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A Tale of Two Minorities

by David T. Jones

A retired senior Foreign Service officer and Canada specialist draws on extensive interviews during a recent visit and shares his analysis of the complex current political situation in our northern neighbor, the continuing issue of whither Quebec, and U.S.-Canada relations. -JRB .

Canadians are notoriously cranky. They complain about the weather; they gripe about the economy; they lament their politics. And, to be sure, there is often something to complain about. This year, it was whether the winter was too warm (a remarkable complaint in and of itself!) and whether polar bears should (or not) be depicted as endangered. And on the political side, grappling with the exigencies of a minority government has led to fresh complexities for governance—directly in Ottawa and by projection in Quebec.

Ottawa and the Federal Minority Government. When they came to power in January 2006, the Conservatives espoused in the campaign a limited five point program (enhanced government accountability; tougher anti-crime legislation; tax assistance for child support; reduced goods and services tax (GST); shorter waiting times for health services). In accord with the historical expectation for a minority government (12-18 months), the Tories projected that having addressed these topics as effectively as possible, they would go to the electorate to seek a majority government. Wrong.

Although Canada has had federal level experience with minority governments, other than the short-lived Tory government under Joe Clark, which mismanaged itself into an election within 6 months in 1979-1980, this experience is over 40 years old. Comparably, attempting to project JFK-LBJ era experiences into a modern USG would be a stretch—and it has been comparably difficult for the 2007 Tories to extrapolate the lessons of Pearson Liberals from 1963-68. They have had to make it up as they go along; essentially breaking new ground in political science terms. PM Harper has attempted to govern as if he had a majority, in effect daring the Opposition to defeat him and prompt an election—an effective albeit high risk tactic.

The Election that Didn’t Happen. In fact, the Tory timetable appeared on track for an election to be called in April. The government had put in place its projected tax measures and drafted legislation for greater government accountability and tougher law enforcement. It had moved creatively on Senate reform, arguing that it was not necessary to amend the Constitution to create elected senators with limited tenures. (Finding that health care was an intractable problem, they stopped discussing the topic.)

The new Liberal leader, Stephane Dion, appeared vulnerable, and the Tories with money to burn aired a variety of tough television ads. While largely regarded as nasty (and the Tories were criticized for airing them), they were also judged to be effective. Dion was in the unpleasant position of being defined by his enemies. Along the same lines, the Tories were nominating their candidates and even gave the media a tour of their elaborate, high tech campaign command center. Moreover, the Quebec provincial election in March, while not resulting in a majority victory for Jean Charest’s provincial Liberals, at least gave him a minority government and even more badly damaged the separatist Parti Quebecois. The federalist provincial Liberals and the largest opposition party (the Action Democratique du Quebec) ostensibly boosted Tory hopes for further gains in Quebec, already helped by increased federal financial and political support for Quebec and its nationalist-federalists.

Additionally, combat casualties for the Canadian Forces contingent in Afghanistan were lower than predicted/feared, and the economy remained strong. In the views of many, the political, economic, and foreign affairs portrait was about as good as it was going to get.

But none of the positives—including the general judgment that Prime Minister Harper was a strong, decisive leader (and more qualified to lead than the Opposition party alternatives)—moved “the numbers.” That is, after an early spike, polling figures continued to leave the Conservatives clearly short of a majority. The emergence of an imbroglio over the treatment of prisoners in Afghanistan implied that the Tories were indifferent to human rights concerns. Likewise, the flip side of PM Harper’s strong leadership was effectively depicted as dictatorial; now he is “scary” not because of a “hidden agenda” but because he will be tough in implementing any agenda. So the obviously reluctant, albeit cautious, Tory decision was to wait—at least into the autumn and perhaps longer in the hope/expectation that skeptical Canadians would feel increasingly comfortable with Harper/Tories and demonstrate polling support that would indicate a conservative majority would be the likely outcome of an election.

But Has the Window of Opportunity Closed? Conceivably, this short-of-a-majority status is the best the Tories will get. There is an impression that the maximum strength the Tories can mount is approximately 40 percent of the Canadian electorate—and that figure depends as much on irritation with the Liberals as from the virtues of the Tories. What has prevented the Liberals from resuming their position as the “natural governing party” (having held the reins of government 80 of the past 110 years) is the split of the left-of-center electorate between the Liberals, the New Democrats, the Bloc Quebecois, and the strengthened Green Party. Combined with residual (albeit slowly fading) irritation over Liberal malfeasance in the “Adscam” sponsorships scandal in Quebec, a strong economy, and the less than stellar nature of the current Liberal leader, the Tories might win another minority—but so might the Liberals.

Hence there is no immediate impetus for the Opposition to force an election (and cooperation by all three parties with members in Parliament would be necessary to defeat the government).

Moreover, a new law has created a fixed date for elections. No longer can a majority government seize the moment created by Opposition disarray or a blip of popularity (such as winning the Falklands war was for the UK Thatcher Tories) to call an election. Unless the government is defeated on a confidence measure, the next election is scheduled for October 19, 2009. Since this effort to regularize the electoral process was a specific Tory objective, it would be harder for PM Harper to manufacture a rationale for a parliamentary defeat or to request the Governor General to dissolve the government and call an election. Harder and more complex, but not impossible.

And while it appears unlikely that a minority government could operate another two years without being forced into election, this possibility is being bruited about as more than hypothetical. Since all three Opposition parties must vote against the government to defeat it, all must see advantage in having an election—and the polls are unlikely to show all benefiting at the same instant.

So What Next? The absence of the anticipated spring election left the government somewhat adrift. Pure parliamentary debate in the Westminster style evaporated long ago to the lament of political purists, but the absence of any level of comity has been a newer development. Work at the committee level has been fractious; the Senate with a heavy Liberal majority has been obstructive and/or dilatory. The much touted concept of the daily Question Period, during which the Opposition poses serious questions with the expectation of receiving (reasonably) serious responses, has deteriorated into shouting matches between cavorting jackanapes. One side charges, “Your mother wears combat boots.” The response being “Your mother is too dumb to tie the laces on her combat boots.” The conclusion has been that QP has reached the point that it is virtually a detriment to democracy—or at least popular respect for Parliament and, if its televised hour is watched at all, it is viewed as farce.

Consequently, there is an appreciation that the government, now in summer recess, must return with a fresh program: one on which it can attempt to govern until 2009 if necessary. One variation would be to “prorogue” Parliament; that is, to end the current session and resume with a new official statement of governing policy (a “Throne Speech” by the Governor General). Legislation currently in process dies (although at the government’s choice, specific bills can be reactivated at the same point in the legislative cycle). Although this approach has attractive elements, senior government officials have denied publicly and privately that the Tories intend to take it, perhaps with the appreciation that it is more a “rearrange the deck chairs” than a solution.

Fatigue Factor. There is also an appreciation that many of the major political actors (and specifically PM Harper and Opposition Leader Dion) are emotionally and intellectually exhausted. Both have been campaigning or extremely visible in governing for years with little “down time.” Moreover, the special circumstances attending a minority government transform it into a non-stop political campaign. Nor does it appear likely that even a Canadian summer will lure the party leaders into quiet time; there are endless grip-and-grin barbeques across Canada and the prospect of several by elections that will prompt campaign appearances by senior leaders. Fatigue doesn’t prevent continued work; however, it reduces the creative flexibility necessary for political compromises, and such creative flexibility has been in short supply this year.

Afghanistan. The pachyderm in the parlor. And recalling the case of the blind men and the elephant, there are many views of the Canadian commitment. For the Tories, it is a principled commitment in support of UN/NATO mandate designed both to foil international terrorism and assist to rebuild/develop a devastated country. With his commitment to a Canadian effort in Afghanistan—as demonstrated by making it his first overseas trip and returning in May—Harper has seized the defense and security issues as his prerogatives. For the Liberals, they are happy to slide away from their original commitment; it is Mr. Harper’s war with which they hope to damage the Tories’ domestic support as casualties and perceived improprieties mount (such as allegations of Afghans torturing prisoners transferred to their control after capture by Canadians). For the NDP, the military commitment is a tragic error simply costing Canadian lives to no avail; Canada should withdraw armed forces immediately and promote negotiations with the Taliban. For the Canadian Forces (CF), the Afghan commitment is a mechanism for demonstrating CF combat capabilities (beyond “peacekeeping”) and an opportunity to replace rusted out/obsolete equipment.

The bottom line, however, is that Canada’s commitment is highly unpopular within Quebec and only marginally acceptable in the rest of Canada (if casualties remain low). In mid-June, Toronto city officials briefly sought to remove “support the troops” type decals from city vehicles (they later reversed that stance); PQ deputies refused to applaud a small group of soldiers present in the National Assembly. The failure to induce other NATO members to rotate into the dangerous Kandahar region persuades Canadians they are bearing an unfair burden. And as the CF contingent now headed to Afghanistan is the Quebec-based Royal 22nd Regiment, the “Vandoos,” the inevitable combat losses are likely to damage Tory hopes for further political breakthroughs in Quebec come the next election.

A Quick Party Appraisal

Tories. Nonpartisan (and even some partisan) observers give the Harper Tories better than passing grades as a government. Harper is intelligent and decisive with a clear vision and governing philosophy. He has operated close-to-the-vest government with a tightly controlled media message permitting little ministerial leeway. With a few exceptions (Finance, Indian Affairs, Environment), most ministers are regarded as no better than average. PM Harper has been point person on virtually every issue of consequence; but being one’s own flak catcher makes it harder to disavow the speaker.

Harper is also characterized as having a “nasty streak,” and even his friends suggest that he primarily takes counsel from himself and is unwilling to admit mistakes. When you have no one to blame but yourself, you are unlikely to blame anyone. And while there is nothing wrong with having a one track approach, you had better be on the right track. Harper’s lack of love for the media is reciprocated in spades by establishment media—and notably by the Parliamentary press gallery. Nevertheless, Harper has been a refreshing change from the “Mr. Dithers” approach of former Liberal PM Paul Martin for whom every issue was a priority, and the Canadian bureaucracy has appreciated the clarity—if not always the direction in which policy is headed.

Liberals. Having chosen Stephane Dion, the former minister of environment and intergovernmental affairs, as party leader, there has been more than a bit of buyers’ regret. Dion’s ascent to victory was less a consequence of his own virtues than the result of refusal to compromise by the supporters of the other two major candidates. Dion comes to Liberal leadership with the strengths of university professor intelligence and flawless personal integrity; the latter is a “must have” for a party that cannot remind the electorate that Liberals oversaw the gag-a-goat Adscam scandal.

As is often the case, however, Dion’s strengths are his weaknesses. His cerebral approach can be regarded as stiff (one analyst quipped that “stiff was an improvement; before he was abrasive.”) He has no saving grace of humor; his parliamentary skills are inferior to his deputy leader, Michael Ignatief (Dion’s final round competitor in the leadership race) and his administrative skills are pedestrian. Moreover, his efforts in English can be painful for a native English speaker to endure. His vocabulary is professorial; however, his delivery is convoluted, occasionally impenetrable with distracting errors in verb tense and emphasis. One Francophone observer commented that when Dion and a Tory minister were debating a point, he could understand nothing: the Tory was speaking French and Dion was speaking English.

Having spent six months in the national eye, Dion may have blown the “one chance to make a first impression.” He remains widely unpopular in Francophone regions of Quebec, who remember his hostility to nationalist/separatist objectives; he surely is no “native son” who can count on Quebec votes. Likewise, he has little resonance west of Ontario where as a Chretien minister he was imperious in dismissing Albertan concerns over national unity issues and potential environmental restrictions on oil/gas production. Dion’s strong suit, however, appears to be his ability to connect with small groups: they find attractive his intelligence, willingness to listen, and personal attention. However, meeting 30 million Canadians in 30 person packets is obviously impossible; Dion will have to find a way to extrapolate his small group charms onto a national level.

Bloc Quebecois (BQ). The BQ remains a cohesive, effective force that pushes constantly (and irritatingly) for unique Quebec interests. Benefit to Canada barely registers in its political optic; whatever is offered by federal Canada is pocketed and complemented with demands for “more.”

As described in more detail below, following its defeat in the Quebec provincial elections, the Parti Quebecois leader resigned. An obvious and ostensibly popular candidate to replace him was BQ leader, Gilles Duceppe. However, having tossed his hat into the ring, Duceppe found within 24 hours that his support was far below that of former PQ minister Pauline Marois, and he instantly retreated. This performance was akin to the old “Roadrunner” cartoon in which the pursuing coyote rushes off a cliff chasing the roadrunner; after a moment in thin air, the coyote plunges into the abyss. Duceppe, however, was able to reverse course in mid-air and return to the safety of the BQ caucus. Although he was widely derided in the media for his miscalculation, he remains in clear control of his party.

New Democrats (NDP) and Greens. At this juncture, the NDP and Greens continue to struggle both for the far left of the Canadian electorate and to pull “red Liberals” away from the party. To date, the NDP has declined in polling support to Green benefit. NDP leader, “Smiling Jack” Layton no longer receives laudatory media coverage, and the NDP defines itself by radical opposition. For example, it voted against a Liberal proposal to withdraw from Afghanistan at the end of Canada’s commitment in 2009 demanding instead an immediate “go directly to jail; don’t stop at ‘Go'” withdrawal.

Without parliamentary representation, the Greens struggle to make themselves more than an environmental scold. Their leader, Elizabeth May, has declined to compete in various by elections, choosing to wait for the general election to run against Tory foreign minister Peter MacKay in a riding that has been a MacKay family stronghold for a generation. Presumably, it will afford May high visibility but against very long odds.

Once Again: Whither Quebec?

If Canadians on the federal level are frustrated and irritated by the limitations of a minority government, Quebeckers are groping to come to terms with the results of their March 26 election. It was an exceptional event and whether it is a basic scene changer for the province or a “one off” political development remains undetermined.

The statistics of the election are clear, but the next steps defy prediction. The previous governing Liberal majority devolved to a plurality (48 seats)—with the lowest percentage of the vote in its history. The Parti Quebecois (36 seats), previously a strong Official Opposition, tumbled to third with its lowest percentage of the vote since 1973. And the previously discounted, one-man-band, Action Democratique du Quebec, surged out of the political wilderness into Official Opposition status (41 seats). Technically, the political result is the first minority government in Quebec since 1878; in real world political terms, it is unique in Quebec’s history.

Making the minority work will be a serious political challenge. Although the National Assembly has recessed for the summer, having gotten a budget passed with compromises by the Liberals was a useful first step. Polls suggest that Quebeckers are satisfied with the minority outcome and that the electorate remains in a three way semi-tie with no interest in a quick return to the polls.

The Liberals. Having gone to the electorate well before required by law, Jean Charest’s Pyrrhic victory has gone down badly. He is regarded as having mismanaged his initial mandate—and the campaign; he is the least popular of the party leaders by a considerable margin. Consequently, there are those who offer predictions/hopeful rumors that he will resign during the summer as the best hope for a Liberal revival.

Nevertheless, Charest does not face immediate “confidence” votes when the National Assembly resumes in the autumn; he could maneuver to avoid a scheduled Liberal Party November policy conference (with an attendant leadership review) and not face serious parliamentary challenge until the budget debate in spring 2008. In that effort, he will be aided by the reality that it takes a decision by both ADQ and PQ to topple the government; neither have immediate interest in doing so and the electorate is not champing for another election. Over many years in politics, Charest has been a resilient and persistent politician; in the first three months after the election, he has survived if not prospered.

Action Democratique du Quebec (ADQ). Having caught the lightening, Mario Dumont must now transform it into electricity that will power him to an electoral majority. To do so, he must move beyond being “Super Mario”—regardless of how effective this image and his telecommunication skills have been—into being a more disciplined party leader demonstrating organization and administrative skills. ADQ officials privately admit that a victory in the March election would have been a “Bob Rae experience” akin to the catastrophe in which Ontario NDP leader won a totally unpredicted victory in 1990 with a largely amateur-hour team. The result was an annihilating defeat in the subsequent election.

Dumont’s elected parliamentary team is comparatively weak (some estimate that only 10 of the 41 Assembly members are seriously qualified). He will have the opportunity to recruit “star” candidates who can now anticipate being part of a government; raise campaign funds; and demonstrate to Quebeckers as Leader of the Opposition that the oldest young man in politics is more than everybody’s concept of a good son-in-law. As a strength, his moderately right-of-center politics are a reasonable fit for GenX voters and his rejection of a near term sovereignty referendum is appreciated. As a Quebec nationalist, he has touted “autonomy”—a term that has gone carefully undefined, but could be hypothesized to give Quebec all powers short of full independence. Having taken considerably more votes from the Liberals than the PQ, the ADQ is regarded as having room to grow at the Liberals expense—particularly if Charest remains Liberal leader.

Parti Quebecois (PQ). It is in the PQ where soul searching is running deepest. Disgruntled members mutter with disgust that the selection of Andre Boisclair as PQ leader in December 2005 was an unmitigated disaster. “What is new was not necessarily good.” They believe that the PQ could have won the March election with any other leader; the selection of an openly gay, cocaine using Montreal “metrosexual” was not only a bridge too far, but a bridge that was burned in advance.

The first step in getting the PQ ship off the shoals was to jettison the captain; Boisclair briefly fought the inevitable (better leaders than he had been dismissed with dispatch following an electoral loss) but resigned on 8 May. The resulting leadership campaign was brief, but convoluted. BQ leader Gilles Duceppe miscalculated his potential support in the PQ caucus and, following the announcement of Pauline Marois (a senior member of previous PQ governments), Duceppe withdrew within 24 hours of his initial announcement. Duceppe apparently calculated that while he had a reasonable chance of winning, it would have been a poisoned prize.

For her part, Marois had finished second to Boisclair in the December 2005 PQ leadership campaign and subsequently retired. Pequists did not hold her resignation against her; she was not seen as a “sore loser.” Rather the essential need was to rectify the 2005 error, and she was acclaimed PQ leader on 26 June.

Marois holds multiple university degrees and has long PQ inner-circle experience having held seven ministries under four PQ Prime Ministers. Detractors sneer that she accomplished little of significance in any of these positions and remain amused at massive expenses (including installation of a silent “stealth” toilet) incurred during a government office renovation. Moreover, she is essentially a unilingual Francophone speaking what one observer described as “completely strangled” English in a newscast immediately following her accession as PQ leader. While largely irrelevant to the core PQ audience, it breaks the extended tradition of PQ leaders who spoke nuanced, sophisticated English which permitted them to reach out easily to Anglophones and Allophones (as well as officials in Ottawa)

Nevertheless, her English language may be the least of her worries. The PQ is regarded as financially insolvent; its voter support has declined in three consecutive elections, and its commitment to Quebec sovereignty is no longer a compelling lodestar for many younger Francophone Quebeckers, who are comfortable with French dominance within Quebec and their ability to secure ever expanded benefits from Ottawa.

For their part, even the most committed sovereignists are taking a longer view. Regarding the distance they have come toward independence in their lifetimes, they see it as an obtainable albeit not immediately attainable objective. Marois echoes this reality, indicating that a sovereignty referendum would not be an immediate PQ objective as a new government.

English Canadian Indifference? Oddly enough, just as Quebeckers—at least for the middle term—have appeared more willing to remain as a “nation” within Canada, the Rest of Canada (ROC) appears more willing to let them go. Individuals who would have been regarded as high church federalists five years ago now say quietly that the political and economic distortions required for accommodating Quebec may not be worth the price. The reprinting of a small, thoughtful book, Time to Say Goodbye, by a Quebec Anglophone suggests that both Quebec and the ROC could live in greater harmony as separate states. Francophones say that, for the moment at least, they are going nowhere; having obtained the “game” of essential political control of their province replete with heavy duty fiscal support from Ottawa, they are content to let the “name” hang in abeyance.

Bilateral Relations with the United States

For several years, the United States and Canada, often described as “best friends, like it or not” have been in the “not” portion of that cycle. The presence of a Conservative government in Ottawa has alleviated the public optics but not the underlying reality. Thus we are no longer depicted as “bastards” by GOC senior staffers or subjected to a Canadian ambassador in Washington who deems us a “dysfunctional” society. Nevertheless, the release of a recent poll in which 42 percent of Canadians view the United States unfavorably is one which clearly conditions the limits of U.S.-Canadian cooperation.

The easy explanation is that Canadians continue to “like” Americans—they just cannot stand President Bush and the current administration. To a degree this is a distinction without a difference so far as bilateral government operations are concerned; it is akin to those who say they are not anti-Semites, they just reject Zionism.

For his part, Prime Minister Harper is repeatedly excoriated in the liberal media for any foreign policy action that coincides with U.S. action. On Afghanistan, he has joined “Bush’s war.” He dares not raise continental missile defense (nor has the U.S. Government pressed the topic). Likewise, a primary avenue of attacking Harper’s domestic policies, ranging from the environment to military equipment purchases to social policy, is to link them negatively to the United States. Canadians are highly skeptical of U.S. border security measures (a personal hour and 20 minute delay at a crossing point into Vermont makes their point poignant). They have fought prospective passport requirements tooth-and-nail and are abetted by our own infelicities in managing the mechanics of creating/issuing secure travel documents. At the end of June, their federal and provincial privacy commissioners denounced a newly implemented “no fly” airline passenger list designed as an analogue to the U.S. system. Essentially, their media projects the impression that inconvenience for their own travelers and tourists should trump U.S. security concerns, that is, we are security paranoids while we need only be neurotic.

On a personal note, Canadians who engaged on substantive bilateral differences did so with ever greater hostility, verging on animosity. Most, knowing that there are no grounds for agreement, politely do not raise the four-letter-word: Iraq. On the other hand, a less than perfect parking performance in a tight garage resulted in a windshield note denouncing the driver in the crudest terms as a “f… American.” The driver was just pleased that the car tires were not slashed and the door only “keyed.”End.

David T. Jones
David T. Jones

David T. Jones frequently publishes articles in American Diplomacy. Since retirement from the U. S. Foreign Service, he has written extensively over the years for Canadian and U. S. publications.


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