Going over Niagara Falls in a Tory barrel

Nov 30th, 2008 | By Counterweights Editors | Category: Ottawa Scene

SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 30, 2008. 11:30 PM ET. [UPDATED DECEMBER 1 BELOW]. All day today CTV Newsnet has been breathlessly broadcasting that, on the basis of a tape of a “telephone-conference meeting” that Jack Layton held “with his caucus Saturday morning” (surreptitiously recorded by the Conservatives), the “New Democrats and Bloc Quebecois held talks to form a coalition party well before the opposition’s uproar over the government’s fiscal update.” Both the New Democrats and the Bloc have denied this opportunistic and even somewhat crazy spin.

A Canadian Press report says the tape involved is “more ambiguous” than the Conservatives claim. And the excerpts made public in support of the claim strike us as laughable at best. Without doubt, the point here is to try to draw our lingering attention away from what even “Randall Denley of the right-leaning Ottawa Citizen” has called “one of the dumbest stunts in the history of Canadian politics.” And it happend when, along with suddenly introducing other assorted hard-right-wing ideological hobby horses, the Conservative minority government’s fiscal update this past Thursday tried to savage the financial security of all three opposition parties, who together hold a majority of seats in the elected branch of Parliament.

The major political problem remains that, as Mr. Denley has also put it, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has now altogether “blown his credibility,” as someone capable of leading the country in the unusually challenging economic circumstances that lie ahead. Even “as the Conservatives try to stop coalition talks by retreating on measures” in their “fiscal update,” Mr. Harper’s stunningly dumb stunt and blown credibility remain the best reasons for the Liberals, New Democrats, and Bloc Quebecois (who, again, together hold a majority of seats in the Canadian House of Commons just elected this past October 14) to carry on with their talks about an alternative coalition government.

(If Mr. Harper is dumb enough to do this, what might he do in some sudden deepening of the current economic crisis? And doesn’t the mere fact that the Conservatives are actually stooping to surreptitiously recording the strategy meetings of other parties also suggest that, whatever a new coalition government might involve, it couldn’t be worse than what we have now?)

What about the “constitutional argument” that there has to be yet another election?

Prime Minister Harper has tried to argue that “that while the Opposition has the right to bring down the government on matters of confidence,” in the midst of the current political crisis he has himself induced, they have “no right to take power without an election.’”

This argument has been elaborated in an e-mail sent out by “Guy Giorno, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Chief of Staff” (and also a former impresario of the Mike Harris Tories in Ontario, which may be one of Mr. Harper’s current problems), as part of “a strategy to shift public debate ahead of a potential confidence vote in the House of Commons” on Monday, December 8.

The Globe and Mail, however, has published a piece headlined “G-G would have little choice but to accept coalition, experts say.” I.e., Mr. Harper is simply wrong when he implies that a coalition government which commands the support of a majority in the House of Commons could not take office without yet another federal election (the fourth in as many years!). That is not how our parliamentary democracy in Canada works.

As his opposition critics have also pointed out, in fact Mr. Harper knows all this very well, because he wrote a letter to Governor General Clarkson in 2004, indicating his own willingness to try to form a government without a fresh election, should the former Paul Martin minority government be defeated in the House. And then there’s the 1985 Liberal-NDP Accord in Ontario that Bob Rae helped to put in place, in another variation on the same theme.

In our view, the fact that Mr. Harper is so willing to so blatantly lie about matters of this sort, in the midst of a crisis of his own manufacture, is yet another example of how he has now virtually blown his credibility altogether, and will at best have a very difficult time moving forward.

In the world as it is, of course, of course, lying is inevitably a part of even democratic politics, like it or not, and so forth. But Mr. Harper seems to lack any sense of when it is wrong to lie – about fundamental constitutional issues, e.g., and/or when simply too many other well-informed and serious-minded people are in too good a position to know you are lying!

But what about Norman Spector’s point that “Western Canadians, in particular, would feel that the government had been stolen from them”?

MONDAY, DECEMBER 1, 2008. 9:30 PM ET. Some further steps towards an opposition coalition have been taken today (a signed agreement in fact), and the momentum in this direction increasingly seems almost unstoppable, despite the surprising suddenness of the process.

Already, however, there are signs that the project has less than universal support even among progressive partisans. Even in anglophone Central Canada, e.g., this morning the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star carried articles by three people not ordinarily counted as passionate Conservative supporters (Jeffrey Simpson, Lysiane Gagnon, and Chantal Hebert), raising doubts about just how well advised the quite unprecedented experiment of a Liberal-New Democrat coalition government, supported by the Bloc Quebecois via a written agreement, might prove to be.

Another angle on Mr. Harper’s own argument that if the opposition majority in the 40th Parliament is determined to defeat the present Conservative minority government, what should follow is in fact yet another federal election, not some new and untested progressive coalition government in Ottawa, was advanced over the weekend in the Globe and Mail by the former Brian Mulroney Conservative government staff person Norman Spector (who currently resides in Vancouver). “If Ms. Jean,” Mr. Spector wrote, “were to decide to hand power over to a Liberal-led coalition, Conservative voters would be furious. Western Canadians, in particular, would feel that the government had been stolen from them.” (As if to second the motion, the Vancouver Sun had already editorialized: “The Liberal party needs to give its collective head a shake and back off from its arrogant attempt to grasp power. Stephane Dion was rejected by Canadians in October and his party suffered its worst showing in an election since Confederation.”)

We have ourselves argued on several occasions in the past that, as much as we disagree with most of what Mr. Harper has done and appears to stand for, his government has been constructive in its representation of Western Canadian interests in Ottawa, at long last.

At the same time, it seems to us as well that it is part of the at least theoretical virtues of a Liberal-New Democrat coalition government that it would have much greater Western Canadian representation than a mere Liberal government.

To start with the most general background, Canada-wide the Conservatives won 37.6% of the popular vote on October 14, 2008, compared with 44.4% for the Liberals and New Democrats combined. (Or 54.4% if the Bloc Quebecois is added to the new Coalition total, and 61.2% if the Green Party is added as well, as many might argue is only reasonable enough, given Green Party leader Ms. Elizabeth May’s personal support for the new adventure.)

Similarly, there are only two provinces in both Western Canada and the country at large where Steven Harper’s Conservatives won a majority or better of the popular vote on October 14 – Alberta and Saskatchewan. In British Columbia the Liberals and New Democrats combined actually won slightly more of the popular vote than the Conservatives. And the same is true for the Liberals, New Democrats, and Green Party combined in Manitoba.

Western Canada Popular Vote in 2008 Election

Prov

Cons %

Lib-ND %

NDP %

Lib %

Green %

Other %

Alta

64.6

24.1

12.7

11.4

8.8

2.6

Sask

53.6

40.5

25.6

14.9

5.6

0.2

Man

48.8

43.1

24.0

19.1

6.8

1.2

BC

44.4

45.4

26.1

19.3

9.4

0.8

SOURCE: 2008 Canadian Election Results

Similarly again, on TV Ontario tonight, two apparent Conservative sympathizers were urging that, outside Quebec, the Conservatives won majorities throughout the country on October 14. Yet this is only conceivable if you are counting seats won, and not the popular vote – and even then you have to forget altogether about Atlantic Canada. In fact (again) Mr. Harper’s party won a majority of the popular vote only in Alberta and Saskatchewan. In five provinces (all of Atlantic Canada and Ontario) the Liberals and New Democrats together won majorities of the popular vote. The Liberals and New Democrats combined won a greater share of the vote in Quebec than the Conservatives – and of course won a clear majority if you add the BQ.

Rest of Canada Popular Vote in 2008 Election

Province

Conservatives %

Libs-New Democrats %

Newfoundland & Labrador

16.5

80.5

Nova Scotia

26.1

58.7

Prince Edward Island

36.2

57.5

New Brunswick

39.4

54.3

Ontario

39.2

52.0

Quebec

21.7

35.8

SOURCE: 2008 Canadian Election Results

Finally, depending on whether you want to include the Yukon and Northwest Territories as parts of Western Canada, the Liberals and New Democrats combined currently have either 21 or 23 seats in the four provinces of Western Canada – which is more than the Conservatives have in either of Quebec or Atlantic Canada. It is true enough that the great lion’s share of these seats is in Manitoba and especially British Columbia. The Liberals have one seat in Saskatchewan (Ralph Goodale’s) and the New Democrats managed to pick up one seat in Edmonton on October 14. Other than that, again, the Conservatives do altogether dominate Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Liberal and NDP MPs from Western Canada in 40th Parliament

1. Linda Duncan, NDP, Edmonton-Strathcona, Alberta

2. Alex Atamanenko, NDP, British Columbia Southern Interior, British Columbia

3. Dawn Black, NDP, New Westminster-Coquitlam, British Columbia

4. Jean Crowder, NDP, Nanaimo-Cowichan, British Columbia

5. Nathan Cullen, NDP, Skeena-Bulkley Valley, British Columbia

6. Don Davies, NDP, Vancouver Kingsway, British Columbia

7. Libby Davies, NDP, Vancouver East, British Columbia

8. Sukh Dhaliwal, Liberal, British Columbia

9. Hon. Ujjal Dosanjh, Liberal, Vancouver South, British Columbia

10. Hon. Hedy Fry, Liberal, Vancouver Centre, British Columbia

11. Peter Julian, NDP, Burnaby-New Westminster, British Columbia

12. Hon. Keith Martin, Liberal, Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca, British Columbia

13. Joyce Murray, Liberal, Vancouver Quadra, British Columbia

14. Denise Savoie, NDP, Victoria, British Columbia

15. Bill Siksay, NDP, Burnaby-Douglas, British Columbia

16. Niki Ashton, NDP, Churchill, Manitoba

17. Jim Maloway, NDP, Elmwood-Transcona, Manitoba

18. Pat Martin, NDP, Winnipeg Centre, Manitoba

19. Hon. Anita Neville, Liberal, Winnipeg South Centre, Manitoba

20. Judy Wasylycia-Leis, NDP, Winnipeg North, Manitoba

21. Dennis Bevington, NDP, Western Arctic, Northwest Territories

22. Hon. Ralph Goodale, Liberal, Wascana, Saskatchewan

23. Hon. Larry Bagnell, Liberal, Yukon, Yukon

The upshot of all this, it seems to us, is that the New Democrats do bring a greater representation in Western Canada to the Liberals. And that is one of the arguable strengths of the heretofore quite improbable new opposition coalition government that acquired the potential beginnings of some kind of formal existence today. It seems to us impossible to know right now just how the Canadian people generally will respond to the new coalition prospect over the next several days. It does seem a good bet that voters in Alberta and Saskatchewan will not be pleased. But these two provinces account for less than 14% of Canada’s total population. Which is not the same at all as “Western Canada” (which of course remains a rising and crucial region in Canada at large today – something a Liberal-New Democrat coalition government will at least inevitably pay more attention to than a Liberal government alone).

What if the Harper government just prorogues the House until late January?

One escape hatch to the current mess the Harper Conservative government finds itself in could be to “prorogue” the Canadian House of Commons – i.e. suspend its meetings until (say) late January 2009, so that the opposition majority could not vote “no confidence” and thus defeat the government until then.

The theory is that the time between then and now would sap the opposition resolve and give the Harper government time to regain its credibility. We think this kind of ploy – almost unheard of so soon after the current session of the House began, and so patently involving an almost authoritarian suppression of the democratic process – would only stiffen the opposition resolve, and make the Harper government look much worse. Bob Rae of the Liberals has also urged that there is some question whether Governor General Jean would sign on to any such scheme, as she must to make it legal. But our latest soundings on the Ottawa sidewalks do suggest that Mr. Harper is going to be putting up a very big fight over the next several days. And who knows just what this may finally involve? Stay tuned.

NOVEMBER 28 : GOING OVER NIAGARA FALLS IN A TORY BARREL .. just how crazy is the Harper minority government?

What Stephen Harper’s present Conservative minority government just does not seem to understand is that democracy ultimately means the majority rules. And no amount of Orwellian doublethink from a sophomoric communications director in the PMO on television can alter the hard political facts that less than 38% of the Canadian people actually voted for Mr. Harper’s party this past October 14, and that the three opposition parties together command a clear majority of seats in the elected branch of the present Parliament of Canada.

In this context for Mr. Harper’s government to have introduced a plan that savaged the present financing arrangements of all three opposition parties – and to insist that it would be treated as a measure of confidence in legislation – was a reckless act of near insane proportions.

It has suddenly induced a potential political and even perhaps constitutional crisis in Canada, at a time when a mood of cool political competence is what is most needed. (Note, e.g., the President-elect in the neighbouring USA today.) And it makes a laughingstock of the image of Mr. Harper as a steady hand at the tiller, in stormy economic seas. (Which is probably what won his government as many seats as it did get in the still so recent last election.)

As of 7:30 PM, Friday, November 28, Mr. Harper himself has finally put off the potential defeat of his minority government through a non-confidence motion in the Canadian House of Commons until Monday, December 8. Meanwhile, however, plans for an alternative Liberal-New Democrat-Bloc Quebecois majority coalition to replace the Harper government appear to have developed far more quickly (and impressively) than anyone might have imagined even yesterday. And, in the midst of his attempts to re-write the Canadian Constitution in his latest public pronouncements, some rather grave new doubts have arisen about Stephen Harper’s character – and his real suitability to lead his country in challenging times.

How confused are things anyway?

As of 2:30 PM on the afternoon of Friday, November 28, it seemed important to say no one should take for granted exactly what is going to happen in the Canadian House of Commons next week.

CBC Newsworld and CTV Newsnet were reporting that the Liberals now had plans to introduce a formal motion of non-confidence in the Harper government. And it was at least being said for the moment that they may be prepared to go ahead with this, regardless of Mr. Harper’s backing down from including party public financing cuts in measures to be voted on this coming Monday.

The real issue, at least some opposition party members appeared to be saying, was the minority government’s lack of an adequate economic stimulus plan for our current difficult times generally – and not just the party financing cuts. If the government is not prepared to improve things somewhat on this broader front, it may be brought down, regardless.

Just how likely this wider scenario will prove to be is anybody’s guess. The majority opposition parties have already wounded the minority government, by showing much more resolve to form some opposition majority coalition than anyone expected – as an alternative to a fresh election, if the government insists on treating the party financing cuts as a confidence measure. Now the opposition parties apparently smell blood. But on reflection over the coming week, it may be the better part of valour not to pursue the smell too aggressively just yet.

On the other hand, from the standpoint of the opposition majority, the government’s economic update introduced yesterday was rather old-neo-con inflammatory, even apart from the party financing cuts. It may be that Mr. Harper finally needs to be shown with unmistakable clarity just what a minority government really means … at last.

In any case, stay tuned … As noted above. Mr. Harper himself has now moved the day of reckoning he himself (?inadvertently?) concocted ahead until Monday, December 8 (also the date of a Quebec provincial election, intriguingly enough). He will no doubt be trying to persuade the Canadian people in the meantime that his minority government and not some rising opposition coalition is on the side of the angels. But, as best we can make out, for some strange reason he has just shown – more clearly than ever before – some quite troubling character flaws, which really do raise questions about his fitness to carry on. And, over the next week, that may be what many Canadian people perceive as well. (Although, of course, many, and especially in Alberta, may not.)

NOVEMBER 27: REMEMBER THE CLEAR GRITS .. will Stephane Dion finally become prime minister of Canada after all?

We were right in the middle of a deep-historical report on yet another Liberal Party of Canada leadership race when the almost impossible-to-understand news arrived. Current Liberal leader Stephane Dion may have put the point best: “Mr. Harper told me that he didn’t want to have a confrontational process. He wanted to have this parliament working because we are in economic tough times and we need political stability … But why then (would) he come with this plan?”

The plan is to eliminate the present quite modest public funding of federal political parties – introduced by Jean Chretien in 2003. As Mr. Harper’s second minority government, elected just this past October 14, must have clearly understood, this proposal was bound to be resisted by the three opposition parties, who have some good and democratic reasons for valuing their public funding, and who do command the majority in the present elected branch of Parliament. Now, it is said, the government could be defeated over the issue, as early as Friday, November 28 or Monday, December 1. And this could lead to something as insane as yet another Canadian federal election, only a few months after the last one – or (more likely?) to “a possible Liberal-NDP coalition with Dion at the helm” (and the more neutral support of the Bloc Quebecois). Who would have believed any of this only yesterday? Yet apparently it is true!

1. Could necessity really be the mother of invention? It may be that even in the increasingly wacky world of Canadian federal politics today necessity finally will prove the mother of some creative and quite constructive invention. But just to start with, as a matter of practical politics it is at best extremely difficult to imagine New Democrat leader Jack Layton and/or the Liberal caucus somehow managing to put together a fresh coalition government in the present 40th Parliament, with Stephane Dion (or anyone else for that matter?) at the helm.

And then, even if this somehow were to prove possible, a Liberal-NDP coalition in the present Canadian House of Commons would still command only 114 seats – considerably less than the present minority Conservatives’ 143 seats, let alone the 155 seats needed for a bare majority government. It may be worth noting that the Liberals and New Democrats combined won more than 44% of the popular vote in the October 14 election, compared with less than 38% for the Conservatives. But given our electoral system, this doesn’t count. (And in any case even the Liberals and New Democrats together did not win a majority of the popular vote. And the Green Party, whose popular vote would give a majority if added to the Liberal-NDP total, did not win any seats in Parliament at all.)

To provide a serious alternative government to the current Harper Conservatives in the present 40th Parliament, any Liberal-NDP coalition would also have to enjoy some form of guaranteed support from the 49 seats held by Gilles Duceppe’s Bloc Quebecois. All told a Liberal-NDP (+ BQ) coalition of this sort would command 163 seats – enough in fact for an effective majority government. But this would mean that the Bloc Quebecois – a party theoretically still devoted to the abolition of the present Canadian federal government in principle – would become a kind of virtual member of a Canadian federal government. Stranger things may have happened in the always fairly strange world of Canadian politics. But it is not easy to remember just what they are offhand.

The only remote practical possibility of such a strange brew would seem to lie in the potential political fact that it may just be, for all three opposition parties, an ultimately more attractive prospect than either of the two other options – yet another fresh federal election, or accepting the Harper government’s proposal to cut public funding for political parties. And if this were to actually happen, Canadian progressives would then owe a considerable debt of gratitude to Stephen Harper, for serving to create the kind of practical political circumstances that George W. Bush created, to finally make possible the election of Barack Obama in the United States.

On the other hand, the world being what it is (and especially in the case of Canadian federal politics?), it may be that yet another fresh election will finally prove the most attractive (or least unattractive) option for all three opposition parties (and the current minority governing Conservatives themselves). And in this case, the opinion of L. Ian Macdonald from Montreal, usually judged a supporter of the Harper government, seems especially interesting, if hardly surprising: “Harper does not want an election with the economy sliding into a deep recession and the government falling into a deficit. But he should not assume the Liberals will go into a snap election with Stphane Dion as their leader. The Liberal caucus will not allow it, and would step in to elect either Michael Ignatieff or Bob Rae … In the House … Harper replied to a fulminating NDP Leader Jack Layton that protecting the entitlements of political parties is not going to do anything for the Canadian people’ … And here’s his closing argument in English-speaking Canada. Should the taxpayers of Canada finance the separatist movement? Answer: no … But Harper should also beware of what he wishes for. In the toxic atmosphere he has instantly created, his government could fall. And in the ensuing election, in a steep economic downturn, he could lose to either Iggy or Bob.”

Time will soon enough tell, hopefully, just how much Ottawa nonsense is involved here – and just how much trouble the Harper minority government has for whatever reason actually landed we the Canadian people in. Meanwhile, for anyone who might be suffering already from very serious insomnia, what progress we made on our original all too long-winded report on the Liberal leadership race – as it seemed before the November 27 financial update – follows below:

2. Various fragments of our original report … Last Friday Canada’s self-confessed national newspaper (well, in English … and in Ontario anyway) was asking “Can anyone stop Ignatieff?” Many will also ask: “Does it matter?”

Last Saturday Barbara Yaffe at the Vancouver Sun was wisely pointing out: “Western alienation challenges liberal party.” Which is just one way of saying that whoever of Michael Ignatieff, Bob Rae, or Dominic LeBlanc the Liberal Party of Canada chooses as its next fearless leader, some five months and one week from now, will not likely be able to defeat Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in the next federal election.

(Or so it at least seemed to us – until the government’s financial update on Thursday, November 27 introduced the near-insane proposal to end the still comparatively recent and innovative Canadian public financing of federal political parties.)

Mr. Ignatieff especially (perhaps) may manage to keep Mr. Harper from winning a majority government. And especially if the current most depressing prognoses about the struggling world economy come true, Mr. Harper may wind up with a much more slender minority government than he has now. But it is a sign of just how beleaguered the federal Liberals are at the moment that they seem to have so little prospect of budging the current chubby Tory prime minister from what ought to be his quite precarious perch on Parliament Hill. (Or again, so it seemed. In an almost impossible-to-understand move with the government’s financial update, the chubby prime minister may now have turned the tables on himself?)

3. Deepest background: interior wilderness domain of freedom and the Clear Grits. Ever since the beginning of the modern Canadian confederation in 1867, there have been those who claimed that Canada is in fact a uniquely conservative place – a political culture that has preserved more respect for various old-world mother countries, next door to the rash experiment of democracy in America, and so forth.

In fact, despite the efforts of generations of publicists (and even learned academics – in both Canada and the United States), this has never been seriously true. Discussing the early modern era, way back in the 17th and first half of the 18th centuries, e.g., the pioneering 19th century New England historian of the French regime in America, Francis Parkman, wrote about a conservative “Canadian absolutism,” and contrasted it unfavourably with a nascent Anglo-American democracy.

Yet, to his credit, Parkman equally understood that: “Against absolute authority there was a counter influence, rudely and wildly antagonistic. Canada was at the very portal of the great interior wilderness … that domain of savage freedom; and thither the … seigneur, and the … habitant … naturally enough betook themselves. Their lesson of savagery was well learned, and for many a year a boundless license and a stiff-handed authority battled for the control of Canada.”

Then the British empire introduced its own “stiff-handed authority” into an increasingly mixed-race stream of political evolution. But this also bred its own opposing domain of freedom, with roots in the great interior wilderness. And it proved the deeper truth about the home and native land that finally began to take on its present form in the 1867 confederation.

Even today the English-language nickname or diminutive of “Conservatives” in Canada is “Tories” – a term still just borrowed from the metropolitan political history of the United Kingdom. But if you look up the word “Grit” even in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, you will find, as its last meaning: “In Canadian politics, a Radical or Liberal. Formerly clear g.”

In fact the “Clear Grits” of the mid 19th century were at least one authentic Canadian expression of the old agrarian or family-farm democracy in North America, that helped bring Abraham Lincoln to office in the United States of the Civil War era (186165) – and that no less radical an international political philosopher than Karl Marx praised as “the Agrarian Reformers in America,” in his Communist Manifesto of 1848. (Also the year that so-called “responsible government” or colonial democracy, if you like, finally came to British North America)..

4. Rise of the 20th century natural governing party in Canadian federal politics … As it happened, the new federal political entity set in place by the 1867 confederation began as merely the first self-governing dominion of the British empire. And its first generation was dominated by the British imperial Toryism of John A. Macdonald and Georges Etienne Cartier. (Even here, however, it is revealing enough that Macdonald and Cartier’s party was formally known as the “Liberal Conservatives.”)

By the very late 19th century both Cartier and Macdonald had passed away. The Grits (aka “Les Rouges” in Quebec) came to office in Ottawa, under Canada’s first French Canadian prime minister, Wilfrid Laurier. (Some today might try to dismiss Laurier as a “house negro.” Say whatever else you like, however, the Conservatives have still never had a French Canadian leader – however more or less well Mr. Harper nowadays may speak French.)

After a comparatively brief interregnum under Robert Borden (a quite liberal Conservative from Nova Scotia), and after a First World War that bequeathed a more independent aspiring Canadian political nation, William Lyon Mackenzie King – grandson of the leader of the Upper Canadian Rebellion of 1837 – established the Liberal Party of Canada as the country’s so-called “natural governing party.” Mackenzie King’s somewhat bizarre (if very cunning) regime was itself briefly interrupted by the (no longer “Liberal”) Conservatives under R.B. Bennett from Alberta, in the first half of the Greatly Depressed 1930s. But then Mr. King carried on until the late 1940s (and after the Second World War), when he was succeeded by his fellow Liberal Louis St. Laurent.

M. St. Laurent was finally defeated (in the midst of the so-called Pipeline Scandal) by the (now “Progressive”) Conservatives, under John Diefenbaker from Saskatchewan, in 1957. But then the Nobel Prize-winning Liberal leader Lester Pearson managed to win at least two minority governments. And somehow Pearson (helped out by New Democrat friends, some might want to stress) managed to give Canada its own flag at last, a progressive and more or less workable late 20th century welfare state, and the beginnings of various Ottawa plots that would finally prevent the confederation of 1867 from splitting into separate English-speaking and French-speaking fragments, once the old British empire had definitively fallen forever in the 1960s.

The ultimate mastermind of these plots was of course Pierre Elliott Trudeau from Montreal, whom Lester Pearson also managed to recruit into Canadian federal politics. And, whatever else you might think about him, Trudeau’s one undeniable great Canadian achievement was the Constitution Act 1982, which, in the wake of the failed first Quebec sovereignty referendum of 1980, at long last “patriated” the Constitution of Canada from the United Kingdom, by providing a domestic amending formula buttressed by an entrenched Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And – with the exception of Joe Clark’s very brief interruption at the end of the 1970s – Pierre Trudeau remained prime minister of Canada from 1968 to 1984.

Jean Chretien (and even Paul Martin) would no doubt rightly enough object to any view which envisions Trudeau as the last altogether great Liberal Party of Canada prime minister (for want of better words, in a geographically large country with a comparatively small population). Yet from the vantage point of late 2008 this does at least appear an increasingly tempting view.

Mr. Chretien and Mr. Martin, it seems plausible enough to say nowadays, ultimately just lived off intellectual and political capital that Mr. Pearson and Mr. Trudeau had, in their quite different ways, brought to the party, to meet the challenges of the late 20th century. They did this skillfully enough in a number of respects – during some especially challenging times. But they did not add to the capital stock themselves, so to speak. And they did not think hard enough about the new challenges of the early 21st century.

Now the Liberal Party of Canada is in a great deal of trouble – no matter who it chooses as its next leader, at Vancouver in early May 2009.

5. “Western alienation challenges liberal party.” The ancient historic weakness of the old Clear Grits in the old Canada West (nowadays Ontario), and their Liberal and Reform colleagues in the old British North American Maritime Provinces (and even the ancient northwestern territories of the Hudson’s Bay Company) was that their natural allies in French-speaking Canada East were Les Rouges, who were also personae non grata with the local French Canadian power structure of the day, dominated by a conservative Catholic church and all that.

The great strength of John A. Macdonald’s Liberal Conservatives in the confederation era was that, even though they typically lacked majority support in the English-speaking regions of the new Canada, they could lean on Les Bleus of Georges Etienne Cartier. The French Canadian power structure of the day, and its more or less faithful followers among the old habitant majority, did like Les Bleus, who – despite John A. Macdonald’s warm support from the Protestant Organgemen in English-speaking Canada – somehow seemed more ardent defenders of the conservative values of the Roman Catholic Church, which was the great refuge of the French Canada that had somehow managed to survive La Conquete, etc, etc. (Given all the strange political balls he had to juggle, some might say, it is no wonder that the Old Chieftain John A. Macdonald was an alcoholic.)

Wilfrid Laurier from Quebec started to change all this when he became leader of the Liberal Party of Canada in 1887. He gradually managed to convince the Catholic establishment and its more or less faithful flock that Les Rouges under his leadership were a good bet. The change worked its final magic when he became Canada’s first French Canadian prime minister in 1896. In the federal election of 1882 Macdonald’s Conservatives had won 51 seats in Quebec, and the Liberals only 13. In 1896 the Laurier Liberals won 49 seats in Quebec, and the Conservatives only 16.

From Laurier (Prime Minister of Canada 18961911) to Pierre Trudeau (Prime Minister of Canada 19681979, 19801984) the Liberals would typically rule the roost in Quebec. (The one major exception was the Diefenbaker Conservatives in 1958, who took twice as many Quebec seats as the Liberals, thanks to help at the polls from Quebec’s legendary Union Nationale Premier Maurice Duplessis.) More than any other single thing, no doubt, this is what made the 20th century Grits “Canada’s natural governing party.”

At the same time, what might be called the classic Liberal or modern Grit default coalition combined strong support in French-speaking Quebec with strong support in the rising new region (or regions) of Western Canada (and enough less significant support in Atlantic Canada and Ontario to form majority governments more often than not). In the 1926 “King-Byng” election that could be said to have finally established Mackenzie King’s ultimate hegemony, the Liberals took 60 of the 65 seats in Quebec, and 33 of the 59 seats in Western Canada, but only 9 of the 29 seats in Atlantic Canada, and 26 of the 82 seats in Ontario. In the first half of the 20th century, the Conservatives took more seats than the Liberals in the Ontario whose capital city was the old “Tory Toronto,” in the federal elections of 1900, 1904, 1908, 1911, 1917, 1921, 1925, 1926, 1930, and 1945. (There is another particular wrinkle about British Columbia here as well, but set that aside as too complicated for now.)

In the second half of the 20th century first the old CCF and then its New Democrat successor began to sap Liberal strength in Western Canada (a habit also started in a less potent form by the Progressives after the First World War). This trend climaxed in Pierre Trudeau’s last election of 1980, when the Liberals won no seats at all in any of British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, and only 2 of 14 seats in Manitoba. At the same time again, the late 20th century Liberal Party of Canada also became more and more dependent on support in Ontario (as the old Tory Toronto, so to speak, virtually turned itself inside out). Jean Chretien in 1993 did rather better in Western Canada than Trudeau in 1980. But the key to the ultimate Grit success in 1993 was that Canada’s natural governing party took 98 of Ontario’s 99 federal seats.

This Ontario-centric trend carried on in Mr. Chretien’s subsequent Liberal victories of 1997 and 2000. And at the same time in this case the Bloc Quebecois’s first federal contest in 1993 meant that the Chretien Liberals were no longer dominating the results in Quebec – as the party had in all of Trudeau’s elections. And while they retained some token representation in Western Canada, it was no more than that. By the early 21st century Canada’s natural governing party had become a creaky old political machine whose main claims to fame were that it won almost all the federal seats in the central most populous province of Ontario – and most of the seats in the most easterly and least populous region of Atlantic Canada. It could no longer speak with much credibility for either Quebec or Western Canada – the two key regions in the classic Liberal or modern Grit default coalition.

The May 2009 Liberal leadership contest is slated for Vancouver, in the most westerly part of Western Canada, on the balmy shores of the Pacific Ocean. But the apparent contestants – Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae, both from City of Toronto ridings, and Dominic LeBlanc from New Brunswick – still mimic the natural governing party whose main claims to fame are in Ontario and Atlantic Canada. Moreover, the three most recent federal elections have progressively worn down even these limited regional bases. The Liberals who won 100 of Ontario’s 103 seats in 2000, e.g., took only 75 of 106 in 2004, 40 of 106 in 2006, and 38 of 106 in 2008. It isn’t only in Western Canada, or even Quebec, that the Grits are now in some quite deep trouble, which no mere new leader is going to chase away overnight, no matter how brilliant and impressive in public debate he may be.

6. Current Liberal financial difficulties … (and/or but what if the Harper government is actually defeated … tomorrow or next week ??????). One of the very practical reasons that the Harper government’s proposal to cut public funding of federal political parties presents some quite large current difficulties for the Liberal Party of Canada turns around their present financial difficulties more generally.

As John Ivison at the National Post has explained: “the real pain of the cut will be felt on the opposition benches … The Liberals, whose finances were already in a parlous state, will lose $6.4-million a year. Their last published accounts show a party where expenses outpaced revenues by $1.6-million. The largest source of revenue was the government allowance of $8.6-million or $1.75 for each vote. That amount is set to fall by nearly $2-million because of their reduced share of the vote in the 2008 election. The party raised just $4.7-million from grassroots Liberals, compared to $18-million for the Conservatives.

“Since the party is deeply indebted – one estimate is $10-million - and the loan required to fight the last election was secured with the collateral of the government subsidy, it is clear that the Official Opposition cannot meekly stand in the House of Commons and support the measure as its fair share of the economic pain.”

(Setting the Liberals’s particular problems aside for the moment, Mr. Ivison also interestingly tells us that: “The same can be said of the Bloc Qubcois, which relies almost exclusively on its $2.6-million public subsidy, and, to a lesser extent, the NDP, which gets $4.4-million. The Greens, meanwhile, will need to organize a lot of bake sales to make up for the $1.8-million they are about to lose … The chances of another general election in the near future have always seemed remote, on the basis that none of the combatants could afford it … With this proposal, they can’t afford not to go to the polls again.”)

It says something about the current state of Canadian federal politics that the Conservatives actually do raise the largest amounts of money from their grassroots supporters. Because the Liberals were the natural governing party of Canada for so long, they could (somewhat ironically?) rely more on large corporate donations, and they have increasingly neglected far too much about their grassroots organization, fund-raising most definitely included. (And the Chretien scheme for public funding introduced in 2003 largely turned off the corporate tap.)

Because the Conservatives have been much more typically a kind of almost perpetual opposition party, they have had to develop their more populist grassroots funding capacities (especially though their various recent Progressive Conservative, Reform, and Canadian Alliance permutations). And whatever happens, one thing the Canadian Liberals certainly need to do in the 21st century is take a leaf from Barack Obama’s impressive grassroots fund-raising book south of the unfortified border.

Before the Harper Conservatives introduced their toxic plan to eliminate public funding for Canadian federal political parties, it would have seemed to us that a rather long period of patient reinvigoration and rebuilding of all their grassroots connections and capacities – even vaguely echoing the ancient founding days of the legendary Clear Grits in the middle of the 19th century – was probably the number one item on the current Liberal agenda. (Or certainly ought to be.) And this is a job for which perhaps neither Mr. Ignatieff nor Mr. Rae is uniquely qualified. So what does it really matter who is chosen as leader, at Vancouver in early May 2009?

Now, however, it may just be remotely possible that the Harper government’s plan to cut public funding of political parties – and the potential doors it could be opening to either yet another election or some new and genuinely constructive and creative kind of opposition coalition government – has suddenly thrown all of the Liberals, New Democrats, and Bloc Quebecois lifelines that none of us, in any part of the country, were at all expecting? (And these three opposition groups together do command a clear majority of both seats and popular votes in Parliament today.) As already noted, we will just have to wait and see.

Print, bookmark, share or buzz this story:

  • Print this article!
  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Technorati


Leave Comment