Waiting for the next federal election

Apr 30th, 2008 | By | Category: Ottawa Scene

[UPDATED MAY 1]. In fact, most people of Canada long ago lost interest in the date of their next federal election. And Angelo Persichilli at the Hill Times has caught the current jaded mood even among political junkies: “Want to know when the next election will be? Call the RCMP … a month ago I was told that the buses were ready to roll and a lease for the plane had been finalized. Two weeks ago, the buses were back in the garage. Last week it was go-go-go again.” It has been a traditional distinguishing feature of parliamentary democracies that, within certain limits, the government gets to choose when it will next consult the sovereign people. In Canada nowadays, with the present Conservative minority government’s new fixed-date legislation in place, we have apparently further democratized this principle, and put the choice effectively in the hands of the leader of the official opposition. According to the latest reports, “insiders say [Liberal leader Stephane] Dion appears resolved to wait at least until the fall.” Meanwhile, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s party does not trust Elections Canada in any case. And of course who really knows if the insiders are right?

Recent opinion polls … still not good for anyone just yet?

On April 28, 2008 Hassan Arif from Fredericton, New Brunswick aptly noted that it has “now been over two years” since the half-victory of the Harper Conservatives back in late January 2006 – “a long time for a minority government and especially so for a government with a right-wing ideology that goes against the grain of public opinion” in the so-called blue-state or liberal country of Canada. (I.e., “Canadians always vote Democratic in American elections,” as the old aphorism has it – even in such otherwise rather right-wing places as Alberta.)

Yet one reason neither the minority governing Conservatives nor the somewhat beleaguered Liberals are enthusiastic about a fresh election as early as this June 2008, no doubt, is the state of current opinion polls. In a word (or two or three), the two main federal parties are for the moment more or less deadlocked. The immediate prospects do not look good in either case.

The Nodice Canada Federal Election 2008 website, e.g., reports on seven polls for April 2008. The average or arithmetic mean results for all seven are: Conservatives 34% ; Liberals 32% ; New Democrats 16% ; Bloc Quebecois 9% (across Canada, even though the BQ only contests seats in Quebec) ; and Green Party 9%. Even in the twisted multi-party, first-past-the-post electoral system we currently have in Canada, it usually takes about 40% of the popular vote for any party to win a working governing majority of seats in Parliament. The Conservatives had intermittent sojourns in this kind of territory last fall, but not since. (Again see the convenient summary on the Nodice Election 2008 site.)

In an interesting report nicely headlined “Go figure: Liberals remain competitive,” Barbara Yaffe of the Vancouver Sun has noted how the “latest Harris/Decima survey” even “gives the Liberals 33-per-cent support compared with 31 per cent for the Conservatives … Not a huge lead, but it’s nothing short of astonishing that Liberals lead at all … The next election promises to be a crapshoot. And only fools will put big money on one party or the other winning the next minority government.” (Again based on the Nodice Election 2008 summary, the Harris/Decima firm has actually put the Liberals somewhat ahead of the Conservatives in three of its last six polls. Other firms have been less generous to the much-criticized Stephane Dion. Even so, Ms. Yaffe makes some good points – though it may still be not entirely foolish to bet that the next minority government in Ottawa will remain in the official hands of Stephen Harper and his Conservatives, at least as things still look right now.)

But Harper Conservatives’ own dirty laundry finally starting to show in public?

Until recently, the very best thing the Harper Conservatives seemed to have going for them was the abysmal depths into which the Dion Liberals had apparently fallen. Even those Liberals who had liked Dion when he first became leader back in December 2006 had come to conclude that the Conservative attack ads were right – however much of an admirable academic, or environmental policy wonk, or all-around human being he might be, he was no political leader. And, say whatever else you like about Stephen Harper, he was a political leader.

Then the Conservatives started bumping into at least a little bit of the same kind of trouble that they had finally used to unseat the Paul Martin Liberal minority government, more than two years ago now. The strictly historical investigation into former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney and his sketchy dealings with a German-Canadian man of the world and political manipulator was a prelude of sorts. Then there were noises about the late great Chuck Cadman, and Conservative efforts to “entice” him back into their camp in the long hot summer of 2005. Most recently, there was the RCMP raid on Conservative Party headquarters in Ottawa – at the behest of Elections Canada, concerned about financing arrangements in the 2006 election.

It is easy enough to protest – as the Harper Conservatives increasingly do – that none of these matters amounts to anything much. So, in connection with the Elections Canada issue, a former senior aide to former Ontario Conservative premier Ernie Eves has urged that “individual Canadian political parties are allowed a threshold of $18 million to spend on their election campaigns. The Tories are accused of exceeding that by $1 million. U.S. presidential hopeful Barack Obama spent $18 million on the Pennsylvania primary alone.” And even Chantal Hebert at the Toronto Star has urged that: “Over the past decade, Elections Canada has gone from election watchdog to arbiter of Canada’s democratic life, taking on a more central role in every aspect of federal electoral politics.” But, the usually quite liberal Ms. Hebert notes, in its current struggles with the Conservative Party’s so-called “in and out scheme” in the 2006 election, Election Canada’s own “moral authority is on the line.”

And then of course Mr. Harper’s party is actually suing the Liberals over their attacks on its honour in the Chuck Cadman affair. And it is almost certainly true enough that Brian Mulroney’s accuser, Karlheinz Schreiber, is not a person whom anyone can seriously trust – and mostly just wants to stay in Canada, and out of jail in his native Germany.

Yet the so-called sponsorship scandal that finally did the Liberals in earlier on started off as a noble attempt to mitigate the threats to Canadian sovereignty that always lie latent in the Quebec sovereigntist movement. And look what finally became of that. Perception is what counts in these matters, as is often said. So Hassan Arif in the Telegraph-Journal in New Brunswick has urged that: “During the 2006 election campaign, Harper’s Conservatives successfully campaigned against Liberal corruption’ with the promise of clean and ethical’ government. They railed against the sponsorship scandal and seized on news that Finance Minister Ralph Goodale was to be investigated over allegations of insider trading … While the sponsorship scandal was likely blown out of proportion and Ralph Goodale was subsequently found innocent of all charges, the damage was done …There is no reason the Liberals can’t do the same now …”

The pollster Nik Nanos has been saying something similar in the pages of the Edmonton Sun: “The time for accountability has arrived.’ That’s the very first sentence from Stephen Harper in the 2006 federal Conservative election platform … A combination of events – the right message (trust us) at the right time (RCMP criminal investigation) resulted in the Harper minority victory. Canadians were mad at the Liberals and were ready for change … Fast forward to 2008 and the political trust’ environment is quite different. A government which was in large part elected in reaction to the Liberals and the advertising and sponsorship scandal now faces a series of trust issues to manage … The challenge for the government is the emergence of a narrative that, although it may not be breaking the rules, it is pushing the rules to the limit – be it having discussions with Chuck Cadman related to his vote in the House of Commons, or how it managed its advertising spending during the 2006 federal election.”

The economy stupid … again … and again?

This increasingly soggy North American and/or even global to say nothing of Canadian economy is another obvious danger for the Harper Conservatives at the moment. The Toronto Star has explained that when the Canadian House of Commons resumed this Monday, April 28: “Liberals and Conservatives battled for the title of most competent economic managers … Dion and his deputy, Michael Ignatieff, argued that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has squandered the enviable economic legacy left by the previous Liberal regime, which tamed the national deficit and left a $12-billion annual surplus when they were booted from office in early 2006.”

A parallel article has appeared in the Vancouver Sun, headlined “Risk of Ottawa deficit growing: economist.” And even the usually quite conservative National Post has urged that “Canada must stay out of the red … The Tories themselves have ramped up program spending by nearly 19% since taking office in February, 2006, from the $175-billion the Liberals spent in their last year to $208-billion this coming year. Much of this new spending has gone to rebuilding our scandalously underfunded Armed Forces and underwriting long-neglected improvements to our national transportation system and border security; but even so, surely some of what the Tories have added in the past two-and-a-half years could be reversed.”

So don’t be surprised if Canadians wind up voting this fall too?

However merely frothy and incidental it may all be, the past month or so in Canadian federal politics does seem to have breathed some new life into the flagging spirits of the Dion Liberals – and the other three opposition parties as well. (And so on Tuesday, April 29 they at least managed to agree on a “Bloc Qubcois motion calling on the House to express its full and complete confidence in Elections Canada and the Commissioner of Elections Canada.'” The Harper Conservatives voted against the motion. But it nonetheless “passed 152117 with the combined support of all three opposition parties.”)

M. Dion may still look inept at best to most of us. But Hassan Arif in the Telegraph-Journal in New Brunswick, e.g., actually thinks he could do better than most of us think in the next election. Or at least he could have, maybe if, etc: “Stphane Dion could potentially be a great Prime Minister. He and his party just have to take the initiative and bring the government down … Unfortunately, the Liberals have not seized on these initiatives, and have opened the door for the NDP to be the effective’ opposition … The war in Afghanistan is increasingly unpopular among the Canadian public … On poverty, the Liberals have an ambitious and commendable plan to reduce poverty by 30 per cent and child poverty by 50 per cent within a period of five years … The Liberals have also maintained their pledge to promote a nationwide daycare plan …”

At the other end of the country, on Canada’s Pacific coast, Joseph Roberts at Common Ground (“Western Canada’s biggest and best-loved monthly magazine dedicated to health, wellness, ecology and personal growth”) has just published an extended interview with M. Dion on its website. M. Dion says in conclusion: “I will provide sincerity … openness and respect. I think we Liberals have identified the challenges of this century that need to be seen as opportunities on the environment, social justice, economic competitiveness, the consequences of an aging population and how to be a good citizen of the world. We’ll campaign on that and I’m confident that Canadian views about what to do with this country will be close to what we propose rather than to the very right wing approach of Mr. Harper.”

If the insiders are to be believed, it does seem that Stephane Dion “appears resolved to wait at least until the fall” before he finally acts to bring Stephen Harper’s minority government down, and precipitate a fresh election. And the logic here may have been best captured by Michael Den Tandt, “editor of the Owen Sound Sun Times [in so-called rural Ontario] and a national affairs columnist for Sun Media/ Osprey Media.” (Perhaps Mr. Harper’s Conservatives were right when they urged a while back now that the most important journalists nowadays are the fresh regional voices in smaller places, and not the old established big names in big cities, etc. But in some cases at least this finally does not seem to have done them a lot of good.)

As Mr. Den Tandt has explained in another April 28 newspaper column: “The crows are coming home to roost for Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a mangy bunch of birds they are. Will this provoke an election? … Not yet …

“Not long ago, he was the Iceman, firmly in control of every teensy strand of his government and seemingly managing it all with aplomb … Most Canadians were buying that package, when compared with the alternatives … We weren’t warming to the man … but we were getting used to him. Harper and Liberal Leader Stephane Dion mano a mano? Dion was sure to come out of it with two black eyes and his glasses fastened together with Scotch tape … But then came the Chuck Cadman affair and the audio tape that suggested Harper knew of allegedly improper Conservative efforts to induce Cadman to help them topple the Liberal government in 2005 … And now we have the election-spending scandal …

“Harper may have evolved as much as he can. Perhaps he’s not able to transform himself into a green crusader and catch a centrist political wave, after all … Perhaps he’s not able to stifle his raptor nature and become a more unifying presence. He is what he is … As his term of office lengthens, he and the people around him will make more mistakes. Fatigue will set in. Canadians don’t vote governments in, goes the old saying: we throw them out … The Liberals have nothing to lose by waiting and nothing to gain by precipitating an election now. They’d much rather continue to watch Harper, a man who has rarely seemed to struggle, beat back the crows.”

Of course there could be an accident of some sort in Ottawa over the next few weeks. You just have to watch the daily Question Period on TV to see all the raw nerves that are exposed in the federal capital city these days. The best argument for a fresh election at some point this year is that the current Ottawa minority government scene has become just too dysfunctional to carry on all that much longer.

The smart money at the moment, however, does seem to be saying that if cooler heads can at least hold things together for a few more weeks, the parliamentary summer recess will arrive soon enough. And then we can at last have our Canadian federal election a bit later, in the fall – just like “The Yankees to the south of us” who “Must south of us remain.”

(Of course again, in the real world of Canadian politics in 2008 Mr. Harper might finally still win another slender minority government, the likes of Mr. Arif, Mr. Roberts, and Mr. Den Tandt notwithstanding. But that’s another question, for another time.)

MAY 1 UPDATE: As an example of a potential accident that might conceivably lead to, say, a surprise June election, according to the Globe and Mail this morning: “Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is declaring film tax-credit legislation a matter of confidence in the Conservative government, meaning MPs could land on Canadian doorsteps this spring to debate the line between art and pornography.

“Mr. Flaherty said the legislation, known as Bill C-10, contains a range of important tax measures and changes will not be tolerated … The bill should not be amended,’ he told reporters yesterday. A tax bill is a confidence bill. We all know that’ … Mr. Flaherty’s warning followed his appearance before the Senate banking committee, which has been studying the legislation for weeks. The committee is expected to wrap up its work next week, and several Liberal senators have indicated a desire to amend the bill.”

It is still a bit hard to believe that we will actually have a federal election in Canada over the Conservative minority government’s nanny-state morality legislation about how many bare breasts of attractive women can be shown in movies subsidized by Canadian taxpayers, or whatever it is – designed to mollify the fundamentalist religious fanatics in its retrogressive right-wing political base.

But the fact that such a prospect can be raised in a so-called national newspaper no doubt does suggest just how dysfunctional and even quite absurd the current Ottawa scene has become. And who knows? Stranger things have already happened in Canadian political history. (Though we can’t think of an altogether good example at the moment. Meanwhile, for the latest on a related subject, see “That Miley Cyrus photograph: artsy or outrageous?” in the Guardian across the pond.)











Leave Comment