Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Canadian Election

Apologies for the dearth of posting, and in particular my dereliction in writing about the situation in Canada since we're in the midst of a federal election.

It's actually shaping up to be potentially a highly consequential election that will likely return a parliament of almost identical composition to the last one.   The link goes to Three Hundred and Eight, a Canadian version of Nate Silver (our House of Commons currently has 308 seats), which currently has the prediction for each party within 4 seats of their totals at dissolution, and with the Conservatives as the plurality winner and by long convention sitting Prime Minister Harper given the first right to form a government.

But beneath that top line results, here are some trends to watch that could mean big long term changes in Canada's politics:

  • NDP gains in Quebec.  Last election the NDP won a single seat in Quebec, which was a fairly big deal as I'm not aware the party had ever won a seat there.  This time their popular support is now competitve with the other non-BQ parties as progressive Quebecois who are at least neutral on sovereignty for the province appear to be leaving the BQ (and possibly the Liberals).  Jack Layton is personally especially popular in the province and that certainly can't hurt though there's reason to think this is about more than him as most NDP leaders tend to be well regarded.  The NDP may have crossed a threshold with Quebecois in convincing them that they are electable, a very important factor in our plurality system.
  • Ignatieff broaches the idea of defeating the Conservative government again.  At least that is my read.  Today in an interview on CBC, Ignatieff (who has categorically ruled out forming a coalition government with the NDP or BQ) discussed the possibility that a returned Conservative minority government would be unable to win the confidence of the House, would fall, and then he (as leader of the Official opposition) would attempt to form a non-coalition government supported by some combination of the remaining parties.   There's lots of wiggle room here, but in principle, Ignatieff is setting the stage for a situation similar to the aborted coalition attempt under his predecessor Stephane Dion at the end of 20078, which collapsed at least partly because Harper successfully demagogued the issue partly on the grounds that the parties in the coalition had not explicitly campaigned on that idea.  Ignatieff is still ruling out a formal coalition, but at least has shown increasing awareness that the Liberals are not likely to vault back into their pre-2006 levels of support needed to form governments under their own right.   
  • Potential for multiple leadership changes.  If Harper doesn't win a majority, the CW here is that his party will get impatient and push him out hoping someone else can get it done.  Ignatieff may be in trouble if he does not substantially improve on Dion's 2008 result.  Jack Layton's health is in some doubt.  Gilles Duceppe has been leader of the BQ for a long time, and there have been complaints about his low key campaign this time around.  Not to forget the Greens, if they don't win a seat, as appears likely, Elizabeth May could also get pushed out.  A Conservative majority is most likely to bring about leadership changes in the other parties, but any of them could go under a renewed minority.
The first two are in my mind potentially good news for progressive/liberal Canadians.   The current spate of Conservative wins is really the result of the way the rest of the vote has been divided, as the support for right wing parties has hovered at 37% in every election since 1997 except 2004, where it dropped to 30% probably because a lot of red Tories were still scared of the newly merged single Conservative party.  By 2006, they had come home and with the Tories sitting at just over 38% in polling, it's really difficult to avoid the question of the best long term arrangement of the non-conservative vote in Canada.  Do the NDP and Liberals merge?  Will the NDP overtake the Liberals as the governing alternative?  Should they along with the BQ re-open the formal coalition subject and try and dampen the public distaste for it?  What of the Greens, can they be brought into either fold or at least a good chunk of their possible 10% support?

Harper is where he is because he was the architect of the merger of two right wing parties.  There was very significant opposition to merging from die-hard Progressive Conservatives who saw the merger as a takeover by the hard-right western Alliance/Reform party (they were largely right).  Some of the old guard Reformers also didn't like it as they feared it would inevitably shift the party toward the centre (which is why they split from the PCs and formed the Reform party to begin with).  Point being, it was not a simple and trivial undertaking, and I think any signs that the Liberals and NDP may find some way to allow the 60%+ supermajority of Canadians to have a government that better represents their views is to be encouraged.

In 2004 and 2006, the Liberals lost a great deal of support, the NDP, BQ and Greens all gained some.  However since none have the critical mass needed to form a government under their own right (putting aside the problems with the BQ in any such arrangement), we're stuck with Conservative governments unless and until they somehow figure a way to get together.  It looked like we were going that way in late 2007 2008, but upon Ignatieff taking over from Dion as Liberal leader, he pulled the Liberals back from any such arrangement.  I presume he did this at the behest of the Liberal old guard, who probably thought that voters would eventually come home to Canada's "natural governing party" if they just put in a competent leader who can run a half decent campaign.  Well, credit to Ignatieff, he has proven a decent tactical party leader, and a respectable campaigner, but the flood of returning voters is not materializing.  So in this sense, the rise of the NDP, particularly in Quebec (where I think the Liberals may have most hoped they could restore the brand) may be forcing them to take the NDP seriously a long term presence and even a real threat to replace the Liberals as the alternative governing party.

This as well has likely been pulling Ignatieff to the left, as I have been pleasantly surprised by his campaign promises and much of the type of criticism he levels at Harper.  Sure there is the question of how much you should trust that he would govern this way if he ever attains power, but this is still preferable to say, if Ignatieff thought he could rebuild the party by siphoning votes from the Conservatives or rebuilding the party in Alberta (he did make a brief attempt, but it wasn't working) and was campaigning to the right.

So I take Ignatieff's comments today as a sign that the Liberal elite is beginning to accept the reality that the party's problems go deeper than Dion's unpopularity or ad-scam.   The NDP aren't going away and are making the prospect of a Liberal Ontario-Quebec based government quite unlikely.

On May 3rd, the Conservatives will have the most seats yet again, but it doesn't look like that will be the end of the story.  In his quest to destroy Canada's status as a "northern European weflare state" Harper may yet succeed at importing Northern Europe style coalition politics to Canada.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Daniel... Pretty well exactly as I figure it as well. I wish Jack and Michael had played nicer together earlier, but what you propose in the way of something that will work for a non Neo-Con govt is what I hope for too.

    We have a lot of people who need to recognize they have been living on what I call Autopilot - http://www.offautopilot.com

    Regards, Barry