For the first time in 25 years, Canadians face the prospect of a winter election. Last week, the Conservative Party introduced a non-confidence motion that is likely to receive enough opposition support to win passage when it comes to a vote Monday evening. That will force the governing Liberal Party to call an election. Due to the nature of Canada’s political system of winning seats from ridings, or electoral districts, a party can end up winning the most seats, but still fall short of winning a House of Commons majority. Defeat can come two ways: a bill considered a confidence issue (like a budget) can be voted down or an opposition party can introduce and pass a non-confidence motion.
Following traditional procedure, Prime Minister Paul Martin will visit the residence of Governor-General Michelle Jean Tuesday morning to request permission to dissolve the current government and call an election. The earliest a vote may be held is 36 days from dissolution, which would make Jan. 9, 2006, the first possible day for a vote. Since the parties seem to have called a truce from campaigning over the holiday week, they will tack an extra week on and hold the election on Monday, Jan. 15. (All federal elections must be held on a Monday. The only reason I can figure is that this way, in the weird event the day falls in the first week of November, there won’t be a conflict with results from an American election day.)
The last federal election we had in winter was in February 1980. This was the year that saw the dramatic rise of Pierre Trudeau from the ashes of defeat. After losing to Joe Clark in the previous election, it appeared that Trudeau’s political future was in doubt, but he came back and led to liberals to a resounding victory in the subsequent election. That vote literally changed the face of Canada as it resulted in the repatriation of our constitution and the implementation of the Charter of Rights And Freedoms, which has been so instrumental in overturning laws and enshrining rights.
But today, no leader offers any real vision for Canada. They all seem to float from issue to issue as political expedience requires. One of the reasons the Liberal Party has been ruling since 1980 is that no one has offered an alternative with which a majority of Canadians have been comfortable.
The separatist Bloc Québécois doesn’t run candidates outside of Quebec, the New Democratic Party (NDP) is considered too radical, and the Conservative Party of Canada is thought to be too reactionary. That leaves the Liberal Party as the only one that inspires enough comfort to garner the significant numbers needed to have a chance at forming a government.
Even now when the Liberals are in the midst of recovering from one of the most damaging political scandals in Canadian history, illegally funnelling money into their own coffers from a series of kickbacks during the 1995 independence referendum in Quebec, they are still maintaining a lead in the polls as we head into the election. Even one of their staunchest detractors, Conservative Premier Ralph Klein of Alberta, has publicly said he believes we will have another Liberal minority government.
So what are the issues heading into the campaign? There are the usual big ones: health care, social programs, aboriginal rights, and housing. In spite of what Bono thinks, most Canadians don’t really care about his opinion of our politicians. When we have more than a million children living in poverty and don’t do anything about it, does he really expect our government to spend money on foreign aid?
Military spending may be an issue, which should make our American allies happy. For the first time in a long time, the government is realizing a volunteer army should be paid enough money so that the rank and file don’t have to rely on food banks to eat, and that perhaps they should be equipped with stuff that doesn’t carry the moniker of “widow maker.” Such improvements won’t affect the military’s commitment ability, but it will allow our troops to be properly equipped and funded.
Don’t expect to hear anything new on the issues from the political parties. The Liberals will try to make it appear that they have been active in dealing with major issues, whether or not that is true. The Conservative Party will say the Liberals spend too much money — its plan is to cut taxes and let everything else take care of itself. The NDP will charge that priorities are out of whack and argue that Canada needs to invest in itself rather than in a few wealthy people. The Bloc Québécois, trying to win more seats in Quebec, will demean the Liberals every step of the way.
Since issues won’t be an issue in this election, what will politicians talk about on the campaign trail? The Conservatives have shown that they are going to go to any lengths to raise questions about the Liberals’ moral authority to govern. Already the right wing has used the House’s protection to accuse the Liberals of having ties to organized crime that allegedly were exposed during the recent sponsorship scandal. (Anything you say in the House of Commons can not be used against you in a court of law, no matter how libelous.)
This has prompted the Liberals to demand an apology and issue a lawyer’s letter of warning. If the Conservatives so much as hint at a connection between the Liberals and organized crime on the campaign trail or in public they will find themselves in court. Not that it matters now, because the accusations have been publicized across Canada already.
For their part, the Liberals will play up the fear factor to the fullest. There are too many Conservative Party caucus members and new candidates who are social conservatives for the liking of too many Canadians. While the anti-gay, pro-life, Christian, family-values talk may play well in some smaller constituencies, in the areas where the Conservatives need to make gains, it goes over like a lead balloon.
Even those ethnic minorities that may share some of the same views can be scared off by the Conservatives’ virulent anti-immigration policies. While the Liberals don’t operate what you’d call an open-door policy by any stretch of the imagination, the Tories most likely would slam it shut in the face of most refugees and “those looking to take jobs away from Canadians.” That kind of talk isn’t conducive to easing immigrants’ fears — or winning their votes.
The Conservatives may try to make an issue out of Canada’s recent cooling of relations with the current American administration. They probably will cite the softwood-lumber dispute as an example of how Liberal policies affect issues important to the Americans. The fact that one has nothing to do with the other — and that the former issue predates the current government — will have little bearing on the matter.
But if the right wing plays this card, it will have to be very careful. Canadians are very sensitive about the issue of national identity these days. Paul Martin vacillated over the issue of the missile-defense system for that very reason. The prime minister didn’t want to be seen as kowtowing to the American president if Canadians weren’t in favour of the program. As polls began to show that most opposed the plan, he withdrew.
Jean Chrétien was lambasted in the nation’s conservative press for refusing to join the US-led Iraq invasion, but the majority of Canadians opposed getting involved. As a result, Chrétien received widespread popular support for the decision. The leader of the Conservative Party, Stephen Harper, is already viewed as being a little too cozy with the hawkish Bush Administration in the parts of Canada where he needs to win seats.
A lot of people were suspicious of Harper’s private meeting with President Bush last year. What would an opposition leader be doing meeting with the president of a foreign country? He doesn’t go to any other countries and get invited to meet the leadership because he doesn’t represent Canada. The last US presidential election made it clear that most Canadians don’t agree with the White House’s policies; Harper may want to keep that in mind before he wraps himself in the Stars and Stripes.
The Liberals have spent their last couple of weeks in office pushing through tax cuts, signing agreements with provinces on day care, and hosting an interprovincial meeting on Native rights and conditions. In other words, the party is playing Santa with a bag full of pre-election goodies. Since most of this was stuff it’s been planning all along, if the opposition accuses them of “bribing” the electorate, the Liberals can respond easily: Knowing that the Conservative Party would shut down the House, it wanted to get as much legislation through as possible, and if the Tories disagreed so much, why didn’t they vote against Liberal measures and call for an election sooner?
Unless something happens on the scale of one of the leaders being found in bed with an animal or a dead human, I can’t see the results of this election being all that much different than the last. The Bloc Québécois may gain a seat or two, and perhaps the NDP will win a couple more if the Liberal and Conservatives split the vote enough in a couple of Ontario and British Columbia ridings.
Even if the Conservatives somehow manage to eke out a win, its chances of being able to govern are slim. Unless they are bigger whores for power than I thought, I can’t see them forming an alliance with the Bloc Québécois that their caucus could stomach for more than a week.
The real fun will begin after the election. That’s when the knives will come out and the jockeying for leadership reviews in both the Liberal and Conservative parties will begin. Neither Stephen Harper nor Paul Martin could garner a majority after two elections — and that’s usually the limit a party gives its leaders.
Which probably means we can look forward to another election around this time next year. The only good thing about so many elections is that it keeps the politicians from doing any real harm. As long as they’re campaigning, they’re not doing anything to mess up our lives. That’s a plus.