Canadian Elections Primer

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: 130 to 140
Liberals: 80 to 90
Bloc Quebecois: 55 to 60
NDP: 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.

Tags: World (all tags)



Canadian Elections
A minority government may not even last two years. Look for another general elections before the US Presidentional Elections.
by Boilermaker 2006-01-16 03:09PM | 0 recs
I know Martin
...has started hinting, or more than hinting that if Harper's party won it would bring Bush to Canada but that doesn't seem to have worked well. I wasn't sure how wide spread that was.

The Bloc Quebecois (sp?) thing I simply cannot understand. Is the only reason they want seperatism is because they want to preserve their French-influenced culture? Are there economic issues in play here as well? I also thought that the Conservativesin Canada were more bent on keeping Quebec as Canadian than the Liberals.

An interesting post all told.

by MNPundit 2006-01-16 03:20PM | 0 recs
Re: I know Martin
On seperatism, yes, the factor that primarily drives the movement is culture, which isn't just "French-influenced" but is frankly a fundamentally different society. There is no analogy with the United States that works. Quebecers think of themselves as being a part of a distinct nation within the state of Canada. Those who argue against seperatism ususally do so on the grounds that it would hurt the Quebec economy. But generally speaking the above notion - of Quebec as a distinct nation - is held by a wide majority of Quebecers, whether or not they are federalist or seperatist.

As to the Conservatives. Again, drawing a direct analogy to the US is not especially helpful here. The Western provinces - especially Alberta - have long resented the control, culturally, economically, and politically, that Ontario has been able to exercise on the rest of Canada, by dint of its demographic advantage. As such, they have a major point of agreement (at least partially) with Quebec on the question of the Canadian federation. The Conservatives, as such, are actually a less "nationalistic" party than the Liberals.

When I talk about the question of federalism and regional differences, it goes much deeper than the whole red state/blue state think in the US to be a fundamentally different contest with different kinds of expectations. Only the Liberal Party (and perhaps the NDP, although this I'm not sure of, as they've never been close to power at a national level) believe they can universalize a vision of Canada.

by Ben P 2006-01-16 03:31PM | 0 recs
Re: I know Martin
I'm in Vancouver BC right now, and saw an interesting ad from the Liberals last night.  It linked Harper to Bush, saying he would be "Bush's best friend".  It certainly says alot about the state of our relationship with Canada that they would run such an ad.  We'll see if it works.
by CA Pol Junkie 2006-01-17 02:36AM | 0 recs
A few questions:
Where would the Conservatives get the votes to pass their policies?

How long could a minority government last?

Is this the beginning of a new conservative era for Canada, or do the Liberals just need a new generation in charge?

by LSdemocrat1 2006-01-16 03:42PM | 0 recs
Re: A few questions:
As Ben mentioned in his diary the Liberals have been in power for 78 of the last 110 years. Essentially there have been long periods of Liberal government interspersed by short periods of Conservative government when Canadians have felt a need for change.

The Liberals have been in power for nearly 13 years now and are tired, lacking in ideas and suffering from various corruption scandals, although relatively minor compared with some of those swirling round the Republicans. In any democracy you need a change of government from time to time. Hopefully the Liberals will elect a new leader and refresh their policies and organisation ready to return to government in the near future. Given history and the generally moderate progressive inclinations of the majority of Canadians it's likely the 'Big Red Machine' will be back.

by UKLIB 2006-01-16 04:03PM | 0 recs
Re: A few questions:
Question 1: From various people and parties, depending on the circumstances. On taxes and defense, from some liberals. On questions of federalism, from the Bloc.

Question 2: If Harper governs effectively, and does not have a "stealth agenda," it could last 4 years.

Question 3: Tough to say. It depends how you define "Conservative Era." If you mean in fundamental ideological terms, no. If you mean in terms of governance, possibly. Again, if Harper does well in this regard, I could see the Conservatives being in power for 8 - 10 years. Whether this constitutes an "era," I don't know. Mulroney governed for this long.

The Quebec seperatism issue is a big wildcard.

by Ben P 2006-01-16 04:04PM | 0 recs
Jack Layton's trump card
Jack Layton has pulled a very interesting card and proposition this last week. What happened in elections such as 1988 and 2004 is that many left-leaning voters decided to tactically vote for the Liberals instead of the NDP in hopes that it wouldn't elect a Conservative. This proved successful in 2004, allowing a Liberal minority government and less members of the NDP.

This time around, however, Jack Layton is saying "Make the anti-Tory vote the NDP, you have the best chance of blocking a Tory majority government this way." While it is expected that the Tory highmark of 38-40 will go down, and will not manifest itself on election day, if Jack Layton plays his trump right in this, he could very well exceed the 20% of the votes achieved by Ed Broadbent in 1988 by taking enough votes from the Liberals and Undecided, and thereby making Layton seem like a natural candidate for Prime Ministership once Harper's minority government falls. He's said some pretty interesting propisitions like "Give the Liberals a rest one election, throw out Martin, and return to the days of Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau when they held onto their promises.

So will it work? To become the effective anti-Tory party, the NDP would need about 25-27% of the votes which would likely come from mostly the Libs and perhaps the Greens. It is also questionable as to how many of the lean-Tories will go to the NDP (hey it happens, look at the election results of British Columbia / Sasketchewan from 1988 to 1993) and how many Tories will go back to the Gritts.

Anyhow, best of luck to the NDP and Jack Layton!

by KainIIIC 2006-01-16 07:09PM | 0 recs
Nixon comparison?
Would a better comparison of the election be the '68 election? Here we had a generally liberal country that elected a president that in the past had been quite conservative but promised to move to the middle in order to govern (remember Nixon's promise of universal health care?). Plus you had the South voting for Wallace or Nixon (i.e. bloc quebecois). Obviously it's not a perfect comparison, but I think it captures the ideological mood of the country better than the Bush comparisons.
by adamterando 2006-01-17 04:09AM | 0 recs
Harper is a Bushite
Harper was caught pandering to the US Bushites in a provocative speech calling his own country a Northern European "welfare state." His plan to dismantle their medical system doesn't play well either. I think you are going to see a Liberal-NDP coalition with the NDP getting a larger share of the vote.
by cmpnwtr 2006-01-17 04:29AM | 0 recs
notes on the election
i'm convinced that we're already seeing the conservatives trending down in ontario - meaning that the conservative minority will be smaller that people think.

that said, they're certain to pick up seats in quebec with some action democratique du quebec and charest supporters working the gotv in key off island ridings.

in power, we'll see essentially the most right wing and christian fundamentalist government since the 1870s.  stockwell day, tapped for foreign minister, confronted with the fossil record (proving the earth is indeed older than 6000 years) actually stated that humans must have hunted dinosaurs.  harper will try to cut taxes so much that canadians forget how nuts these people are, but any way you cut it, he'll be negotiating a difficult situation keeping this fringe crew from throwing canadians back into the liberals arms at the first available opportunity.

post election, the big worry is that liberal leader (current canadian prime minister) paul martin will stick around after the defeat, or that his people will try to push current ambassador to the u.s. frank mckenna for the leadership (he'd be a sure vote loser).  despite what martin's people plan, the man who should win is super star liberal candidate (in quebec) marc garneau.  garneau is a quebecois, an astronaut (first canadian in space), military commander, ph.d, etc.  he has schools named after him, he's a companion of the order of canada (canada's highest honour), he's insanely charismatic, speaks both languages perfectly, hardcore anti-separatist, is completely clean, etc.  anyway, he'd get the liberals back into office during the next election, provided harper didn't call an election during the leadership campaign.

a nice side effect to the conservative resurgence is that the quebec separatists are in a little trouble, with their vote share dropping each day.  while they're certain to pick up a number of seats this time around (the liberal/conservative votesplit will put even staunch federalist ridings like outremont and the beauce into play for the bloc), their share of the popular vote could drop as low as 42% - a 6.8% drop from last time.  this would be a clear signal to most that the separatists are not the majority in quebec, and it could be the end of the current separatist resurgence.


by island empire 2006-01-17 05:25AM | 0 recs
How's this for nailing it?
Fearless 11/29/05 prediction and analysis:

Sorry to toot my own horn, but at least directionally I nailed it, maybe in the end not so far off in the numbers if Layton pulls off what he's trying to do in Toronto Centre and in BC, though 50 would be a tough slog. Regardless, I think I ought to be sending my cv to Allan Gregg, heh.

The liberals are collapsing, and this was utterly predictable. You had to be blind, or at least not reading the French-language press -  to not see this coming - the liberals were going to get creamed in Quebec (I thought they might hold 4 seats or so in the entire province) because so much of liberal corruption was in full view there, and undermined democracy. Google "Option Canada" for details. (And eventually, we'll know how much money really was illegally thrown into that "Unity Rally" - maybe when Chretien is dead?).

Now, I may in the end have understated the Tories electoral potential. Most of the pundits figured they were dead in the water in Quebec, and the maritimes were being covered by a somewhat unproven marshal in the person of McKay. Their hopes rose and fell in Ontario, and this was 75% so, but wouldn't put him on the doorstep of a majority.

But in the end, Harper, unlike much of the anglo punditry, WAS reading the Quebec press and saw an opening, AD and Dumont are now urging a Tory vote, and hell they may even pick up 3-4 ridings there (most likely nominally at Liberal expense, but in reality, these ridings would have gone over to Duceppe if the Tories hadn't made their play). And further, McKay kept them in the game long enough in the maritimes until the Grits finally began their inevitable collapse, and now look, Harper is in PEI y'day. Who'd have thought it possible? Harper is showing himself to be a master politician, whatever else you want to say of him, and Martin, well, Martin is and always was a hack at the top of a corrupt and weatherbeaten centrist party. Hacks tend to grate on people over time, who tire of them and then throw them out.

While the Tories may even pull out a majority government (polls trending this way), I suspect there'll be some pre-vote sticker shock like there was last time out. This sticker shock, however, will not be enough to save Martin's bacon. Even core liberal voters are tired of him. Probably, the sticker shock will benefit the NDP, which Layton is trying to set up with his "lend me your vote" pitch y'day.

I'd still bet on a hung parliament, with the Tories governing primarily on sufference of the Bloc (eg for equalization, federal/provincial relationship matters, etc.), with occasional support from the Grits and Layton when the Bloc support proves unwieldy (eg Tax reform, esp. GST reform, which the bloc would almost no way go for without major compensating concessions).

Anyone thinking the Libs can pull this out and govern with the support of a bigger contingent of NDP members is clearly engaging in wishful thinking. OR clearly isn't paying attention to what's going on.

by redstar66 2006-01-17 05:43AM | 0 recs
from alberta
As an American transplant in Alberta I can't get over how liberal the province is compared to much of the U.S., notwithstanding Alberta's widely deserved reputation as the most conservative place in Canada. With Harper in power will a "real" Conservative movement emerge with its secret platform, or will they continue to act like the Joe Liebermans of Canada?  Local experience says the latter will be true.    

However, there is a weird sense of disproportionality to the outcry over the Liberal scandals and the reality of Liberal governance.  The Conservative attack on Liberal sleaze resonates with the GOP's fury at the Clinton scandals of the late 90s. One hopes that the parallels between the fall of the U.S. Democrats in 1990s and the fall of the Canadian Liberals in the 00s end there.

While the sponsorship corruption was real it is not on the order of the Abramoff bribes and related corruption currently messing up the US government. Moreover, Paul Martin was not involved.  As with Lewinsky the Cons have treated the sponsorship scandal as high treason and grounds for removal regardless of its actual impact.  These attacks and tv ads slamming Martin registering some of business assets outside of Canada fit into Ben's account of the anti-corruption, Conservative integrity pitch. Will Harper follow through on this commitment to honest government?  His affinities to the ideology of the US GOP make me worry that he shares their "do as I say not as I do" approach to ethics.  

by history prof 2006-01-17 06:02AM | 0 recs
The closest analogy to Harper in the US might actually be -- Alito. Harper has been saying: I know I said some crazy right-wing things in the past, but I've "evolved" (Harper's word) and so I MAY not still believe ALL of them, although I'm not going to tell you which ones, or what I actually now believe -- so hey, elect me.

I am still hoping Harper is kept to a minority but it is looking more like a big majority every day.

by thesleepthief 2006-01-17 06:29AM | 0 recs
With all due
respect to the author, there is this bizarre assumption amongst some people who follow politics that the Conservatives have in fact moved significantly towards their center.  Read their platform, they have not.  What they did, during the campaign, is talk about their more moderate proposals and not talk about things like an elected senate, close to permanent deferral of capital gains taxes and so on.  If Harper gets a majority, and it is possible he will, he will make sweeping changes.

This is not based on his past (and it isn't just in the 90's as the author suggests, there is stuff from after 2000 that is very objectionable), it's based on the official party platform.

The Liberals deserve to lose.  But the Conservatives are not some bunch of right center guys, and they will not govern as such.

by Ian Welsh 2006-01-17 07:03AM | 0 recs
Re: With all due
His intention to pull out of the Kyoto accords if of gravest concern to me.

Second, his intention to join the US Missile Defence scheme (remember NMD?  Whatever happened to that priority?  Small silver lining in the whole Iraq fiasco is that Bush seems to have forgotten it...)

Also, his budgeting will put the country back into deficit.  His economic plan is pretty much the republican one.

by scientician 2006-01-17 06:39PM | 0 recs
Re: With all due
True to a degree. But to me, I would call the current CPC a far cry from the Bush 2000 platform. Its a question of degree.

The two things that concern me about Harper are Kyoto: not so much that he is withdrawing, but that I'm skeptical that he gives a damn about doing anything to address the problems Kyoto tries to address. Secondly, is some of his constitutional maneuvering, vis-a-vis the Senate and provincial/federal relations.

The rest of his platform is a conservative shade of the Martin Liberalism.

Its not that I don't think Harper wouldn't go further if the nature of Canadian society would allow him. But I think he knows by this point that he can only do what he wants (or once wanted) to do in parts. I also think he'd rather govern than be a martyr.

by Ben P 2006-01-18 03:29PM | 0 recs


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