What’s true for baseball is also true for politics: You can’t tell the players without a scorecard. Knowing the players is the important first step in understanding what’s going on in a country’s internal machinations. Now that a Candian election is looking imminent, one way or another, I thought perhaps outside observers would like to meet our prime minister and the esteemed leaders of the opposition.
As usual, my political forecasts, which I thought were based on common sense and political considerations, have proven totally wrong. I felt for sure the Conservative Party would not do anything to jeopardize the issuance of fuel-tax rebate checks or that it would not attempt to run an election campaign over Christmas. I was wrong on both counts. In two of the many scenarios for an election call (if you really want to read about all the possibilities the Globe and Mail breaks it down really well) and the ones they favor most, will see time expire before the energy-rebate bill can get final reading in our Senate. It will also mean that we could have an election anywhere between Jan. 2 and Jan. 16, 2006. Of course, there is still the possibility of a Dec. 27 election, but I don’t think anyone is that suicidal.
The Conservative Party is trailing in the polls, has no policies beyond “Liberals bad, Conservatives good,” and is now going to piss people off by having a Christmas-season election campaign and by ensuring that no one gets a heating-oil rebate this winter.
Maybe the right wing is going for the sympathy vote: “We’re stupid, so please vote for us out of pity.” That’s never worked before. The only other thing I can think of is that party officials don’t like the current leader and want him to go down to defeat so that they can get rid of him. This wouldn’t be the first time this sort of scenario has unfolded in a Canadian political party, but it would be the most blatant.
What is happening is truly amazing. The opposition parties are looking so power-hungry and desperate to bring down the government that they are making the governing Liberals look like the only party actually fit to run a country. That is a scary thought in itself, but one that could prove the most telling in the election, whenever it happens.
Politics is all about perception these days, and whatever people perceive during this jockeying for position will be what stays with them throughout the campaign. Right now, it looks like the Conservatives are spending the Christmas season being incredibly Scroogelike. Those with fears about the right wing’s social policies will see it as confirmation that the Conservative Party lacks compassion. It doesn’t matter whether that perception is true. It’s what things look like that matters.
Enough, you say, get on with telling us about the four that will be leading their political parties to war over the next two months. I’ll introduce you to them in order of their current standing in the House of Commons.
In the Red and White corner — coincidentally, they are the colors of our flag — is the Liberal party of Canada, which is led by Prime Minister Paul Martin. Our PM falls with a resounding thud into the category of the “Old Boy” network that wields political and economic power in Canada. The son of 1960s Liberal Party veteran Paul Martin Sr. (who missed being crowned king because of that upstart Pierre Trudeau back in 1968), Paul Martin Jr. was born to be prime minister.
His business credentials were established by running the family’s shipping business prior to becoming a politician. This cemented his reputation as the darling of Bay Street (Canada’s equivalent of Wall Street) when he entered the political arena. His future as prime minister seemed to be assured, but his plan was derailed when he lost to Jean Chrétien in a Liberal leadership convention before the 1995 general election.
When the Liberal Party swept its way into power, Martin was named minister of finance, where he continued to endear himself to Bay Street by slashing government spending. During his tenure he managed to achieve the politically desirable result of producing budget surpluses each year.
Everybody who was anybody loved Martin, yet he was not happy. He needed to be prime minister. But he badly overplayed his hand, and (most likely just to spite Martin) Chrétien stayed on for another kick at the can and won another majority government. Martin had to resign his position as finance minister, because it doesn’t look good to work toward toppling your own leader while sitting in his cabinet.
Martin and his people did their best to discredit Chrétien until he finally stepped down. Martin handily won the leadership convention (I don’t think I can name one person that ran against him) and was finally prime minister, the title he believed was his by divine right.
The first time that he faced the Canadian people, Martin almost managed to lose the election. It was around this time that he earned the elegant nickname of Mr. Dithers — not for Dagwood Bumstead’s tough-as-nails boss, but because he could never seem to make a decision. Martin would dither around when called upon to be decisive; his back-and-forth vacillations only made things worse. To voters, it appeared that he was so scared of making a mistake that he wouldn’t take action on anything.
Martin’s decisiveness seems to have gotten a little better, in public anyway, but he is still a master of spouting empty rhetoric when the need arises. He also has an endearing habit of blaming everything bad on his predecessor, while still managing to take credit for anything good that happened during Chrétien’s time in office.
Paul Martin Jr. remains the epitome of Canada’s old-boy ruling class. For someone who has always pictured himself as a professional politician, his political instincts leave much to be desired. Take, for instance, his delay in responding to last year’s East Asian tsunami crisis showed he had no clue about what his constituents find important.
Unfortunately for Canadians, our options aren’t that great. The leader of the opposition, the Conservative Party of Canada, is Steven Harper. Before becoming his party’s leader, Harper headed the National Citizens Coalition, a group focused on cutting all taxes.
The Conservative Party of Canada is an amalgamation of what were once two separate conservative parties: the socially liberal and fiscally conservative Progressive Conservatives and the social and fiscally conservative Alliance Party.
While more than a few people welcome their fiscal ideas (tax cuts and cutting social programs), the party’s big stumbling block continues to be the well-founded impressionit is the home of uncompromising and damned near dangerous social conservatives. Some Conservative Party members of parliament have openly called for criminalizing homosexuality and have denied the Holocaust. Some believe that indigenous Canadians, having been conquered, should just get over themselves. They say day care is unnecessary (because women shouldn’t work anyway) and insist that Canada is are a Christian nation. Oh – and if you don’t like it, you should go elsewhere.
In the last election, a floundering Liberal Party fought back by playing on those fears. Steven Harper was not able to counter those attacks; he was too busy trying to silence his caucus, whose actions and statements reinforced the negative Conservative image. In order to form a government in Canada, a party must win a large number of seats in the country’s most populated provinces, Quebec and Ontario. An Anglophone from western Canada who leads a party perceived as anti-Quebeçois and anti-French language rights has little or no chance of winning even one seat in Quebec.
The Conservatives need to win seats in Ontario. Unfortunately for them, not even the Progressive Conservative party in Ontario really wants to endorse them. Attitudes like those expressed by certain party members may not matter in some rural ridings, but in the major cities where all the seats are, Conservative Party social policy goes over as well as a swastika at a synagogue.
Like the Liberal Party’s Paul Martin, Steven Harper doesn’t seem to have much substance. He’s a leader who can’t control his own party during critical situations. His denials of the extreme positions held by some in his party never seem emphatic or sincere enough to reassure those frightened or repulsed by hate speech.
The Conservative Party, quite simply, is out of touch with the majority of urban Canada. In some ways, it represents a far more serious threat to national unity than Quebec’s separatists. Its policies are designed to appeal to a particular segment of society, not to the whole country. And Harper has yet to be able to delineate a vision of Canada that is inclusive enough to suit most voters.
Harper seems to have fallen into the trap of so many opposition politicians: He tries to define himself by what he isn’t, not by what he stands for. “Cut taxes” is a slogan, not a vision of what you see Canada becoming under your rule. There are still far too many variables and unanswered questions to allow many people to feel comfortable with Harper as prime minister.
A lack of vision is no problem for leader number three. Gilles Duceppe heads the Bloc Quebeçois, the official party of Quebec federal separatism. Not only is this party’s sole interest to preserve Quebec’s interests in the House of Commons, but if there ever is a successful vote for separation, it wants to negotiate the deal.
This party was born out of the ashes of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s brilliant idea of loading his cabinet with strident Quebec nationalists so that he could secure enough seats in Quebec to win an election or two. When he wasn’t able to convince the rest of country to cave in to demands for increased privileges for their province, Quebecers quit in a huff and joined the Nationalist/Separatist movement. Only in Canada could you see a federal cabinet minister become the leader of a party dedicated to dissolving the country.
The key factor in any election is how many seats the Bloc Quebeçois will take from the Liberals. The Liberal Party seems to be taking a bit more of a hit in Quebec over the whole sponsorship scandal than in the rest of Canada, which could translate into more seats for the Bloc. The only defense the Liberals have against a Bloc sweep is playing up public fear of what the Conservatives might do if they win power. But since the Bloc will be using that same strategy to prove their belief that separation is the only way to guarantee French rights, the Liberals will have to be careful. They want to shore up the French federalist vote, not chase it into the waiting arms of separatists.
As the self-styled voice of French rights, the Bloc doesn’t care about what happens to the rest of the country. It is highly possible that it could enter into some unholy and cynical alliance with the Conservative Party. For the right wing’s part, it will do almost anything to become the ruling party.
The final entrant into this mess is the New Democratic Party’s (NDP) Jack Layton. Layton was an alderman and city councillor in Toronto for years and only recently switched over to federal politics. Although a political newcomer, he showed himself quite adept at exploiting his position of holding the balance of power to push through legislation that served his agenda.
In exchange for propping up the government last spring, Layton had a $4 billion tax credit for business turned into money for health care, education, and subsidized housing. Unfortunately for him, people likely won’t remember that during this campaign. Before the Bloc Quebeçois came to be, the NDP was considered the third party. Since it never really had a presence in Quebec, its numbers haven’t really changed all that much in this time.
The NDP wins most of its seats in urban Ontario, British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. In recent years it has begun to make inroads with the Maritime Provinces, though its has lost some of its Western seats to the Conservatives. The party has little or no chance of forming the government, so the NDP’s best hope is maintaining the status quo.
Of all the party leaders, Layton is the least afraid to say what he stands for, and he is quite articulate in voicing his party’s platform. Socially and fiscally liberal, the NDP is the one real alternative to conservatism of the two major parties. The hardest job it has is convincing people that a vote for NDP is not wasted.
The NDP has to hope that Layton’s defense of social issues is perceived as sincere. At the same time, he can’t appear frightening to middle class voters worried about their tax bills. The best-case scenario for the party is winning minority-government status and picking up five or six more seats so that it holds the true balance of power.
Ideally, if the Tories and the Liberals cancel each other out, Layton’s party can sneak up the middle in some races and win a three-way race. This comes with risks: The NDP doesn’t want to take too many seats away from the Liberals, because that party is its natural ally in a governing situation.
The worst result that could happen in this election would be for the Conservatives to win minority and work a deal with the Bloc Quebeçois to prop them up. The other parties might be able to make a case preventing them from forming a government because of the Bloc’s separatist policies, which could be considered a reason for denying them a role in a coalition.
Technically speaking, it would be up to Goveror General Michaelle Jean to ask someone to form a government in these situations. Would she allow Steven Harper and the Conservatives to form a coalition with a Separatist party? Is she able to prevent it? Once before in Canadian history a governor general denied a prime minister’s request. The result: the governor general, then a direct appointment of the Queen of England was recalled and a new, more amenable replacement was found.
There you have it: our scorecard for the upcoming election. The polls now show the Liberals with a lead, but it looks like this election, unless someone shoots him- or herself in the foot, will end up with the same result as last time. So I wouldn’t be surprised if we see another election as soon as this summer.
If we end up with the same minority government, the Conservatives will lose so much credibility that if the Liberals let themselves be defeated when they bring in their budget this spring, it should then win a comfortable majority.
Good luck in trying to understand the action. Maybe next time I’ll explain how to keep score.