Election diary 2006 .. Stephen Harper if necessary, but not necessarily Stephen Harper

Jan 24th, 2006 | By | Category: Ottawa Scene

TUESDAY, JANUARY 24, 2006. TORONTO. 12:30 AM (EST). The people of Canada, as John Ibbitson observed in his Globe and Mail column yesterday, are a shrewd and cagey lot. And they are just now completing a cleverly thought-out set of judgments on the questions their assorted wayward politicians have put before them, in the 2006 federal election campaign. Some of the most interesting finer points may not be exactly known for a while yet. But the general picture is clear enough. At the moment the 308 seats in Parliament at Ottawa are divided up at 124 Conservatives, 103 Liberals, 51 Bloc Quebecois, 29 New Democrats, and 1 Independent (this time a controversial but popular Quebec radio broadcaster). One key ideologically strange question that remains unresolved is whether Mr. Harper’s right-wing Conservatives and Mr. Layton’s left-wing New Democrats together add up to even a bare majority of 155 seats. At the moment they are just shy of the mark.

Generally the people seem to be saying, OK, Stephen Harper, let’s see what you can do with Canada’s current dysfunctional politics, if you and Paul Martin change chairs. It will be a big challenge, however concerned everyone may be not to have yet another federal election for at least another two years. To try to start the new era with some kind of dignity, Mr. Martin has already made clear that he will not continue to lead the Liberals in opposition – in a graceful concession speech widely acclaimed by the instant TV pundits as a “class act.” The next big question is whether all the other federal politicians can act with some similar class in the months ahead. Meanwhile, early reports happily suggest that voter turnout in 2006 has improved by at least a few points from 2004. Whatever else, this has certainly been an interesting federal election in Canada. And there will clearly be many more interesting things to come. In many ways, the shortest message remains the same as it been since the spring of 2005: Stay tuned.

MONDAY, JANUARY 23, 2006. TORONTO. 9 PM (EST). Our lady in Halifax has just phoned in early reports on the vote in Atlantic Canada. Our understanding is that it would (or might?) be technically illegal for us here in the city with the heart of a loan shark to report any details at this exact point in time, when our local polls have still not yet closed.

The general upshot, however, would seem to be that the Conservatives are doing somewhat better in the most easterly time zones of the country than they did in 2004 – but not quite as well as anticipated, eg., in the final Democratic Space seat projection that gives the Conservatives an ultimate cross-Canada total of 128 seats. So if this is any premonition of what is to come everywhere else, it will definitely be a Conservative minority rather than a Conservative majority government, and perhaps a rather weak one at that. (A bare majority is 155 of the 308 seats in the present Parliament.)

Of course, who knows how well this earliest intelligence will hold up as the night wears on? But it’s at least not too bad news so far for the wounded Liberals. For the New Democrats in Atlantic Canada it seems pretty much as in 2004. We’ll continue to report in at this space throughout the evening, and into the early morning, as more information becomes available. Whatever else, it ought to be quite an interesting night.

SUNDAY, JANUARY 22, 2006. 11PM (EST). From the northwest shore of Lake Ontario, at the foot of an old aboriginal canoe portage to the wilderness of the continental far north and west, one strange thing about the surprising enough Canadian federal election of 2006 was that it already seemed to be over, the day before it officially happened. (And all this on a sunny Sunday, in mild Toronto winter weather more like Vancouver than Ottawa or Montreal.)

Roy MacGregor’s “most discussed” story in the Globe and Mail online edition over the weekend quoted former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed: “The West is in … Even if it’s a minority government, it will be a positive thing for Canada.” It also quoted “Mel Hurtig, the lifelong nationalist who recently moved to Vancouver after more than 70 years in Edmonton,” with a variation on the theme: “The West is in with a vengeance.”

The theme of course is that, whatever else, new Conservative leader Stephen Harper from Calgary, Alberta (though born and raised in Toronto, Ontario) will at least be elected as the new prime minister of Canada tomorrow. Liberal leader Paul Martin is still saying that it will be like 2004. Everyone thought the Liberals would lose then too: “And we pulled that one out.” But this time the opinion polls have left much less doubt.

If the polls are more or less right in 2006, the Harper Conservatives will probably not win a governing majority of seats in Parliament at Ottawa. (And they will without doubt not win anything remotely like a majority of the cross-Canada popular vote.) A bare majority in the current 308-seat House is 155 seats. The latest seat projection on the Democratic Space website suggests 128 Conservatives, 94 Liberals, 56 Bloc Quebecois, 29 New Democrats, and 1 Independent. The UBC Election Stock Market is rather similarly suggesting 130 Conservatives, 92 Liberals, 55 Bloc Quebecois, 30 New Democrats, and 1 Independent. On the basis of results from the last Strategic Counsel poll (just released tonight), former Brian Mulroney pollster Allan Gregg “predicted the Conservatives would win in the neighbourhood of 140 seats, the Liberals 75, the New Democrats 35 and the Bloc in the high 50s or low 60s.”

There may still be a very slight chance that the Harper Conservatives finally will surprise everyone again, and win the barest of governing majorities in Parliament (156 or 157 seats say?). There is even less chance that Paul Martin’s Liberals will utterly confound the pollsters and somehow pull out the slenderest of minority governments (one or two seats more than the new Tories?). Toronto Star columnist Richard Gwyn said on TV Ontario this past week that this has been the most interesting Canadian federal election since 1988. And who knows? Tomorrow might prove still a little more interesting, somehow, than currently expected.

But you have to almost desperately want to believe such things to take them seriously now. And if one or the other of Democratic Space, the UBC Election Stock Market, and Allan Gregg are close enough to the real mark of the people, the new 39th Parliament of Canada could finally prove even more soap-operatically entangled in “dysfunctional politics” than the 38th. Even so, Conservative leader Stephen Harper will have become the new prime minister. Paul Martin’s Liberals will have been punished for whatever it is they have done. And the West will have come into the Ottawa corridors of power, in a restrained and almost characteristically Canadian style. Certainly not the best of all possible worlds, for anyone. But not the worst either. And who knows, again – the best news may be that all the diverse regions of Canada today will suddenly have to start to grow up, at last (and in both official languages too)?

THURSDAY, FRIDAY, SATURDAY, JANUARY 19, 20, 21, 2006. It’s getting very close to the moment when we the free and democratic people of Canada are going to have to decide. Who are we going to vote for on Monday, January 23, 2006? The counterweights editors have concluded that there are good enough reasons to vote for each of the five main parties contesting the Canadian federal election of 2006. (Or four and a half: only Canadians who live in Quebec can vote for the Bloc Quebecois, even if cross-Canada polls apparently do show that some in other parts of the country would be happy to have this opportunity too.)

Barring dramatic shifts in the volatile mood of the electorate over the last few days, it seems clear enough from the opinion polls that Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party is going to win the largest number of seats in the new 39th Parliament of Canada. But the counterweights editors have also concluded that it would be best for the country if the Conservatives do not win a governing majority of seats in Parliament all by themselves.

The year and a half since the last federal election has made it clear enough as well that, one way or another, some kind of big Canadian business is going to be transacted over the next few years. This is too important to be left to the unchecked power of a government that commands a majority of seats in Parliament, but nothing like a majority of the votes of all Canadians. And all the opinion polls (even those favouring the Conservatives the most) continue to make clear  that no one party today is going to come remotely close to winning this last and most vital kind of democratic majority of the popular vote on January 23.

Having said all this, we cannot suggest how any individual Canadian should vote. That is for each of us to decide ourselves. As noted, we have concluded that there are good enough reasons to vote for each of the five main parties. For what these reasons are, read on … For what Michael Moore thinks of it all in the USA CLICK HERE. For a summary of current opinion polling data CLICK HERE. And for the numbers of seats the UBC Election Stock Market is predicting each party will win CLICK HERE.

Bloc Quebecois … Some in the rest of the country challenge the legitimacy of having a branch of the Quebec sovereigntist movement in Canadian federal politics in Ottawa – and say, e.g., that BQ leader Gilles Duceppe should not even be included in the TV leaders’ debates. He does not even believe in Canada, etc.

But it is one of Canada’s current strengths that in other places causes like M. Duceppe’s often lead to civil wars, in which young men (and women) needlessly slaughter each other. Setting aside the marginal case of the terrorist FLQ in the 1960s and early 1970s, the mainstream Quebec sovereigntist movement has wisely decided that the only enduring political power grows out of the democratic ballot box and not the barrel of a gun. And in a country like Canada that applies to federal as well as provincial politics.

For a good many years now, BQ leader Gilles Duceppe has made an interesting contribution to the larger Canada in which he still says he does not believe. In the TV debates for this 20052006 campaign, e.g., he has been the only federal leader with the courage to say out loud that globalization is stimulating a new nation-building debate in Canada today. It may be that his one great mistake is to underestimate the extent to which French Canada is still almost as interested in this debate as English Canada. But if you live in Quebec, vote for him anyway, if that is what you feel you have to do.

Conservatives … Probably the best reason to vote for Stephen Harper’s new Conservatives is that they will bring the Canadian “West” into the inner circles of federal decision-making in Ottawa at last. Or at least they will probably do this to a greater extent than anything else on offer at the moment – especially if by “West” you especially mean the increasingly oil-rich province of Alberta. The new “West Wants In,” and it is no doubt time the old “East” back in Ontario and Atlantic Canada, etc (and even francophone Quebec) paid real attention.

Another good reason for voting Conservative this time is that Stephen Harper’s new party will (hopefully) move the important cause of democratic reform of the current absurdly obsolete Senate of Canada further forward, in some kind of practical way, than any other party right now. Like a few other branches of the present Ottawa establishment, the Senate is, as Mr. Harper has aptly put it, “a relic of the 19th century,” and it desperately needs to be brought up to date at last.

Finally, whatever else you think, it is hard not to agree that Stephen Harper’s new Conservatives have run a more effective election campaign than anyone else in 20052006. Stephen Harper himself may still be a confirmed mindless right-wing ideologue (and even this time not all that secretly, if you pay attention to what he is still saying). But he has now left no doubt as well that he is a pretty smart guy, who really does want to be prime minister of Canada. And he probably does have something constructive to contribute to the Canadian future – even if it’s not quite what he thinks it is himself.

Green Party … The easy thing to say of course is that you are just throwing your vote away if you vote for Jim Harris and his Green Party. They are still probably not going to win any seats in the 39th Parliament at all. But just what do you want your vote to do? The year 2005 has brought much food for thought about just how serious environmental and ecological problems are in the global village today. In Canada the more people who vote for the Green Party on January 23, the more attention the political parties who do win seats will have to pay to these problems. So if you feel very deeply about environmental and ecological issues – if you even think these are ultimately the most important problems facing Canada and everywhere else today, why not?

Liberals … Canada, the Economist magazine in the UK politely suggested not long ago, is starting to become something of a “cool” country, worthy of at least a little more note in the global village than it used to be. In spite of what some elsewhere thought in the early 1990s, its challenging old bilingual and new multicultural political society has remained more or less intact. It has put its once troubled financial house in order to some good economic effect, stayed out of the ill-advised military adventure in Iraq (while still sending troops to support the free and democratic cause in Afghanistan), advanced some progressive social legislation, tried to promote more practical present-day progress for its aboriginal first nations, and tried to keep a forward-looking open mind about the new world order of China and India and all that …

Whatever else you may want to say, both the Liberal federal governments of the past 13 years and their former finance minister and current prime minister Paul Martin deserve some credit for all this. In at least a number of important respects they have managed some difficult circumstances for the country rather better than might have been anticipated – and there is still no hard evidence that those who oppose them can do as well in the new difficult circumstances ahead, let alone better. It is also all too lamentably true that the federal Liberals have become too cynically arrogant and entangled in what Justice Gomery called a “culture of entitlement” in the present Ottawa establishment. But they are not at all as “corrupt” as too much opposition political spin and hyperbole has claimed in this election campaign. And many of the opposition tactics used against them have been equally as sordid, sleazy, and appallingly low-minded.

It is almost certainly true as well that Paul Martin’s Liberals – while remaining quite friendly to corporate North America and the gospel of the free market – have, as the prime minister himself is so concerned to stress, a more positive and progressive attitude towards the role of government in the Canadian future than Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. Especially if you share this attitude yourself, in one degree or another, you could no doubt do a lot worse than vote for the Liberal candidate in your local riding on January 23.

New Democrats … Probably the best reason to vote for Jack Layton’s New Democrats is that you do feel the Liberals ought to be punished, or at least deserve some kind of good kick for the Quebec sponsorship scandal, but are still not comfortable with the Harper Conservatives, or don’t live in Quebec and cannot vote for the BQ, or really don’t want to throw your vote away on the Green Party, which likely enough won’t win any seats at all.

From some points of view the New Democrats are, as used to be said, “Liberals in a hurry.” But because they have never come remotely close to forming a government at the federal level in Ottawa, they have never had the opportunity to become even remotely corrupted by the spoils of office. They held 18 seats at the dissolution of the old 38th Parliament, and may still stand to gain as many as another dozen or so on January 23. The main problem with their campaign strategy this time around, however, seems to be that it has assumed the Liberals would win at least another minority government. Now that this assumption has proved almost certainly wrong (and to the surprise of not just the New Democrats), it is increasingly unclear just what Jack Layton’s party is up to – and whether it can possibly work in the end.

If the Conservatives only manage a minority government on January 23, then Jack Layton’s latest plea – “If you voted Liberal in the past, lend us your vote to make sure the next federal Parliament’s priorities are moderate, reasonable and balanced” – may still make sense. But as some longtime noted NDP supporters have already begun to complain, if the Conservatives do win a majority the New Democrats won’t be able to do much at all about “the next federal Parliament’s priorities.” And it will become clear that the “NDP, which played a crucial role in picking the timing of the election and shaping the central issue of Liberal scandals, helped Mr. Harper on his way.” In some ridings, on the other hand, voting NDP may still be the best way of ensuring that the Conservatives do not win a majority of seats in Parliament. And there are still some philosophical differences between Liberals and New Democrats. If this means a lot to you, why not vote for Jack Layton and the NDP anyway?

L’envoi: “a pure and honest voice in the sea of human waste known as the Canadian political system.” On a very final note the counterweights editors continue to have some sympathy with the view that, in some very deep sense, there are no political parties in Canada altogether worth voting for at the moment. And for those who feel this way very deeply we recommend a website called Whack the PM.

At the same time, in their mis-spent youths some counterweights editors themselves used to think that mere “electoral democracy” was a trivial thing. But as they have grown into what passes for too much older and wiser, they have come to believe that it actually is a valuable gift of our history. And we the people of Canada will lose it if we don’t use it more vigorously than we have lately. As one shrewd Canadian voter has already (indirectly) explained to the New York Times, a “vote is priceless. It is a pure and honest voice in the sea of human waste known as the Canadian political system.” So whatever you finally decide, get out and vote for someone on January 23.

TUESDAY, WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 17, 18, 2006. However you look at it, the key issue for progressive voters now does clearly seem to be whether the surging Harper Conservatives can be held to a minority government. As the Reuters news service has reported: “Canada’s opposition Conservatives maintained their wide lead in the election race, a new poll showed on Tuesday, though a separate, smaller survey showed a narrower gap between the two leading parties.”

At the same time, in both the polls here the Liberals and the New Democrats combined, on the progressive side of the equation, are still out-polling the Conservatives – a mere 43% to 40% in the one case (Strategic Counsel, headed by an old Brian Mulroney Conservative pollster from the 1980s and early 1990s), but a more impressive 49% to 36% in the other (EKOS, commissioned by the Liberal Toronto Star and La Presse in Montreal). [And for some parallel polls out on Wednesday, at both ends, see “Tory surge may have peaked” on the CTV News site.]

All this has only further sharpened the dilemmas of the progressive voter, who may even feel that a Harper minority government in Ottawa could be healthy enough for the future of the country at this juncture, but still wants to avoid any potential hard-right-wing zealotry of a Conservative majority government.

Liberal leader Paul Martin has declared that “There’s got to be a coalition of progressive voters … an awful lot of people who support the NDP are going to find” that if “they vote NDP, then obviously that’s not a progressive vote that’s going to win out.” Alternatively, New Democrat leader Jack Layton is advising that the Liberals themselves are now out of the serious running, and a Conservative minority government is the best that can be done: “If you voted Liberal in the past, lend us your vote to make sure the next federal Parliament’s priorities are moderate, reasonable and balanced.”

Both leaders are still trying to press their own narrow advantage, without thought for the wider shared cause. The best general advice for the less partisan progressive voter no doubt remains to vote for whichever of the Liberal or New Democrat candidates in his or her riding stands the best chance of beating the local Conservative candidate. That at least would still seem to be what a disinterested apolitical mathematician would say.

Other new polls. One interesting thing about another new poll on Tuesday, January 17 – from Ipsos-Reid – is that the Conservatives could win as many as 152 seats, just shy of the 155 bare majority number. But other numbers in the same survey would also seem to leave potential room for some kind of opposition resurgence in the actual election-day numbers that count – which may keep hope alive for a more modest Conservative minority government in the very end.

The January 17 SES Nightly Tracking Poll shows some slight Liberal improvement Canada-wide and in Ontario, along with fresh Conservative strength in Atlantic Canada. Virtually all the polls still suggest significant volatility among the electorate. If this volatility finally jumps on a Conservative bandwagon, there just might be a big enough Conservative majority government; or, if it finally moves in the other direction, a quite modest Conservative minority government. (It does of course remain very hard to see how any kind of Liberal government can come out of the current numbers – for almost everyone except Paul Martin.)

The biggest surprise: Conservatives in Quebec. Almost certainly the biggest surprise in the unusually strong Conservative surge that quickly came to dominate the post-holiday January 2006 phase of the holiday election campaign is the sudden prospect that Stephen Harper’s New Canadian Tories might actually win a few seats in Quebec. And watching TV clips of Stephen Harper talking in French to voters in a potentially new Tory Beauce riding on January 17 was impressive and even encouraging – even if you are no kind of conservative Canadian.

On the other hand, Harper’s explanation of why Quebec (and other) voters should not fear a Conservative majority government – because it would for some time still be checked by a Liberal-dominated Senate, civil service, and judicial system – seemed over the top, and not at all in the kind of more credible and convincing mode that has made him seem impressive in the campaign at large this time around. Canada’s long unreformed Senate, e.g., has not seriously blocked any House of Commons legislation for about a century now, as Stephen Harper knows. And talking about things this way also makes it seem that he ultimately does aspire to make some quite vast changes in what Paul Martin keeps calling current Canadian values.

BC and the Toronto region. The Conservative surge in all parts of the country has drawn attention away from the extent to which the Canadian federal electorate is still regionally fractured in various deep ways. The latest “Ipsos-Reid poll showed the Tories had the support of 37 per cent of voters in BC. The NDP had 29 per cent and the Liberals slipped to 28 per cent.” While the Liberals and NDP together overwhelm the Conservatives 57% to 37% here, competition left of centre means that these polling numbers would still give Stephen Harper’s party between 60% and 70% of BC’s 36 seats in Ottawa.

Back east, at least as far as Ontario, virtually all polls are still showing that the Conservatives are still unlikely to win any seats within the official boundaries of the City of Toronto. Here (as in, e.g., Vancouver Centre in BC too) the real competition actually is between Liberals and New Democrats. And in these cases there probably is no point in any kind of progressive strategic voting – unless you still want to give the Liberals enough seats to form some kind of government that is now not very likely to take shape in any case?

More intelligence from the Land of Oz. Even though the Globe and Mail in Toronto has now officially endorsed the Conservatives’ “time for a change” theme, it is still high-minded enough to run a telling contrary opinion from the always interesting Australian political writer Greg Barns, in the Web-Exclusive Comment section of its online edition.

In their current quite successful Canadian election campaign, Stephen Harper’s New Tories have been leaning on advice from key staff in the office of Australia’s current quite successful prime minister, John Howard. And, Greg Barns tells us, “Mr. Howard is the most conservative prime minister in postwar Australia. He is determined to dismantle his country’s egalitarian societal values and replace them with a society that is underpinned by concepts such as rewarding self-reliance, small government, tougher welfare policies, and moral conservatism … If Canadians are asking themselves what a Harper government would do to their country, they just have to look at John Howard’s Australia today.”

SUNDAY, MONDAY, JANUARY 15, 16, 2006. The usually interesting and reliable enough Wikipedia free online encyclopedia has an item on polls during the 2004 Canadian federal election campaign. And it presents a little intriguing food for thought as the final week of the 2006 campaign (or 20052006 more exactly) comes in view.

The 2004 campaign started in late May and went until election day on Monday, June 28. The Wikpedia polling data falls easily enough into three main phases. The first was an EARLY LIBERAL LEAD, still intact as late as June 2. Then came a CONSERVATIVE SURGE, in evidence as early as June 4 and lasting until June 18 or much later, depending on your point of view. Finally, by the last week or so of the campaign there were also strong enough hints of SOME LIBERAL RESURGENCE. Many commentators and pundits in the media did not take these hints as seriously as they might have, and were surprised by the still stronger Liberal resurgence that finally showed up on the actual June 28 election day.

What are the chances that some similar pattern will be repeated on January 23, 2006 – in a campaign that similarly began with an early Liberal lead followed by a Conservative surge? One clear enough difference between then and now is that the Conservative surge in January 2006 has been considerably stronger than it was in June 2004. Another is that as yet there have been few hints of any Liberal resurgence in the opinion polls published by the mass media. (See the CBC News Poll Tracker, e.g., as one case in point – and as above, Dec 16-Jan12, with Cons in blue, Libs red, NDP orange, etc.)

Yet at least for a few more days it still seems arguable that if any budding signs of any kind of Liberal resurgence do emerge in the late campaign polling data still to come, the freshly evolved Stephen Harper’s New Canadian Tories may not be in for quite as much bliss on January 23 as many now seem to think – just like last time. Workers for the Liberal Party of Canada (and the Bloc Quebecois, NDP, and Green Party too, for that matter) still have some good enough reasons to remind all potential supporters about John “The Chief” Diefenbaker’s immortal Canadian values on opinion polls. In general “polls [poles] are for dogs [to relieve themselves on];” and then, more specifically, “the only poll that matters is the one on election day.”

Some related odds & ends. See below for a summary of the June 2004 data on Wikipedia. One helpful place for keeping quick track of the latest 2006 polls is the Nodice site. And then there is the CTV Poll Tracker and the (less frequently updated?) CBC Poll Tracker. The Monday, January 16 Globe and Mail is reporting that “Tories enter home stretch just shy of majority.”

Rex Murphy has argued that if Stephen Harper does win in any big way on January 23, he will owe “big time” to “Judy Wasylycia-Leis, the NDP’s finance critic, who wrote to the RCMP requesting to see whether there had been any illegal tipping … of the income-trust announcement” (and also to the SEC in the United States).

On some perhaps related trajectory there are fresh reports that NDP leader Jack Layton is gunning for Liberal votes with increasing fervor as the last week of the campaign arrives. Like many others, Mr. Layton now clearly seems to have given up on any prospect of any kind of Liberal victory: “The NDP leader says his party is a great alternative for Liberal voters while the Grits spend some time reassessing their future after the election … While Layton isn’t predicting how many seats the NDP will win, he says he’s getting the impression during the campaign that Canadians feel it’s time for a change.” Meanwhile auto workers’ economist and NDP supporter Jim Stanford has complained about being used as a shill in Conservative election propaganda. And Lysiane Gagnon is marvelling at the new respect for the Harper Conservatives in francophone Quebec.

After reports in the Globe and Mail in Toronto a short while back, the Sydney Morning Herald has now run its own piece on the right-wing Australian connection in the Conservative Party of Canada’s still quite impressive current election campaign, with the nice old British-empire-evoking title: “Canadian sea change follows path of Howard’s way.” (Now, if only more Canadians had any idea of just what current Australian prime minister John Howard’s way actually does involve.) The Australian website Crikey is also taking some special interest in the “Canadian election on January 23. The opposition conservatives, having forced an early election, are riding high in the polls, although it is still doubtful whether they can win a parliamentary majority. For an Australian audience, Canada is an intriguing mixture of the familiar and the exotic, and this one will be well worth watching.”

Wikipedia on 2004 election polling

2004 PHASE ONE … EARLY LIBERAL LEAD

House dissolved May 23, 2004 …

[General Wikipedia site on 2004 Can elec]

June 2 Leger Marketing poll: Liberal 35%, Conservative 30%, NDP 17%, BQ 12%, Green 5%

2004 PHASE TWO … CONSERVATIVE SURGE

June 4 Ipsos-Reid poll: Liberal 32%, Conservative 31%, NDP 17%, BQ 11%, Green 6%

* Quebec only: BQ 45%, Liberal 28%

* Ontario only: Conservative 35%, Liberal 32%, NDP 23% (first poll showing Conservatives in front in Ontario since 1985)

June 7 SES Research nightly tracking poll (changes from first day, 2004-May-25, listed in parentheses): Conservatives 34% (+6), Liberals 32% (-9), NDP 20% (+2), BQ 11% (0), Green 4% (+1)

June 15 Ipsos-Reid poll: Liberal 31%, Conservative 32%, NDP 17%, BQ 12%, Green 6%

June 16 SES Research nightly tracking poll (changes from first day, 2004-May-25, listed in parentheses): Conservatives 34% (+6), Liberals 32% (-9), NDP 19% (+1), BQ 12% (+1), Green 3% (0)

2004 PHASE THREE … SOME LIBERAL RESURGENCE

June 18 SES Research nightly tracking poll (changes from first day, 2004-May-25, listed in parentheses): Liberals 34% (-7), Conservatives 29% (+1), NDP 22% (+4), BQ 10% (+1), Green 5% (+2)

June 25 SES Research nightly tracking poll (changes from first day, 2004-May-25, listed in parentheses): Liberals 34% (-7), Conservatives 30% (+2), NDP 20% (+2), BQ 12% (+3), Green 4% (+1)

SES Research regional breakdown

* Atlantic: Liberals 45%, NDP 25%, Conservatives 24%, Green 4%, BQ 2%

* Quebec: BQ 51%, Liberals 28%, Conservatives 11%, NDP 7%, Green 3%

* Ontario: Liberals 39%, Conservatives 32%, NDP 25%, Green 4%, BQ 1%* Manitoba and Saskatchewan: Liberals 39%, Conservatives 34%, NDP 24%, Green 2%, BQ 1%

* Alberta: Conservatives 62%, Liberals 23%, NDP 13%, Green 2%

* British Columbia: Conservatives 38%, Liberals 28%, NDP 28%, Green 6%

June 25 Ipsos-Reid poll: Liberal 32%, Conservative 31%, NDP 17%, BQ 12%, Green 6%.

THURSDAY, FRIDAY, JANUARY 12, 13, 2006. In the continental media language nowadays the two main opposing camps of democracy in North America are called conservative and progressive. And in its last week and a half the English-speaking branch of the campaign for the Canadian federal election on January 23 has reached the point where it once again presents acute problems for voters at the progressive end of this spectrum – as also happened just before the last election on June 28, 2004.

True Grits and other Canadian progressives may be pleased to hear the good news about smuggling charges against BC Conservative candidate Derek Zeisman. But the current opinion polls are still showing Stephen Harper’s Conservatives verging on a majority government. (A majority of the 308 local seats in Parliament that is, with much less than a democratic majority of the cross-country popular vote, thanks to the sometimes strange political arithmetic of Canada’s current electoral system).

So the question arises again. Should the progressive voter opt for Jack Layton’s New Democrats, to give Paul Martin’s Liberals the swift kick they deserve, in various connections – even if this does increase the chances that the Harper Conservatives will win a majority government they certainly don’t deserve?

In 2004 this dilemma prompted potential New Democrat voters to stampede towards the already somewhat discredited Liberals at the very end, especially in Ontario and Atlantic Canada. This seemed the only way of preventing a right-wing conservative government that the democratic majority of Canadians did not want. Many say that a similar last-minute stampede in 2006 is less likely, and they may be right. But Jack Layton’s nervy claim that his New Democrats are now a viable “third option” to both the Liberals and the Conservatives may still wind up delivering a majority right-wing conservative government in Ottawa at last – that well over 50% of the people of Canada still do not want.

Just how big a kick do the Liberals deserve? The two main arguments against any last-minute progressive flight to the Liberals in 2006 are that the Liberals are now considerably more discredited than they were 18 months ago, and Stephen Harper now seems a more moderate centrist conservative, who would not actually try to take Canada in the same strange directions that George W. Bush has tried to take the USA. (I.e., even if following Jack Layton’s strategy does wind up making Stephen Harper prime minister, that would not really be the end of the progressive Canadian universe as we know it today.)

If both these propositions do carry some new weight and heft, it still does seem that neither is exactly conclusive. As strong as the case against the Team Martin Liberals may or may not really be, e.g., by any serious international, inter-provincial, or other real-world standard, they are not remotely as “corrupt” as they are made out to be in the negative Conservative TV ads. And from any serious and objective standpoint of political ethics and democratic accountability, the way in which the Mounties, at the urging of opposition politicians, have lately (and hopefully quite inadvertently) made it seem as if the Liberals are more corrupt than they really are is just as troubling as anything the Liberals have been shown to have done in the Gomery report on the Quebec sponsorship scandal.

Similarly, some sectors of the people are now facing economic struggles that Paul Martin’s Liberal government in Ottawa is not quite in touch with yet. But on a host of economic and social indicators Canada under the stewardship of its customary governing federal Liberal Party has done rather well over the past decade or so – as the latest red-book platform proudly proclaims, albeit a little too much in the style of a too-slick advertising campaign.

There is no doubt vast room for improvement of all sorts in all corners of Canadian life. But just look around the world once again (or from the progressive end of the spectrum certainly, just visit the giant of the free world next door at the moment, or even just watch it on TV). In a great many individual cases, you are actually quite lucky if you live in Canada today. Quite a few voters still do seem to be aware of this. And it remains fair enough to say that the Team Martin Liberals probably deserve a bit more credit for it all than they seem to be getting at the moment. (Conversation overhead in Toronto bar – Q: “Don’t you think the Liberals have to be punished?” A: “They have already been punished enough.”)

What the Liberals and their particular version of the Ottawa system are no doubt guilty of as charged are such more subtle and perhaps even more practically annoying sins as appalling professional arrogance, a “culture of entitlement” (as Gomery puts it), a little too much excessively sleazy opportunism and fat-cat careerism, a little too much obsession with cynical neo-Machiavellian political wisdom, and a failure to seriously grasp the new challenges of what Gilles Duceppe has called the new wave of nation-building in English-speaking Canada today. (And especially the part about “the West wants in,” etc.)

But, certainly at the progressive end of the spectrum, it still seems possible to argue that these sins flow from much more complex and tricky historic problems of governing Canada than the Harper Conservatives, or the Layton New Democrats, appreciate even now. And the Liberals just may still be the best people to make the necessary “structural changes” (as Paul Martin has put it) themselves – once they have finally seen the light. As they surely will if they ever do somehow again survive their current round of very deep trouble, and at least don’t exactly lose to the Harper Conservatives on January 23?

Who knows exactly what the aggregate public mood will be when the great day for Canada finally arrives, in the very near future? Especially as they look at Paul Martin’s beleaguered TV persona of the past few weeks, there may still be quite a few progressive voters coming to the conclusion that the Liberals have already been punished enough?

Has the real Stephen Harper stood up at last? On the other side of the equation, any serious attempt at fairness and objectivity does also command some admiration for the way in which Stephen Harper and his party have managed their campaign this time around – and have humbly but wisely learned from their mistakes last time. And, over the past six months or so, you could argue, the man who did unite the right in Canada at last has also already been punished enough.

Moreover, so the story goes, he has drawn fresh cross-Canada wisdom and human depth from the experience. As the headline on the January 12 Globe and Mail announced from Ontario newspaper boxes, Stephen Harper on his own testimony has “EVOLVED.” He is no longer the too youthfully green and callow hard-right-wing politician who once said all those rash things about how the smallness of Canada pales in the bright light and beauty of neo-con ideology – that progressive voters are still hearing in the negative Liberal TV ads of the late campaign.

Whatever else, ever since the holiday election campaign started in late November 2005 Stephen Harper has managed to finally show in public some of the strengths he has long been rumoured to possess. He is as much of a policy wonk as Paul Martin, and seems to have a less abstractly visionary mind. He actually is pretty smart. And his tidy view of the  notwithstanding clause – a nice balance between the British and American (or even French) streams that have nourished the mysteries of modern Canadian constitutional law – is probably closer to the centre of real Canadian values today than Paul Martin’s ad-campaign musings about the Charter of Rights.

Perhaps most impressively, even for some progressives, in the current federal campaign Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have also managed to show that they understand and are ready to move ahead on what Gilles Duceppe has called the new wave of (just English-?) Canadian nation building abroad in the land. Senate reform is the current touchstone here, but the broader issue of course has other dimensions too. The Team Martin Liberals say that in principle they support and appreciate the need for “structural change” in Canadian political institutions. But in practice they do seem too entangled in the Ottawa status quo to really do anything.

Mr. Harper has said he’s ready to at least start moving ahead “piecemeal” on Senate reform – even if it is still too early for any serious federal-provincial return to the proven murky realms of Canadian constitutional amendment. Most voters of course understand very little of all this and are even less interested. But many do sense the need for some kind of “nation-building” change in the way Canadian politics currently does and does not work (what The Economist in the UK recently alluded to as Canada’s “dysfunctional politics”). Mr. Harper has rightly earned some credit for being ready to try to do something high-minded about the future of the country – about which various high-minded things certainly do need to be done.

Yet, again from any serious progressive point of view, all this is at best an excuse for electing a modest and ultimately transitory Conservative minority government on January 23 – nicely hedged by a more numerous NDP mini-caucus (to say nothing of the Bloc Quebecois, whose leader himself once came probably as close to being an actual communist as any well-known politician in both Canada and Quebec today). And, in the legendary vote-rich Ontario, e.g., what the front page of the Globe and Mail is discreetly screaming on January 13 is “POLLSTERS’ SEAT PROJECTION PUTS HARPER ON CUSP OF MAJORITY.”

The same Strategic Counsel poll projection, currently assigning the Conservatives 152 seats (where the barest of majorities is 155), is also assigning the New Democrats a mere 21 seats. So there is not much sign yet that Jack Layton’s third-option strategy is starting to work big time. If 152 Conservatives and 21 New Democrats were the final result on January 23, Mr. Layton and his version of the progressive cause may still conceivably be in some kind of interesting position. But again what if the Conservatives actually were to win just five more seats say – and a solid enough majority?

According to Susan Delacourt in the Toronto Star for January 12: “Privately” even “some Conservative strategists” themselves “are saying they’re hoping they don’t find themselves with a majority government after the Jan. 23 vote. We’re not ready for that,’ one Tory confided this week.” And, say whatever else you like, even if just a weak Conservative minority government is elected north of the world’s longest unfortified border, the act will bring unfortunate aid and comfort to the current nicely beleaguered conservative cause of George W. Bush in the USA today (even though it will no doubt also remain true that most Americans do not even known what street Canada is on, as famously explained by Al Capone).

And Stephen Harper actually may have “EVOLVED” and changed his spots in some degree, but George W. Bush definitely has not. (Just listen to his latest speeches.) And a Stephen Harper who is going to develop better relations with the US President than Paul Martin, as he has promised, is also going to have to … well fill in the blanks yourself. It’s not exactly rocket science. etc.

It may not take much last-minute thinking of this sort to convince some progressive voters to stampede back into the Liberal ranks at the very end on January 23, 2006, just as they did on June 28, 2004. Many say the mood is different this time, and that may be true. But it is also true that a week can be a long time in politics, and there is still a bit more than a week to go. Who knows? Maybe there is even still time for what increasingly does look like Jack Layton’s risky big gamble to pay off, somehow. What remains quite clear is that even in the latest polls there are still considerably more progressive than conservative voters in Canada. And it will certainly be a great shame for all progressive voters if Stephen Harper’s Conservatives nonetheless manage to gain any kind of command of the federal ship of state.

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 11, 2006. 1:00 AM. You can’t hope to guess at just how the January 10 TV leaders’ debate in French went down in Quebec unless you live in Quebec. But even for the rest of us it did help make clear why it is important that Canada’s predominantly French-speaking province – still the homeland of the first people who called themselves Canadians historically – forever remains a unique part of Canada today.

To start with, moderator Sophie Thibault did as good a job with the questions as Steve Paikin in English the night before, and managed to look a bit more interesting. And then, not surprisingly, it took someone from French Canada to finally raise the question of decriminalizing marijuana in this federal election campaign. (Every party leader but Stephen Harper apparently supports decriminalizing the simple possession of small amounts of reefer madness – which does not of course necessarily mean that this is actually going to happen anytime soon, on various grounds.)

The main story line no doubt was that with the Harper Conservatives now surging in the latest opinion polls virtually everywhere, including Quebec, Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe was obliged to fight a war on two fronts – against both Mr. Harper and increasingly beleaguered Liberal leader Paul Martin. In the end, it will only be the same polls over the next several days that finally determine who, if anyone, won the debate. Whether the event also showed that “tu es plus elegant en franais” (as Sophie Gregoire says Pierre Trudeau always told his sons) is probably a question for further debate – in Italian, say, or Mandarin Chinese.

Are the beleaguered Liberals regaining any ground? The latest opinion polls going into the French debate (also the last one there will be in any language) continued to show the Harper Conservatives increasing their current lead over the Martin Liberals – and even “clearly … heading towards a majority government.” But, from a view outside Quebec at least, current Prime Minister Paul Martin continued to give some kind of good account of himself.

A few among the focus group watching the debate in the counterweights offices felt as well that the more you hear Mr. Harper talk about his party’s new approach to Quebec, the more you think that, as a thoroughly practical matter, it probably doesn’t amount to any more than Quebec is already getting from the Team Martin Liberals. (And Mr. Martin was of course bravely trying to stress this kind of argument, even though it happily seems to remain especially true in French Canada that men and women do not live by bread alone.)

Yet all more impressionistic reports from inside Quebec certainly say that the Liberals will be what Rene Levesque used to call “dead ducks” in la belle province on January 23. And with opinion polls now showing even the Conservatives ahead of the Liberals among Quebec voters (though with both still miles and miles behind the front-running Bloc Quebecois), it is hard to see how anything Paul Martin may have done in the last January 10 debate in French can seriously improve current Liberal prospects in one of their traditional big strongholds.

If, on the other hand, the Harper Conservatives do finally win even one or two seats in Quebec they will have done something remarkable. Only time (a mere 13 more days now) can tell whether Stephen Harper himself managed to nudge things further in this direction in the debate from Montreal on January 10.

Clutching at straws? Many francophone Quebeckers today may agree with Gilles Duceppe’s frequent assertion (repeated again in the January 10 French debate) that Quebec is just not comfortable with what he shrewdly enough perceives as the new quiet wave of “nation-building” now underway in the rest of Canada. (I.e., “the West wants in, Quebec wants out,” etc.)

But some in the focus group watching the debate at the counterweights offices suggested that, if you think back over the past several decades of Canadian politics on TV, technically this was probably the best French debate yet.

Or, if Quebec finally does separate from Canada altogether, as Gilles Duceppe still says he wants it to, it will not be because the various diverse regions of predominantly English-speaking Canada finally refused to supply political leaders more or less capable of taking part in French language debates. And, in the history of the future, that will at least count for some kind of sign of respect for and commitment to the most beautiful language on planet earth.

The ghost of Pierre Trudeau may not have thought much of the French spoken by any of the participants in Montreal on January 10, 2006 (including M. Duceppe?) But this time there at least seemed to be no one who was clearly not remotely up to the challenge at all. And judging as best one can from local vibrations, there were also quite a few English-speaking Canadians, of various varieties, watching this particular French debate in simultaneous translation. (Or, as in the case of the January 9 English debate, at least the first half or so. Nowadays it might make more sense to keep these things down to just one hour?)

Judging from counterweights’ own recent user statistics, both the English and French debates on January 9 and 10 have also started to engage the informed wider voting public big time at last. And this public’s continuing underlying interest in and concern for the strange wonderland of Canadian democratic politics is no doubt one of the main things still keeping the country alive and well enough – if also certainly still in great need of much improvement.

There are moments when some voters must listen to many of the particular subjects the politicians are debating on these occasions in Canada, and think to themselves that if these are the kinds of real problems most of us have, we can’t actually be all that badly off. (Even if it is nonetheless time for a change, somehow, somewhere, someone, etc. Remember the old Pipeline Debate in the 1950s? It eventually “discredited … the Liberals, and contributed to their defeat in the 1957 general election” too. Or is it still a bit too early to start writing any obituaries for the Team Martin Liberals of 2006 just yet?)

TUESDAY, JANUARY 10, 2006. 4:00 PM. Staunch Liberal supporters who were hoping that Monday night’s English language leaders’ debate from Montreal would somehow do something to break the apparently increasing Conservative lead in recent opinion polls may be disappointed. But all four contestants had their good moments – including the present prime minister.

An informal viewer’s survey taken right after the debate ended, by the provincial public TV broadcaster in so-called vote-rich Ontario, had 38% saying New Democrat leader Jack Layton won, with 31% for Liberal Paul Martin, and 30% for Conservative Stephen Harper. Other still more informal reports suggest that whoever you wanted to win or lose won, or lost, whoever you are. Only the opinion polls over the next several days will suggest much more on whether it all meant something for who wins when it counts on January 23 (whatever “win” might exactly mean nowadays in Canadian federal politics).

Moderator Steve Paikin did a good job with the questions. The first of the two hours was recurrently lively and interesting. The focus group in the counterweights offices was starting to flag as the second hour wore on – and as the flagging debaters themselves seemed to lapse into too much boilerplate policy rhetoric. But cynical voters could take some solace in the thought that “the sea of human waste known as the Canadian political system” (see below) can’t exactly be in any terminal state yet, if it can still put on an almost functional democratic debate like this.

Intelligent debate? According to Mike Duffy on CTV News, in the immediate wake of the debate, the latest polls show the Conservatives widening their new-found lead over the Liberals by possibly even dramatic leaps and bounds. Even in the Greater Toronto Area voices on CITY-TV are talking about a possible Conservative majority government (not many more than 155 of the 308 seats but close enough for bold Ottawa adventures in any case). And Canada’s natural governing Liberal Party of Canada definitely does suddenly seem to be in pretty big trouble.

Of course they have been there before, and then lived to tell the story. And Liberal leader Paul Martin did have some strong moments in yesterday’s January 9 English debate. One example: “There is no doubt that people are turned off by politics. There have to be structural changes, but I’ve got to say that I think that the lack of civility, the lack of intelligent debate, what happens in Question Period really does turn Canadians off, and I think that we have got to really set a much higher example and I think it should be done by the leaders.”

Mr. Martin raised “the lack of intelligent debate” on a few other occasions as well. And it all sounded very good, until he started (again) talking far too much about his child care program, or whatever it is, which never seems to bear anything like the kind of intelligent weight he tries to put on it.

Strengthening the Charter of Rights? On the other hand again, Paul Martin also did make an intriguing venture into the potential higher-minded depths of “There have to be structural changes” with: “I want to talk about governance and how you treat people fairly. I want to talk about the Charter of Rights if I might because I think it’s part of this … I think the Charter defines Canada, it protects our linguistic freedoms, and within the context of a governance debate, the first act of a new Liberal government is going to be to strengthen the Charter, and we’re going to do that by removing by Constitutional means the possibility for the federal government to use the notwithstanding clause, because quite simply, I think governance says that the courts shouldn’t be overturned by politicians.”

Stephen Harper may have a somewhat more technically impressive political science position on this issue, which he sets out with some force: “I think there is a danger in saying that the courts will always, regardless of the decision, will always be supreme. Just as I think there would be a danger in saying that Parliament and politicians would always be supreme regardless of their opinion. Our Charter and our Constitution sets up the dialogue where there’s a balance between parliamentary supremacy and the supremacy of the courts, that’s the balance I support.”

New Grit high ground? It is also easy enough to doubt the ultimate practicality of Paul Martin’s musings about “removing by Constitutional means the possibility for the federal government to use the notwithstanding clause” – or just how many Canadians have any serious idea of just what “the notwithstanding clause” in the Charter of Rights is. (It says an elected democratic legislature may ignore a right in the charter for five years by passing legislation that says “notwithstanding” the Charter of Rights – and then for a further five years after that by passing further legislation of the same sort, etc, presumably into some potential infinite future.)

But a government that were going to open up constitutional discussions with the provinces on this issue (as Mr. Martin’s original statements at least could be read to imply) would also have to be willing to look into such other structural changes as, well, say Senate reform, and the place of Quebec in the confederation of tomorrow (and even John Manley’s bold idea of finally retiring the last quaint ceremonial links with the British monarchy across the sea?) And starting fresh constructive federal-provincial discussions of this sort with a bow to the increasingly popular 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is not such a bad idea.

Arguably enough at least, it could finally give the Liberals a piece of the same future-of-Canada high ground that Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have nicely latched onto, with their pronouncements on such things as Senate reform, and the military defense of Canadian Arctic sovereignty. The broad electorate no doubt at best senses rather than strictly understands such things. But they can nonetheless give some kind of deeper weight and heft to a political campaign, even in the high age of near instantaneous opinion polling and policy gobbledygook.

(As has subsequently become somewhat clearer, Mr. Martin may only be proposing mere federal legislation that only deals with the federal government’s obligations under the Charter – though noted constitutional expert Peter Hogg has said on TV today that what is proposed would still require a constitutional amendment approved by seven provinces. Practically, this could turn what looked at first like an interesting hint of new Liberal courage and boldness about the future of the country – “removing by Constitutional means” and all that – into something more modest. Some lesser hints of the higher ground may still get through to the more vague senses of the broad electorate, along with the headlines of the moment.)

Or a new Tory juggernaut? At the same time, Stephen Harper himself had a good enough outing in last night’s English debate. And the polls for the past several days clearly do say that his new Conservative Party of Canada has the vaunted “momentum” right now. If he did nothing to speed things up further in the debate, he did nothing obvious to slow them down either.

Beyond his own most committed supporters, Harper no doubt looked freshly plausible as the leader of some kind of Conservative minority government in another fractured Parliament. Some will still say he still looks a little too youthfully green to lead a practical majority government that commands nothing like a majority of the diverse popular vote. But who knows? They may be wrong. For the moment, again, it will be the polls of the next several days that tell the next part of the story.

On a more or less neutral quick initial canvass of various reactions, New Democrat leader Jack Layton’s performance similarly seems to have impressed a considerably larger proportion of the electorate than will probably vote for him and his party in the end. To many tastes he is performing very well under a great burden. But even he secretly seems to recognize that the back-pain remedy he is pushing can’t possibly work as well as he claims. (And the polls seem to be showing that the NDP is suffering just as much as the Liberals from the current Conservative juggernaut.) It would be nice, many who are attracted to his performance seem to think, if what Jack is saying were true. But how can it be?

Finally, Gilles Duceppe is in some ways always the most interesting contributor to the English debates, because he has virtually nothing to lose and can say less guarded things. On January 9 he managed to give the impression once again that he could probably win a surprising number of seats in the rest of Canada, if his party ever did decide to run candidates outside Quebec. He will be in a different position in tonight’s January 10 French debate from Montreal – which even the vast majority of English Canadians who do not speak French will be able to watch, thanks to the highly cultivated contemporary Canadian values of simultaneous translation.

MONDAY, JANUARY 9, 2006, 10:10 PM. Tonight’s TV debate from Montreal, with Steve Paikin doing a good job asking the questions, has just ended. A very preliminary assessment might be that the first of the two hours was better than the second. And in the end no one obviously won or lost. More to come shortly.  Remarks from earlier today follow

It is often said that TV leaders’ debates seldom prove all that crucial in Canadian politics (with the possible exception of Brian Mulroney’s telling rhetorical assault on John Turner, over Pierre Trudeau’s last patronage appointments in 1984). But staunch Liberal supporters must be hoping that the English language debate from Montreal, tonight at 8PM EST/5 PM PST, will somehow do something to break the continuing Conservative lead in recent opinion polls.

Despite the wildest hyperbole that had surfaced in some branches of the media by the end of this past week, the polls continue to show that the best Stephen Harper’s new Conservatives can hope for is a minority government. (Though a new Strategic Counsel survey released just today also does point to an increasingly stronger Conservative lead – over both the Liberals and the NDP.) Ipsos Reid has converted its latest popular vote results into a projection which gives the 2006 Tories “12933 seats … a sharp rise from the 99 they won in 2004, but still short of the 155 needed for a majority.” Stephen Harper himself has been arguing that a Conservative minority government could be quite stable – and friendly to almost all opposition parties, including Jack Layton’s crypto-socialist New Democrats.

Mr. Layton himself now seems maybe a little less friendly towards Mr. Harper than he has been since the united opposition brought the government down back at the end of November. Hints about just how a Conservative minority government might actually work out could be something in particular to watch for in both tonight’s English and tomorrow night’s French TV debates.

Meanwhile, this past weekend the New York Times reported on a new website inviting Canadians to price their votes. The best response so far has apparently come from W. Anderson of Toronto: “A vote is priceless … It is a pure and honest voice in the sea of human waste known as the Canadian political system.” Presumably Mr. Anderson will also be watching the debate tonight.

SATURDAY, JANUARY 7, 2006. The Canadian federal election plot suddenly seems to have thickened very quickly – among at least the media who are the message, and all who try to move them. The remarkable big question now is whether Stephen Harper’s newly front-running Conservative Party of Canada actually has enough “momentum” to win a clear governing majority on January 23 – i.e. 155 or more of the 308 current seats in Parliament at Ottawa (including even a few seats in Quebec?).

At this point anyone at least trying to be sort-of realistic probably still does have to wonder a bit. Especially for liberals angry with the Liberal party, a not-too-long-lived Conservative minority government beholden to the Bloc Quebecois and/or the New Democrats (and even some reverse-Belinda-Stronach tit-for-tat?) might arguably do some good for the country. But word has also just surfaced that the deft Stephen Harper holiday campaign of 20052006 has leaned on advice from staff of the shrewdly sharp-edged Australian right-wing prime minister, John Howard.

On all the polling numbers except “momentum,” a Conservative majority government free to try twisting Canada into some version of John Howard’s current brittle Land of Oz would almost certainly offend a strong majority of the present Canadian popular vote. So how far can abstract momentum go? (Or could it go, if more Canadians actually knew a little more about Australia than where it is on the map? It’s not as if the Mounties are investigating John Howard – though more than a few Australians nowadays would agree that could be a good idea.)

THURSDAY, JANUARY 5, 2006. A new EKOS Research poll for the Toronto Star and La Presse in Montreal has come up with cross-Canada ballot-question numbers that would clearly mean “a Tory minority government” on January 23. (The Canada-wide popular vote percentages are: Cons 36.2; Libs 30.4; NDP 17.9; Bloc 10.4; and Green party 4.7. The one equally clear note of caution is that “the electorate is still volatile, with 40 per cent of respondents saying they could still change their minds.”)

In one sense it does seem a bit odd – or even characteristically contrary, in an old Canadian style. Just when the continental/global right-wing conspiracy is starting to fade among “the Yankee to the south of us” (Pauline Johnson, aka Tekahionwake, 1903), the people of Canada are contemplating putting a right-wing federal government into office at last (or at least since 1993). Or this would be odd, if it were true. On the new Ekos numbers themselves, what the people are really contemplating is electing a Conservative minority government – that does seem to have a few good Canadian nation-building ideas, would give the Grits and the Ottawa political establishment a much-needed swift kick, and would be constrained from any truly right-wing neo-con lunacy by its need to seek support among the other parties, to stay in office longer than a few weeks. Some would say this is all a fantasy, which may or may not be true. The question right now is how long can the mood last?

One reason for remaining a bit sceptical about just how long is John Ibbitson’s column in today’s Globe and Mail. Ibbitson at least used to seem a pretty clear Ontario supporter of the federal Conservative cause. But one thing Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are still not coming clean on, Ibbitson is arguing now, is exactly how many immigrants they would want to allow into Canada each year. Nowadays even Ontario conservatives like John Ibbitson think the federal Liberals have, on balance, run a pretty good immigration policy for the country, coast to coast to coast.

Similarly, Stephen Harper and his Conservative campaign team do deserve credit for their recent high-minded nation-building policy boilerplate on such important subjects as Senate reform, strengthening Canadian military capacity to better defend Canadian Arctic sovereignty, and even saying a few nice things about the positive legacy of Rene Levesque in Quebec. But Mr. Harper has said other kinds of things in the past, which could come back to haunt him. (And no doubt will if the Team Martin Liberals have anything to say about it; e.g.: “whether Canada ends up as one national government or two national governments or several national governments or some other kind of arrangement is, quite frankly, secondary in my opinion.”)

On the other hand, one of the most intriguing features of the latest Ekos poll that has hit the newstands today is not just that the Harper Conservatives are finally gaining some ground in the Ontario part of the old iniquitous Central Canada of Western (and Eastern and Northern) imagination. As even the CBC website is stressing at the moment: “The Tories were also in a statistical tie with the Liberals in Quebec. That rise apparently came at the expense of the Bloc, suggesting that the Conservatives’ strategy of presenting themselves as an alternative for Quebec federalists angry with the Liberals has worked.”

Meanwhile, where does all this leave Jack Layton’s New Democrats, to say nothing of Gilles Duceppe and the sovereigntist Bloc Quebecois? (Or Mr. Harris and his Green party, of course.) Some innocent voters are still likely wondering why, if Stephen Harper’s Conservatives still are the hidden-agenda apostles of the bad old right-wing conspiracy who want to “dismantle the Canadian state,” despite all their moderate and adroit Canada First rhetoric of the most recent past, the Liberals and the New Democrats don’t somehow get together in some kind of alliance to defeat them (48.3% to 36.2%%, even in the latest Ekos poll), before the actual election on January 23. But of course, again, that is not likely to happen at all.

MONDAY, JANUARY 2, 2006. On this absolute final day of the holiday season, the Canadian federal election campaign did move into some kind of higher gear – even if many people of Canada are still wisely not paying too much attention. The leading sign was an Ipsos-Reid poll that actually showed the Conservatives slightly ahead of the Liberals – in Canada at large, and even in Ontario.

The best change these numbers can offer, some will say, is a dysfunctional Conservative minority government, sponsored by the Mounties and beholden to the Bloc Quebecois. But the Ipsos-Reid poll does confirm similar fresh support for Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, hinted at in other polls of the past few days. (Ever since the RCMP’s still somewhat puzzling announcement about its “criminal investigation into the possibility that Ottawa’s plans for income trusts were leaked.” Another poll released on Tuesday showed similar trends, though not quite as positive for the Conservatives.)

Today on TV NDP leader Jack Layton was talking about how “change is coming” too – and bravely holding out room for a progressive alternative. Yet even passionate NDP campaign workers only seem to be striving realistically for as many as 30 seats. Paul Martin’s Liberals still have to take 125 or 126 seats, to give any stable governing hope to the kind of Jack Layton progressive vision of change that first flowered briefly in the late spring of 2005. (An innocent voter might ask: what if the Liberals and New Democrats were to revive their spring 2005 alliance over the next three weeks, before the election takes place? But that hardly seems likely.)

Meanwhile, it is no doubt striking that something of the taste for change is apparently putting down roots even in Ontario, at last. Another intriguing sign on this front was Richard Gwyn’s column in today’s Toronto Star. It compared the January 23, 2006 Canadian election with the December 15, 2005 election in Iraq. Both hold out some prospects, Mr. Gwyn concluded, for making much-needed new history in formerly obscure parts of the global village. (Or at least some quite seriously “dysfunctional politics” over the next few years?)

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