Canada settles for more of the same

International Politics, Politics
George Bush and what appears to be the prime minister of Canada

George Bush and what appears to be the prime minister of Canada

Reliable media reports now confirm that Canada held an election this week. Most Americans, upon hearing this news, would probably respond by asking: “the who did what now?” But it’s all true. Last Tuesday, Canadians from Gander to Whitehorse and several species in between emerged from their mud huts, their igloos, or their local Tim Horton’s so that they could trudge through a desolate wasteland of snow and ice and cast their ballots for the federal parliament. It was a thrilling spectacle of democracy and it meant, in the end, very little indeed.

After the 2006 federal election, the Conservative Party under Prime Minister Stephen Harper held 124 seats in the lower house of parliament. That made it the largest party in the parliament, but it fell 31 votes short of a majority. The Liberals, who had been in the majority for the previous twelve years, dropped to 103 seats. Two other parties, the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Bloc Québécois (BQ) made up the difference.

Now, in any other parliamentary democracy, after such an indecisive election the parties would start negotiating with each other in an attempt to form a coalition that could command a majority. Not so in Canada. There really isn’t a history of coalition government in Canada: the last one was a “national unity” government during the First World War. The Liberals have so frequently held majorities in the House of Commons that they have never needed help from other parties. The NDP, which is to the left of the Liberals on the political spectrum, would be a natural coalition partner, but the NDP, frankly, has more to gain from opposing the Liberals than from cooperating with them. Both parties are, in effect, competing for the same voters, and so the NDP has pretty much decided that it will wait for the Liberals to self-destruct and then pick up the pieces afterward.

The BQ is another story altogether. As the name suggests, it’s a Québec party devoted to Québec issues. It has, in fact, announced that it would not enter into a government with any party, which makes it perhaps the only party in the world participating at the national level that has no interest in governing at the national level. It is the Greta Garbo of political parties, whose members just “want to be left alone.” Ironically, though, they can’t seem to shut up about it.

The Liberals, for their part, could only form a government by convincing the NDP and the BQ to join. They were, however, loathe to form a coalition with the NDP and unable to convince the BQ to come out and play, which left forming a “grand coalition” with the Conservatives as the only unpalatable alternative left. That, however, never seemed to cross anyone’s mind. So the Tories, under Harper, were left to form a minority government.

In a parliamentary system, a minority government is a very fragile thing. Since it is obliged to call for new elections if it loses a vote of confidence, the governing party is at the mercy of the opposition, which can topple the government at almost any time it wishes. The Liberals, however, didn’t want to rock the boat too much because they feared that they would lose even more seats in the next election, so they laid low and waited for the Conservatives to make some kind of huge error that would change the electoral dynamics.

choking a kitten to death just because he can

Stephen Harper: "Vote for me or I will kill this adorable kitten"

That didn’t happen. Instead the Conservatives, in effect, had to do to themselves what the Liberals were unwilling or unable to do — vote themselves out of office. Harper called for elections after two years of minority governance. This, it should be noted, came after Harper’s government passed a law that, at least on its face, seemed to make it impossible for a prime minister to call snap elections whenever the opinion polls looked favorable. “Pish posh!” Harper might have replied (thus indulging in a very strong Canadian expletive), “I don’t read the law that way at all.” And neither did the governor-general, who, aroused from her deep slumbers like a constitutional Fafner, gave Harper’s move her official imprimatur.

The pre-election polls predicted that no party would win a majority. As a result, voters went to the ballot box with little enthusiasm, and voter turnout, at 59.1 percent, was the lowest in Canadian history. As expected, the Conservatives once again emerged as the largest party in parliament but short of a majority. The Tories gained a few seats, the Liberals lost a bunch, the NDP picked up a few, and the BQ continued its role as the knights who say “non!”

As the latest election demonstrates, the Canadian political system isn’t broken, but it has definitely slipped a chain. The Liberals will be even more timid about opposing Conservative legislation, fearing that another election might lead to even worse results than it suffered this week. The NDP will bide its time, hoping that the Liberals’ impotence as the official opposition will convince left-leaning voters to switch their allegiance. And the BQ will continue doing whatever it is that they do. Well, as the say in Québec: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

“But what effect,” you might ask, “does this have on me, as an American citizen of the United States?” Well, probably nothing. Harper’s government has steered a rightward course, but not so much that it has endangered the basic liberal foundations of the nation or made it a less-inviting refuge for American leftists preparing to leave the country in the increasingly unlikely event of a McCain victory. Canadians will still have nationalized health care, they’ll still allow gay marriage, and they’ll still put brown gravy and cheese curds on their french fries.

Interestingly, as the United States experiences a surge in voter interest and participation, and as American progressives are energized as never before by the current presidential election, Canadians are increasingly disillusioned by politics and are turning to Harper and the Conservatives for leadership. And so Canada, despite its best efforts, has once again proved itself to be the anti-America.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. nimh  •  Oct 17, 2008 @8:34 pm

    Yay, a new Joe post. Funny characterisations of the Bloc Quebecois.