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U.S. and Canadian Elections

by David T. Jones

A retired Foreign Service Officer and author of a recent book on the United States and Canada (see our review at: 2008/0406/book/ book_handley_uneasy.html) provides this timely analysis of the Canadian election scheduled for October 14, together with commentary on how the possible outcomes will intersect with the results of the U.S. election on November 4. – Ed.

Addendum — Results
The Conservatives won 143 seats, a gain of 27 but still 12 short of a majority. The Liberals won 76 seats, the Bloc Quebecois 50, and the New Democrats 37.

This year is particularly fascinating for observers of “alternative North Americas” – that is, the interaction of Canada and the United States in their multifaceted interlocking relationship.  And for the proximate delight of political junkies, you have the juxtaposition of the U.S. 50-ring, long/long running circus with a Canadian election that, having been called on September 7 will be over on October 14 – hardly a blink of the eye in U.S. political campaigning.

The U.S. election cycle has a remarkable clarity:  One knows years, even decades ahead, when the next election will be held.  In good times or bad, the U.S. population will head to the polls every four years for a presidential election.  However, in parliamentary systems, traditionally, unless defeated in a “confidence vote,” governments determine when an election is held – at the time most auspicious for them.  Thus British PM Margaret Thatcher capitalized on a successful Falkland Islands campaign to call and win a snap election.  In contrast, “Bush 41” was unable to build on his 90 percent approval following the 1991 Desert Storm victory and had to wait until 1992 to go to the polls – when inter alia the “stupid economy” brought him down.

Some Canadian Background
For this Canadian election, there were some preliminary wrinkles.  The Conservative (Tory) government, elected in January 2006, was a weak minority – however, all three opposition parties had to combine to defeat the government.  Thus for two and a half years, the Conservatives were able to present legislation/resolutions, and the Opposition was unable or unwilling to coalesce and defeat them.  The Opposition was practical; it recognized that the polls didn’t favor them (although they didn’t favor the Conservatives either), and it held off trying to defeat the government, while negotiating favorable amendments to the annual federal budget and revised positions on issues such as the Canadian commitment in Afghanistan to justify delaying an election.

During this period, the three opposition parties had different objectives.  The largest opposition party, the Liberals under new leader Stephane Dion, has long been the country’s “natural governing party” and controlled Canada for most of the twentieth century and until 2006.  Badly scarred by advertising scandals and corruption, the Liberal “brand” needed refurbishing; party coffers needed replenishing after an expensive leadership campaign ending in December 2006 with Dion’s election; and Dion needed time to develop national visibility and  devise policies to challenge the Conservatives.

The socialist New Democrats (NDP) under Jack Layton, a dynamic bull terrier of a leader, were interested in an early election to take advantage of Liberal weakness and to stave off a rising threat from the growing environmentalist-oriented “Green” party.

The Quebec-separatist party, the Bloc Quebecois led by Gilles Duceppe, a skilled organizer with a well-disciplined caucus, sought an early election to deflect growing Conservative inroads.  By adroitly mixing enhanced fiscal benefits and bows in the direction of Quebec nationalists, Conservative leader Stephen Harper has nudged the Quebec electorate into questioning the relevancy of the Bloc contingent in Ottawa.

The upshot of these competing agendas resulted in a year of parliamentary guerrilla war in which the Opposition sought to embarrass and hamstring the government through protracted committee investigation of relatively obscure Conservative semi-scandals.  The Tories having completed their 2006 campaign platform involving inter alia tax cuts, tougher criminal laws, and greater accountability in government appeared at a loss for a “what next” that could be accomplished without either a majority or a new mandate with an increased minority.  As a result, the venerated parliamentary institution of “Question Period” in which the opposition poses daily questions to the government deteriorated to the political equivalent of mud-wrestling arguments over whose pig was dirtier.

Consequently, PM Harper, recognizing that Canada’s economy was about as good as it was going to be, having defused the Afghanistan issue by an agreement with the Liberals to continue military action until 2011, and benefiting from the decline of sovereignty in Quebec politics, called on the Governor General to authorize an election.  Although technically a new law had set a “fixed election date” in October 2009, it left the option open for an earlier election should a minority government be defeated or if Parliament was unable to act effectively.  Harper implicitly contended that the parliamentary deadlock prevented meaningful political action, and the Governor General agreed.

The Campaign – Personalities 
The truncated 36-day campaign means that it is a sprint rather than a marathon.  There is little room to recover from error, and first perceptions can be defining.  Little more than a week into the effort, the Tories remain favored; they particularly tout the extensive gap between perceptions of Harper’s and Dion’s leadership ability.  Indeed, Dion’s personal rating falls below that of NDP leader Layton.

During his 18 months as Liberal leader, Dion has squandered his one chance to make a good first impression.  He has been unable to convey his intelligence and small-group personal warmth into an effective public persona; thus his image is that of the nerdy professor (which he was in pre-political life) inarticulately presenting convoluted programs in sometimes impenetrable English and reportedly difficult to decode French.

For his part, PM Harper is also charisma challenged.  He has worked hard to overcome impressions of being “scary,” mean, and ill-tempered.  Although his personal image has softened (recent TV advertising featured him in a sweater and talking about piano playing), he and much of the media have a hate-hate relationship.  As a consequence, he is frequently (and accurately) depicted as rigidly controlling his caucus, his ministers, and his “message.”  In short, the government rarely leaks – and such control frustrates the media.  But Harper’s personal intelligence and competence are undoubted, the Tories have mastered small-donation fund raising that permitted heavy pre-campaign advertising, and Harper’s command of French is more effective than Dion’s command of English.

Thus the Tories prefer a “mano to mano” comparison; Harper’s team is clearly ancillary backdrop for his personal competence.  In contrast the Liberals desperately want to surround Dion with a “team” – unfortunately this team consists of his former leadership rivals, and Dion is reluctant to provide the public with support for those with “buyer’s regret” concerning his leadership and eager to replace him.

The Layton-led NDP has been joined by a new party on the left, the “Greens,” led by Elizabeth May, a long-time prominent environmentalist.  The Greens and NDP are each attempting to rip voters from the Liberals – and from each other.  Initial polls showed that both had strengthened to the Liberals’ detriment, but whether these are “parked” or committed votes is unclear.  Indeed, although the Greens have polled as high as 10 percent of prospective voters, they may not win a single parliamentary seat.

The Campaign – Substance 
The election is more “preventive strike” politics than one driven by major issues or national passions.  Thus, it is not a “free trade” election as was 1988 or conditioned by the fears/consequences of rising Quebec sovereignty as in 1993.  There is no tide of “throw the bums out” as was the case in 1993 (Tory bums) or in 2004 and 2006 when the “bums” were Liberals.

Instead, the essential substantive dispute lies in the contrast between the Dion/Liberal “Green Shift” and stay-the-course economic incrementalism by the Harper/Tories.  The Green Shift posits a wide range of energy-related taxes ostensibly made revenue neutral by a variety of individual and corporate tax reductions, subsidies, and R&D expenditures.  The Green Shift has been hobbled since its announcement in June by its complexity; accompanied by a 44-page explanatory document, it doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker or a sound bite.  The Tory riposte – “It’s a tax on everything” – resonates better with an electorate angry over fuel price increases and skeptical about any proposal for tax increases.  Hence the Tory depiction of it as a “Green Shaft” hits home.

The Campaign – Afghanistan 
Canadian forces have been part of the UN/NATO commitment since 2002 engaged in post-9/11 operations.  Since 2006 they have operated in one of the hot spots (Kandahar) and, over six years as of mid-September, there have been 97 deaths. The casualties are societally and militarily trivial (one Canadian Forces officer privately suggested there had been more deaths from snow mobile accidents than in combat); however, public opinion now stands 60 percent against the commitment.  PM Harper moved to defuse the prospect of electoral meltdown if deaths reached 100 during the campaign by emphasizing that the combat commitment would end in 2011.

Some Outcomes 
Regardless of the consequences of the elections, north or south of the border, they will be indicative rather than defining.  Canadians have been obsessed with the U.S. election, with media commentary regarding our candidates as intensely as if they would be voting on November 4 rather than October 14.  Indeed, one poll suggested a significant percentage of Canadians would surrender their right to vote in Canada – if they could vote in the United States.  Nevertheless, whether victories come for Democrats or Republicans, Conservatives or Liberals, we will be “best friends like it or not” and no worse than “uneasy neighbor(u)rs.”

As a rule of thumb, Liberals want the worst relationship they can have with the United States that will not result in direct retaliation by Washington.  Conservatives want the best relationship they can have that will not cost them the next election.

Some possible scenarios include:

  • Republicans and Conservatives Win:  It is a political reality that Conservatives “fit” better with Republicans than with Liberals.  A Conservative majority (or a minority) would work harder to find points of congruence with the United States than would Liberals.  There still would be the endless laundry list of bilateral concerns, starting with sovereignty over the Northwest Passage and running through hardy perennials such as soft-wood lumber, “mad cows,” and levels of enhanced border security.  A Tory minority, as currently is the case, would avoid the reflexive verbal virulence that characterizes Liberals in government; but it would be unable to address controversial issues (such as increased military cooperation) with the United States.
  • Republicans and Liberals Win:  Any Liberal victory is likely to be a minority government, possibly in alliance with the NDP, which would mean a clearly left-of-center administration.  It would likely struggle to survive politically; Canadians would anticipate an election within 12-18 months – an expectation that would limit productive bilateral initiatives.  Rather than attempt to demonstrate that a Liberal government could work productively with Republicans, Liberals would more likely emphasize their differences with Washington, particularly on Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine, global warming, and the utility of “soft power.”  Tories in opposition would tell U.S. officials that Liberals are hopeless anti-Americans, and the United States should wait until the next election and expect a more congenial Conservative government would regain power.
  • Democrats and Conservatives Win:  Assuming a Tory majority, both Democrats and Tories will recognize the reality of a four-year cohabitation in North America and make the best of what is possible.  Democrats may be forced by their rhetoric and union leadership into a review of NAFTA; any such renegotiation will be stressful for bilateral relations.  Canadians are likely to examine U.S. foreign policy initiatives on a case-by-case basis, without axiomatic support – or opposition. A minority Conservative government, however, could tempt Democrats to meddle (albeit quietly) in Canadian domestic politics.  Liberals would lobby sympathetic congressional and executive branch Democrats, demonstrating their accepted and respectable nature to U.S. officials.  Democrats could defer bilateral agreements that would redound to Tory credit, anticipating quick collapse of a Tory government and its defeat by Liberals with a more vibrant leader (Dion will be quickly replaced if the Liberals lose).
  • Democrats and Liberals Win:  Initially, Canadians will be as “happy as God in France,” believing that the world is again in its proper orbit.  Democrats will not be equally exuberant, if only because they pay so little attention to Canada.  Canadians are likely to be quickly disabused, finding that U.S. policy toward Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, the UN, arms control, and global warming is only marginally different from the present regime rather than “Canadianesque” in its directions.  And Washington is likely to weigh the value of Canadian proposals depending on the assets they bring to the table.  In bilateral negotiations, Washington will drive tough bargains, knowing that the Liberals need “victories” for the next election which, for a Liberal minority government, likely would be an early event.

A Summing Up 
Our parallel elections offer a Comparative Government 101 tutorial on operational differences between two vibrant democracies.  We can appreciate that the strengths and weaknesses of each society are also reflected in the other and learn from comparing/contrasting solutions.  Our coincidences are greater than our differences.  Fortunately, our differences are of the “jaw-jaw” nature, but the elections are unlikely to resolve our extended period of gritted teeth.

David T. Jones
David T. Jones

David T. Jones, a retired senior Foreign Service Officer, served as minister-counselor for political affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa. He has written extensively on Canadian affairs for American Diplomacy and other publications in the United States and Canada. He is the co-author of Uneasy Neighbo(u)rs, a book about U.S.-Canada relations.


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