Thinking back over the past year in Canadian politics and looking for significant moments is an interesting exercise in trying to separate the wheat from the chaff. Everything is of deathly importance when being given its fifteen minutes of fame in the news media, but a week later it’s long gone. In Canada is seems that issues are only important to politicians in relationship to the mileage they can get out of them.
Having only a minority government curtails the Conservative Party of Canada’s ability to impose their agenda to the extent they’d like. On the other hand the Liberal party has spent most of the year with a temporary leader and have not been eager to force an election. For the most part we’ve just seen a lot of jockeying for positions on either side of the fence so when the next election comes both sides hope to be ready
When the country is in that type of situation it’s really quite hard to find events that can be considered in anyway significant beyond the moment. Yes the war in Afghanistan is an important issue today, and will always be important to those who have lost family and friends to the fighting, but it shouldn’t have any lasting impact on the political landscape of Canada
In these circumstances it was difficult to come up with anything that had long-term significance for the country occurring during the past year. In the end I came up with two, one at each end of the year: Steven Harper’s election as Prime Minister and Stephane Dion’s selection as leader of the opposition Liberal Party.
Both those events marked significant changes in both the individual political parties and the potential for long-term changes on the political landscape of the country. While the election of Steven Harper marks a fairly obvious change in Canadian politics, Stephane Dion’s selection is in some ways even more significant.
The entity known as the Conservative Party of Canada represents the merger of the two political parties on the right side of the political spectrum. The Reform party had changed its name to Alliance in an attempt to give the impression they were a unified right wing party, but the continued existence of the Progressive Conservative Party belayed that fact.
When the last leader of the Conservative Party went back on his promise never to merge with the Alliance, he won the leadership based on that promise; they dropped Progressive from the name and became Conservative. Perhaps they hoped to preserve the illusion that they weren’t that much different from the old Progressive Conservative party, which was of course a lie.
The Progressive Conservative party had been conservative in name only, socially they were as liberal as the Liberal government, and fiscally they weren’t that much different either. The new political party is a completely different ball of wax. They are the first party in Canadian history to lead the country that is both fiscally and socially conservative.
Although the Liberal governments of the past twelve years have been gradually eroding the social safety net that made Canada one of the more humane places to live, they still payed lip service to such things as the rights of women and minorities. If they cut spending from social programs they were always careful to be discreet about it and do it gradually so that services would seem to atrophy rather then vanish over night.
Steven Harper’s government makes no bones about who and what they stand for. When they discovered a huge amount of money surplus to budgetary requirements, instead of restoring spending cuts to needed social programs, they earmarked the whole amount for debt relief and maybe lowering cooperate taxes.
The fact that they won a minority government in the last election was not a surprise, as even Liberal party members were sick of their own party and wanted something done about it. What will be important is the next election and whether or not Canadians are willing to change the nature of their country as extremely as Steven Harper wants and give him a majority government.
The electorate has seen enough of him and knows how he would change Canada from a country to fourteen squabbling fiefdoms all fighting for their turn at the trough. Every province wants a better deal for itself: i.e. the federal government gives them more money but has less control over what the provinces do with that money.
Steven Harper has always been a big provincial rights advocate, so what remains to be seen is how much of the concept of Canada is he willing to sell in order to gain a majority government. He knows he can’t win sufficient seats in any of the metropolitan areas of Ontario to form his majority that way. By offering Quebec increased powers, as well as the other provinces, he hopes to win enough seats away from the Quebec nationalist party, Bloc Quebecois, to get power.
Paul Martin and the Liberals were so despised going into the last election that the only way Harper couldn’t have won a minority was by being found in bed with a dead human or a live barnyard animal. What must be worrisome for him is that his negative image was still strong enough that even with a universally despised and obviously corrupt incumbent government, he wasn’t able to win a majority.
What does that bode for the next election when he’s running against a suddenly rejuvenated Liberal party? The Liberal convention in early December ran like clockwork, including a suspenseful final ballot victory for the dark horse Stephane Dion over the favoured Michael Ignatieff. Even better as far as they were concerned was the complete absence of the acrimony that’s been swirling around the party since before Jean Chretien resigned as leader and Prime Minister.
Everybody is talking about how Mr. Dion represents a new face for the Liberal party and how the old guard are finally being swept out. What I don’t think anybody realizes is how old that old guard might really have been. Before Mr. Dion’s election there have only been four other leaders of the party since 1968 when Pierre Elliot Trudeau was elected. All of whom had connections to the party of that year.
Trudeau’s successor was John Turner who had been minister of justice in Trudeau’s government before leaving to go make a killing in corporate law. Jean Chretien who followed Turner had held a variety of Cabinet posts in Trudeau’s government, and Paul Martin was the son of one of the men Trudeau defeated in 1968 to become leader.
For nearly forty years the Liberal party had been run by pretty much the same group of people and it was painfully obvious given their predilection for stabbing each other in the back that they all needed to make graceful exits and hand off the torch to a new generation of folk. Stephane Dion and the people he ran against, and is incorporating into his “team”, have none of that old baggage. Even Dion who served as Cabinet minister for both Martin and Chretien was an outsider brought in to shore up the party intellectually.
Of the three men who finished closest to Dion in the leadership race, only Michael Ignatieff is currently in the House of Commons having won a seat for the first time last election. Edward Kennedy had been a provincial cabinet minister for the Ontario Liberal government, and before that the director of Toronto and Edmonton’s food banks. Bob Rae had been out of politics since he went down to defeat as leader of the Provincial New Democratic Party in Ontario to Mike Harris’ Conservatives in 1994. This was after he had been the first New Democratic premier in Ontario’s history.
Even though they are all new to the corridors of power within the Liberal Party hierarchy they have substantial political experience that will stand them in good stead in the days to come. Of course their very newness could work against them, as the public has no idea who any of these guys really are.
If Steven Harper were to call a snap election, or propose a piece of legislature that would guarantee him losing a vote in the House of Commons, he could take advantage of that and perhaps take on a confused and unfocused political party. Although since all Canadian elections seem to be confused and the only real focus they’ll need is to disagree with everything that Harper says, and maybe have some ideas of their own, it might not be the hindrance Harper hopes.
Sometime within early 2007 an election will be called and whether or not people realise it will be a vote on the shaping of Canada for the foreseeable future. A clear majority for Steven Harper and his Conservative Party of Canada could well lead to a complete restructuring of the way in which our country is governed, and might re-open the whole sovereignty issue in Quebec through the encouragement of “provincial rights”.
Stephane Dion is an unknown quality for Canadians as he was never really in forefront of either previous government that he served. The pundits told us that he was a long shot to win the Liberal leadership, but he won the direct confrontation with the favoured Ignatief easily. What a win by Dion and the new Liberals means for Canada is anybody’s guess and voting for them may require something of a leap of faith.
This year’s major story in Canadian politics started with the election of a new Prime Minister and was given a second chapter with the selection of his major opponent for the next election. It looks like we have to wait for next year to find out how the story ends. Who says politics and soap operas have nothing in common? They both always leave you hanging.