisions of being in elected office. If this can all happen in a majority government setting, great. But I think it’s much less likely to happen should that be the result.

We’re in the midst of a transition period in Alberta politics. Whatever comes out of it, I hope we see a truly competitive political arena with two viable governing parties emerge, not one where dynasties rule for a generation or two before crumbling and giving way to another. I hope we move towards a more civil and collaborative approach, where citizen engagement isn’t a token effort, but a bedrock for politics. I hope tomorrow’s election is another step towards the Alberta 3.0 I wrote about two years ago, and still believe we will move towards – whether we embrace it or not. Most important of all, I hope everyone who votes doesn’t assume their work is done for the next four years once they’ve cast their ballot, and continues to work hard to build a stronger province. Whoever wins, we’ll get the government we deserve – either through or action or our inaction. I hope it’s through the former.

Progressives in the House: New Opposition Leader. Now What?

Thomas Mulcair was elected as the new leader of the NDP last weekend. Previously, I wrote about what I see as a missing agenda amongst all progressive leaders in Canada. Today, I’ll take a different tack, looking at some of the things progressives can expect going forward, and some opportunities I see to make gains moving towards the next election in 2015.

Thomas Mulcair
Flickr/Matt Jiggins

The Conservatives will Test Mulcair, Early and Often
The attacks started early and often, with a news release the night of his election, and a members’ speech decrying him before his first question.

The long-promised austerity budget is short on austerity, but expect a fight on a few fronts.

The Conservative Party is likely challenge Mulcair on some of the NDP’s traditional beliefs and constituencies, attempting to force him back to his party’s traditional corner, or cause a rift. Labour will be one way. They’ve started this in the past year with back-to-work legislation for striking Canada Post and Air Canada workers, and will ramp it up with public service cutbacks. Expect the public service to make a big deal, and the Conservative government to respond accordingly.

Jack Layton, Leaders Tour - Tournée du Chef - Rebecca Blaikie
Flickr/Matt Jiggins

The NDP’s ‘Traditional Base’ Will Cause Problems for Mulcair
Mulcair will have to walk a fine line of moving the party to the “centre” in the public’s mind, but also keeping his party’s constituencies happy. As noted above, the Conservatives will likely try to exacerbate any tension between him and, say, unions. In addition, Mulcair is going to have to craft a more thoughtful response to the oil sands – one that satisfies his more militant members, but that also speaks to the aspirations of Western Canadians. Or, as that may be impossible, one that enough people on both sides can live with.

Mulcair Complicates the Liberals’ Obvious Path Back to Official Opposition (Nevermind Government)
The Liberal Party’s best hope was for the NDP to fall back, through one of two ways – losing a significant chunk of their gains in Quebec, or electing a leader who will pull the party further to the left.

Of course, predicting outcomes in politics is a very inexact science. It’s entirely possible that Mulcair will alienate voters in some form, but on the surface he looks like a leader likely to stay the course, and at the very least hold most of the NDP’s gains from the past decade.

That leaves the Liberals in a precarious position – barring a charismatic leader who connects strongly with voters, they’re unlikely to make gains trying to own the centre-left with a similar, more viable moderate party already there. In addition, Mulcair figures to be, if nothing else, an effective advocate in the House, meaning the value of an orator like Bob Rae is diminished as a potential competitive advantage. It may in fact force them to the place they should have gone years ago, which is to evaluate what it means to be a liberal (nevermind a Liberal) today, what one should stand for, and if there’s a place for those beliefs in an independent political party. Some self-reflection that leads to a clear raison d’être would do them good.

The Conservatives Will Get Their Wins. Can The Oppositions Make Them Pyrrhic Wins?
With a majority of seats in both the House and the Senate, it’s likely the Conservatives will be able to pass the legislation they want to. The major impediment would be public opinion. On this, should the Conservatives pursue legislation that will be controversial, or unpopular, the opposition needs to engage the affected parties, working with them to earn support, and ensuring the Conservatives wear any controversial issues in the public eye. In other words, if they’re going to get what they want, make sure it’s at a cost.

Work Needs to Happen Outside of the House
Building on the previous point, the opposition’s ability to affect change legislatively is limited. There are private members’ bills and amendments they can advance (which I’ll talk about in the next section), but the work to build a broader coalition needs to happen off Parliament Hill. It’s both issue-based, rallying support to attempt to stop or at least dilute unpopular legislation, but also in building a broader coalition of voters – one that can realistically form government. Right now, the best chance they have in 2015 is to default into government through Conservative unpopularity – but that’s not sustainable. The fundamentals favour the governing party, and will until there’s a coalition of voters that can realistically win 170 seats (with the seat count increasing to 338 next election).

That Said, the Opposition Can Make Gains By Changing the Terms of Engagement in the House
As noted, the opposition should seek to introduce legislation (which can hopefully pass) that will earn favour with its constituencies (current and potential). Stressing a more collegial environment overall, for example, highlighting instances where it works with government, and enhances, rather than simply opposes legislation, is key. Most importantly, however, would be to change the terms of engagement, bringing a more collegial, collaborative approach, and toning down the rhetoric in Question Period. This will appeal to voters who are tired of the constant bickering and partisanship.

Avnish made a great point on Twitter, saying:

(NDP Leadership Candidate Nathan) Cullen, I think, understood how young Canadians view politics with his coop approach. Results matter, not the party that’s behind it

I agree with that, and think that this is a point where process, rather than policy, can win substantial votes.

There are both challenges and opportunities ahead – I hope last weekend turns out to be a step towards a stronger progressive presence in Canadian politics over the next three and a half years.

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.

Election 41: When It Happens, Let’s Make It Count

Friday’s vote in the House of Commons means that we Canadians are spared for the time being from going to the polls. Maybe for 10 days, maybe for 10 months. My guess is that the between the support of the NDP and the Bloc, the Conservatives will be able to marshal Parliament through a fall sitting. Following the Vancouver olympics, they will bring forward a motion that neither party can support, sending Canadians to the polls in March or April of 2010.

Canadians don’t seem eager to go to the polls. Which is funny, because if you believe the polls from the last couple of months, a majority of them also want to see someone besides Prime Minister Harper lead the country. Which is even funnier, because polls indicated that Canadians (outside of Quebec) overwhelmingly opposed the idea of a coalition government between the Liberals and NDP (supported by the Bloc Quebecois) when it was proposed several months ago. I’m at a loss for options that will therefore please the majority of people (at least those responding to these polls).

In any case, it looks we’re headed for another election soon – certainly before the 40th Parliament’s mandate expires in 2012, and likely before 2010 is finished. I think the combination of a lack of enthusiasm for an election as well as for the status quo indicates one thing – voters don’t believe the election will change anything. You can’t blame someone for thinking that – polls indicate the next parliament will look like the current one, and if recent elections are an indication, the campaign will be more about fearmongering and name-calling than serious policy considerations.

Most Canadians seem to be unsatisfied not just with government, but with the level of discourse and debate in politics. The next election is an opportunity for voters – to ask tough questions, demand to see policy and discussion surrounding it, and to reward those party leaders and candidates who do so. Done right, another early election can be a good thing.

Which is why I was encouraged to read Michael Igatieff’s speech to the Toronto Board of Trade.

Ignatieff Speaks

Almost three months ago, I blogged about Michael Ignatieff’s town hall in Edmonton. He outlined a vision for Canada, and with speeches such as today’s on the economy and last week’s about Canada’s place in the world, he’s starting to articulate how he would move the country towards that vision. We need more of this. There is certainly a place in political speeches to critique the actions and views of other parties, but when that becomes the prime focus of your speeches, and you move away from informed critique to ad hominen attacks and misinformed generalizations, everyone loses out.

While you may not know it if you just tune in during elections, especially the leadership debates, our four national party leaders are all smart, accomplished people – as is BQ leader Gilles Duceppe. Between the five of them we should be able to have a real debate about the values and future direction of our country.

Michael Ignatieff is an accomplished author and public intellectual. He has written extensively about nationalism, national identity, and foreign policy. He has studied and lectured at some of the world’s leading universities. Let’s hold him to account, and make sure he spends his time talking about issues like foreign policy, the economy, and nationalism, rather than demonizing the Conservative government.

Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper addresses the worlds media

Stephen Harper was the Policy Director of the fledgling Reform Party, and one of the more active minds of his generation. He challenged the status quo and helped present a coherent vision of a more conservative Canada. As Prime Minister, he has abandoned selling a vision, choosing instead to advance causes like Senate reform by stealth, and to woo voters with piecemeal measures one microtargeted group at a time. Mr. Harper has been Prime Minister for 3 1/2 years, and there’s a good chance he’ll continue to be Prime Minister after the next election as well. With this office, what is he trying to accomplish? What is his ultimate vision for Canada, and how does he see us getting there? The Prime Minister would be well-served by laying his cards on the table. We can judge for ourselves if someone is not a leader, or just visiting Canada. So let’s hear less of that and more of where you want to take our country.

Jack Layton in Edmonton I

Prior to his election as leader of the NDP, Jack Layton was a respected Toronto City Councillor, President of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, and author on the issue of homelessness. Since then, he has spent more time on the campaign trail spouting platitudes about “working families”, demonizing the Liberals and Conservatives, and railing against big corporations. Aside from the “NDP Budget” he extracted from the Liberal Party in 2005, we haven’t seen or heard much about what the NDP stands for. Our cities face significant financial challenges, both in raising revenue and addressing the need for infrastructure and services. Homelessness remains a significant problem. Let’s hear you talk about how you would address those.

Elizabeth May, Green Party leadership candidate

And wither Elizabeth May? For all the talk that Michael Ignatieff was invisible all summer, what has Elizabeth May been up to? Besides turning up to announce she was running for, then contest and win, the nomination in Saanich-Gulf Island, Ms. May has been conspicuously absent in recent months. You would think the leader of a party on the outside of parliament would be making a compelling case that her party would be different than the dysfunctional caucuses inside the House. It would, you know, try to make parliament work.

More importantly, where is May, the lifelong environmental leader, to speak out as we head towards the next round of climate change talks in Copenhagen. Isn’t this precisely the type of issue she got into politics to address?

It’s important we don’t place all the burden or blame on our public officials. Democracy isn’t a spectator sport. As citizens, we have a responsibility to hold public officials and candidates for office to account. As we head towards another election, we have an opportunity to demand more of party leaders and candidates for office. We can demand that they discuss issues seriously. We can reward the ones who do, and punish the ones who don’t. These things take time and effort – to vote, to analyse and discuss party platforms and policy issues, to volunteer our time in support of people and causes we support – but good government and serious debate don’t magically happen. It takes the time and effort of citizens and officials at all levels.

If our citizens and our public officials are up for it, Election 41 can be a good thing. We should all do our part to make it happen.