by Paul Richard Harris
It’s not good, but it could have been worse.
On June 30, 2004, Vive le Canada carried my article entitled ‘Aftermath Blues’ which addressed our near-miss in an election that might have moved us squarely into the elite group of neo-conservative brutes who hold so much of the world in thrall. Whether by good luck or good judgment, we chose instead to elect a corrupt bunch of familiar clowns who, while utterly inept, were still marginally on the positive side of humanity.
At least we were not disappointed: the familiar clowns continued to be inept. But what we had always suspected was a corrupt ruling party eventually imploded in a sea of scandals leaving no doubt as to their integrity.
But that 2004 vote left us with a minority government and no one, except the NDP and sometimes the Bloc, made any real effort to make that parliament functional. Both the Liberals and the Conservatives spent the entire session spoiling for a rematch. So eighteen months later we headed back to the polls in the dead of a Canadian winter (whose bright idea was that?), angry as hell at the ruling Liberals and apparently finally ready to give the reins of power to Margaret Thatcher’s bastard child. Pundits will say that many people voted against the Liberals rather than for the Conservatives, and they’re probably right; but here we are stuck with the spawn of Satan as our new Prime Minister. Oh boy.
Throughout most of our history we have been governed by the Liberal party. Every fourth election, or so, voters awake from a slumber and send the Liberals to their rooms for a few years to think about what they’ve done. Eventually, we think they’ve learned their lesson and we return the keys to Parliament and hope for the best. This was one of those occasions when the behaviour of the Liberals was so obnoxious that we actually sent them to their rooms without dinner. But it may not be all that long before we see them again.
In Canada’s curious multi-party system we frequently elect governments where less than 50% of the electorate has voted for the winner. All that’s needed is for one party to have more elected members than any other and they get to form the government. If the winner has less than half the elected members, we have a minority government where the ruling party only to gets to stay in power by forming alliances with other parties to form a plurality of seats. It has proven to be a rare occurrence in Canada to have the winning party achieve 50% of the votes, but getting 50% of the seats is significantly easier.
No wonder there is so much talk about some form of proportional representation.
Because of the way constituencies are delineated and our ‘first past the post’ system, it is quite possible for a high percentage of votes for a party to translate into a low number of elected members. For instance, the NDP won about 17% of the popular vote but less than 10% of the seats. In fact, it is mathematically possible for the Bloc Québecois, a party confined only to the province of Québec and with a stated intent of dismantling Canada, to actually become the national government. Who says we don’t have a bizarre sense of humour?
So what did we choose this time out? George W. Bush ‘lite’.
Our new soon-to-be-sworn-in, later-to-be-sworn-at prime minister, Stephen Harper, is significantly more intelligent than Bush but that’s not saying much, so is a woolen hat. Still, the two of them are clearly cut from the same J-cloth. Harper is a right-wing economist and neo-conservative ideologue with a decidedly anti-social approach to government. While Canada is, regrettably, not a socialist country, we do generally have a strong social conscience. Yet our new prime minister believes strongly in the idea of everyone fending for themselves, that Canada is not a social unit with social goals for the protection and betterment of our society. Paul Martin was right about that, if little else.
So Canada’s answer to years of corrupt and arrogant Liberal rule is to give the Tories (which the OED says is short for ‘lavatories’) the chance to run Parliament, without giving them the keys to the front door. Tories are just about the exact opposite of every other major political party in Canada and, with less than 50% of the seats, they will have to form alliances and make compromises on a lot of issues in order for their government to last more than a few months. Whether they can do that is going to depend entirely on them. None of the parties will be itching for another election because it’s an expensive process and they know Canadians weren’t too happy about having to go to the polls this time, a mere eighteen months since the last time.
The Tories have a hard-right agenda and the support of most of the neo-conservative groups in the nation to the south of us … but they do not have sufficient support from the people of Canada to contemplate rolling out their worst ideas. Any one of the Liberal, Bloc Québecois, or NDP have sufficient seats to be a power broker for the Tories on certain issues, to provide enough support to pass legislation. But none of those parties is socially conservative and the Tories are going to have to make some major concessions to social planning if they expect to live long, Harper’s bravado in his first post-election press conference notwithstanding.
If there is any saving grace, it is that the Tories have not been given outright power.
Canadians have seen Stephen Harper as a scary guy. He has been demonized as being ultra-conservative, far-too-far-to-the-right, anti-women, anti-gay, pro-corporate – and that’s all true. But he is also pragmatic, and his joy at the January 23 victory will have been tempered by the fact that he will have to reach compromises with parties with whom he is quite uncomfortable. The fortunate thing for him, and Canada, is that the leaders of the Bloc (despite their separatist goals) and the NDP are also pragmatic and will certainly be willing to come at least part of the way. But if the redneck contingency in Harper’s party, and it is sizable, holds sway with him, this government won’t last long.
There are those who will say that a minority government is unworkable because there is too much infighting and jockeying for position to accomplish anything. Well, all we need is to look at the successive minority governments of Lester Pearson in the 1960s. Pearson, who won a Nobel Peace Prize as a master of cooperation and compromise, was able to govern in successive minorities that produced Canada’s unemployment insurance system, our old age pension system, a new national flag, our guaranteed income supplement system, our national student loan system, and – the crown jewel – our national medicare program. There is no reason that a minority government shouldn’t, in fact, be the best kind of government we can get. It forces elected officials to reach compromises designed to satisfy the desires of the greatest number of citizens rather than the interests of some narrow group. For those who complain that minority governments spend too much of our money in order to keep themselves afloat, spending our money is what we hired them to do. If they don’t do it wisely, we punish them.
Election campaigns are exciting, and it’s all been wonderful fun. But now it’s time to roll up our toques and get back to the task of being mild-mannered and tut-tutting as our new government tries to appear more competent than the last crew. Until this shiny new bunch of clowns fails to do the job and we get to have another election.
[Proofreader's note: this article was edited for spelling and typos on January 29, 2006]