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The Alternative North America Goes to the Polls

by David. T. Jones

Our Canada expert and frequent contributor David Jones follows up his forecast analysis of the Canadian election ( depts/ diplomat/item/ 2008/0709/comm/ jones_elections.html) with this thorough exposition of its results and implications for U.S.-Canada relations. – Ed.


In case you hadn’t noticed, the election is over.  To be sure, not the U.S. national federal election that the world has been watching to the extent that it is virtually a global election.

But on Tuesday, October 14, the Canadian electorate returned its incumbent Tory (conservative) government with an enhanced, albeit still minority, mandate.  The outcome, of course, is of great significance to Canadians, but will not be irrelevant to Americans as there are potential scenarios that can be played against possible outcomes in the U.S. presidential election.

The final confirmed figures boost the Tories to 143 (up from 127) of a 308 seat Parliament; increase the socialist NDP to 37 (from 30); nudge the separatist Bloc Quebecois to 49 (from 48); retain two independents – and drop the Liberals to 77 (from 95).  While the Tory results were a “kissing your sister” victory, the Liberal defeat marks their lowest seat total since 1984 and their lowest share of the popular vote in history – 26.24 percent – amidst the lowest percentage of registered voters participating (59.1 percent) ever.  It left the Liberal party leader trying to fend off a group of contenders eager to rip out the plug of his life support system – and then he tore it out himself.

Canada’s election as representing an “alternative North America” deserves U.S. attention – its election issues (the economy, energy, environment, health care, national security) were either ours already or will be in the future.  Additionally, it was fascinating to observe an election in quick-step; one that was called, campaigned, and concluded within 37 days – hardly a “lap” in our national marathon.

Of course it wasn’t quite that simple.  The Canadian government had been operating as a minority since its election in January 2006.  In this instance, the 34-month Canadian minority federal government set a record for longevity.  That was not necessarily a good thing since most observers anticipated an election within 12-18 months, the norm for such governments.  In that initial period, the Conservative government passed most of its 2006 campaign platform and spent much of the past year in highly contentious parliamentary hissy fits during which “your mother wears combat boots” was countered by “at least I know who my father is” type exchanges.

Thus Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper sought approval from the Governor General (a technical but necessary legal requirement) to call an election, arguing that Parliament had become dysfunctional.  That was an argument both true and untrue; the Opposition correctly responded that the Parliament was “functioning” although clearly past its “best before” date, with the Opposition doing little other than seeking devices to embarrass the government.  What was true is that Harper believed he could win an election – and the Opposition feared that he was correct.  An early election avoided the lunch bucket issues associated with an anticipated (and now all but certain) economic decline in 2009 as well as a possible “bounce” for the Canadian left that some analysts anticipated would come with a Democratic victory in the United States.

Best of Times for Conservatives
Canada’s electorate stands at least two steps to the left of the U.S. electorate; thus in any election, political conservatives must fight uphill.  There is no equivalent in Canada of a U.S. “right wing conservative” outside of facilities restraining aberrant behavior; and Tories in major urban areas (Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver) are politicians that barely mention their labels.  Consequently, when approximately two thirds of the Canadian electorate normally supports parties to the left of the Tory/conservatives, it takes a masterly Tory campaign combined with auspicious economic/social circumstances to win.  Essentially, the Tories must unite their base and pull approximately 5 percent of the rest of the electorate – while hoping that the multiple parties to their left (Liberals, New Democrats [socialists], Greens, and the Quebec sovereignist Bloc Quebecois) remain disunited, run vigorous campaigns against each other to split the left, and allow Tory victories with pluralities.)

And in October 2008, circumstances were about as good for the Tories as they were going to be.  Canada’s economy is very sound with no sub-prime crisis or bank failures; its GDP continues to grow; its exports/trade balance continues to rise; and the federal and provincial budgets are either balanced or running surpluses.  Although oil prices declined from $140/barrel to closer to $85/barrel by mid-October, the prospects for open-ended energy export wealth remains – Canada is now the largest source of energy for the United States.  Inflation and unemployment (almost at an historic low) remain modest; the Canadian dollar was roughly at parity with the U.S. dollar at the beginning of the campaign, after surging as high as $1.10 earlier in 2008.

Additionally, Tory fundraising had mastered the small donor network that now characterizes Canadian politics.  As a poisoned chalice for his successors, former PM Chretien eliminated donations by corporations and unions and put strict limits on personal donations; this law severely handicaps contemporary Liberals.  While there are legal limits on spending during the official campaign, the Tories used bulging bank accounts for heavy advertising and extensive polling/organization prior to the official campaign.

Moreover, for the first time in a generation, Quebec sovereignty, in the form of a pending referendum or clearly rising sovereignty sentiment, was not a proximate federal election issue.  Harper had adroitly combined political and economic bribes to defang much of the Bloc Quebecois bite.  He argued that BQ tactics had lost relevancy and Quebeckers could fare better inside a Tory tent than continuing a long march into the wilderness.  With the Liberals still hobbled by Quebec memories of the “Adscam” bribery and malfeasance scandal that enmeshed senior Liberals, Harper anticipated further gains in Quebec as the building block for a majority government.

Finally, Harper benefited from the weakness of his opposition.  Liberal leader Stephane Dion had been inept since winning the leadership in December 2006; he has the strengths and weaknesses of the university professor he was prior to entering politics.  He is doubtlessly intelligent, thoughtful, and decent; however, his rhetoric is often opaque
(in French as well as in English) and he lacks personal charisma.  The result was reflected in pre-election polls wherein he ranked far beneath Harper and New Democrat socialist leader Jack Layton in “best leader” rankings.

But Hardly a “Gimme” Campaign
Given the foregoing, the Tories might have appeared to be a mortal lock – but they were far from such.  Although they clearly hoped for (and privately anticipated) a majority victory, they vigorously denied prospects for a majority.  Instead, they predicted no more than an enhanced minority government.  This reticence was partly attributable to polling volatility; but partly because the electorate remained skittish that a Tory majority would unleash a “hidden agenda” with social conservative tenets drawn from “red neck” catechisms and/or align Canada with U.S. “cowboy” foreign policy.

Moreover, while Stephane Dion appeared feckless, Stephen Harper remained unlovable.  He had exorcised earlier media depictions that he is “scary” – a slightly plump, hockey dad occasionally photographed in a barbeque apron or a fuzzy sweater is hard to cast as Dracula.  But for some, he still has “assassin’s eyes” and definitely doesn’t project “warm and cuddly” in public political exchanges.  Thus the media has parlayed his strict caucus discipline and personal mastery of multiple complex files into the prime minister being a “control freak” – and a mean one to boot.  His personal contempt for the parliamentary-associated media – and their reciprocal loathing – is a serious factor in how the Tory “message” is delivered and perceived by the public.

Additionally, the Canadian military commitment in Afghanistan is highly unpopular with perhaps 60 percent of the electorate opposed to it; casualties steadily rise, and the Taliban announced its intent to target Canadian troops.  When the campaign began, 97 Canadians had died since 2001 – a societally trivial number; but Canada lacks the 9/11, al-Qaeda-in-Afghanistan terrorist training camps impetus that impels U.S. commitment.  Essentially, when you don’t believe in the threat, Afghanistan is a far away place not worth a single additional life or another dollar.

Consequently, although there was a jointly agreed Liberal-Conservative commitment to withdraw Canadian forces by 2011, Harper early in the campaign reinforced his commitment to conclude Canadian military action by end 2011.  Through good luck, good training, or unannounced avoidance of vigorous action around Kandahar, Canadian Forces avoided any further deaths and thus the magic number of 100 fatalities didn’t occur during the campaign.

The Liberals
The Liberals earned their sobriquet as Canada’s “natural governing party” throughout most of the twentieth century and until 2006 through effective organization, strong leadership, and attractive policies emphasizing social welfare at home and
(for the past generation) “peacekeeping” and soft power in foreign affairs.  Entering this campaign, they were still rebuilding and attempting to overcome the policy exhaustion of 13 years in power ending with the Adscam bribery corruption trashing their “brand.”

Moreover, they saddled themselves with a “Green Shift” environment and tax policy that was off-putting in its complexity and inexplicable in bumper sticker/30-second sound bites.  Announced in June and “sold” to the electorate throughout the summer, it combines a wide array of taxes on carbon energy with proposed individual and corporate tax reductions purportedly making the proposal revenue neutral.  The objective ostensibly is to make Canada more “green” through such a “shift” in energy usage.  Denounced by the Tories even before Dion proposed it as a “tax on everything” Green Shaft, it was a hard sell to an electorate skeptical of any new taxes and jaundiced by political promises.  “Tax me, I’m Canadian” acquiescence is no longer a safe bet.

During the campaign, the Liberals flailed.  They steadily reduced Dion’s prominence, attempting to surround him with a “team” of more dynamic party members (including those who had lost the party leadership race); they looked more like Caesar’s Ides of March colleagues than a band of brothers.  Likewise, they de-emphasized the Green Shift but, until the global fiscal crisis, often appeared without a clue.

The economic crisis, however, offered the opportunity to throw vast economic proposals reflecting half-vast thinking into the campaign.  In response to Harper’s “steady as you go” affirmation of existing policy, the Liberals and others denounced it as “do nothing.”  In short, “If you can keep your head while all about your others are losing theirs – clearly you don’t understand the situation!”  And with their long stewardship history of responsible fiscal policy, the Liberals were able to make a case that the Tories were practicing “laisse faire/I don’t care” economics.

Socialists and Greens
Both parties fought throughout the campaign for votes from the Liberals – and from each other.  The NDP/socialists, led by Jack Layton, appeared stuck in the polls and open to erosion from the left by the Green party under Elizabeth May.  Layton, however, believed that the New Democrats could displace the Liberals as the primary opposition party and campaigned (with more than a touch of hubris) to be prime minister.  Layton’s energized-bunny campaign approach contrasted sufficiently with Liberal leader Dion to cost the Liberals seats and give the NDP its best electoral showing in 20 years.

The Greens, with no elected Members of Parliament, polled about 10 percent of the electorate at campaign inception; but these were widely distributed across the country without the pockets of concentrated support that translates into parliamentary seats.  Meantime, May, who remained a gadfly rather than a serious candidate, undertook a Quixotic election campaign against the incumbent Defense Minister in a constituency held by him and his family for over 30 years – an effort approximately equivalent to attempting to defeat a Kennedy family member in Massachusetts.  As a consequence, May spent a good deal of the campaign outside her chosen riding working for Green candidates across the country – to no avail as the Greens elected nobody with 6 percent of the vote.

Quebec Separatists
Led by Gilles Duceppe, the Bloc Quebecois is well organized, disciplined, and funded; Duceppe was in his fifth federal election campaign as leader.  In the national debates (held back to back, separately in English and French, on October 1-2), he arguably won the French language debate and performed well in English.  He emphasized the BQ’s continued relevancy as a party devoted solely to Quebec’s interests in Ottawa.  He contended that if the Tories supported Quebec interests during their mandate, it was because the Bloc effectively pressured them to do so.

At the end of the 2006 election campaign, one journalist entitled an account of the successful Tory effort (10 seats) in Quebec as French Kiss.  However, during the course of the campaign, the Tories undid two and a half years of assiduous effort to consummate this relationship with Quebec voters and boost them to 30 or more seats.  Tactics that played effectively in English speaking Canada (a slight reduction of funding for artistic projects and proposed authority to punish teenage murderers harshly) prompted a comprehensive backlash by the electorate.  All artistic funding is viewed as explicit defense of Quebec nationalism, and Quebeckers flatly reject harsh criminal punishment – especially for youth crime.  Given these opportunities, Duceppe excoriated PM Harper and reversed an early Tory polling surge; Duceppe effectively prevented a Tory majority government.

Foreign Affairs
Although Canadians normally pay as much attention to foreign affairs (“all politics are local”) as do Americans, the normal underlying tone of anti-Americanism in Canada became strident throughout the election.  While partly a political tactic, one must accept it as a given – reflected by upwards of two-thirds of the Canadian electorate.  All four opposition parties campaigned against a “Harper-Bush” government.  There was not a single positive reference to any U.S. policy, action, or attitude.  Nor did the Tories defend any U.S. position; their riposte was essentially, “We are not the United States and I am not George Bush” when attacked on economic, environmental, social, or military policy.  The profoundly unpopular elements of U.S. policy and leadership didn’t necessarily cost the Tories votes, but certainly condition Canadian attitudes toward the United States.

Some Possible Outcomes for Canada and North America
An incumbent running on the equivalent of “peace, prosperity, and progress” normally has an advantage; thus, “advantage Tories” prevailed.  “It was Harper’s to lose” –and anti-Tory commentators insist that his failure to secure a majority government was a de facto defeat.  Such a problematic judgment is unwarranted.  The socio-political realities of Canada make a Conservative majority government exceptionally difficult to orchestrate and minority governments (this is the third consecutive minority) may be the new Canadian political reality.  That said, 143 seats (a majority would be 155) gives Harper considerable maneuvering room for normal domestic policies; all three opposition parties must combine to defeat the government–and none are interested in another election, having had three in four years.

On the other hand, the Liberals certainly lost the election.  The Liberal slide, if not catastrophic, is disheartening.  They lost seats in virtually every section in the country and are being politically and philosophically challenged by both the NDP and Greens.  Stephane Dion elected to walk the plank before being defenestrated; pledging to resign when a new leader is selected – probably at an official leadership review conference in April-May 2009.  There are a number of dynamic alternatives – both the losers in the 2006 leadership campaign and a variety of fresher faces; they will be trying to get the Titanic off of the iceberg.  There are organizational and financial costs for such a review, which will also make it difficult to challenge the Tories in Parliament in the near/medium term.

More generally there is not likely to be dramatic change in our bilateral relationship.  We may be “uneasy neighbor(u)rs” but we are “best friends, like it or not” – despite being in the “not” portion of that cycle for much of the last eight years.

Nevertheless, one political truism is essentially accurate: On bilateral issues Canadian Conservatives work most effectively with Republicans and Liberals work best with Democrats.  The current Harper-Bush relationship has been arms-distance at Harper’s behest; Bush was as toxic in Toronto as he is in New York City.  Consequently, Washington has kept a low profile in its relations with Ottawa – and particularly so during the campaign.  Still, the relationship is probably as good as it can be so far as current U.S. interests are concerned.  The gratuitous manure throwing and ad hominem attacks that characterized the Liberal governments under former Prime Ministers Chretien and Martin have ended.  We have improved border security, worked through “soft wood lumber” disagreement, avoided NAFTA-clashes while continuing Security and Prosperity Partnership talks, and operated together, albeit quietly, on the ground in Afghanistan.

Regardless of who wins the U.S. election, baseline U.S. government positions will not shift dramatically.  Policies regarding Iraq (draw down); Afghanistan (build up); and Iran (more diplomacy) will not differ regardless of the victor.  Nor are we likely to embrace the Kyoto Treaty, accept Canadian sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, endorse the International Criminal Court, or approve the Antipersonnel Landmine Treaty (the latter three topics being Canadian shibboleths).  There will be rhetorical emphasis on “change,” but perhaps the reality will be “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”

Thus two alternative realities emerge now that the air has cleared in the North:

Conservatives and Republicans.  A relationship between Prime Minister Harper and “President McCain” could be even more productive.  The detested Bush would be gone and with it the proximate rationale for recent reflexive Canadian anti-Americanism.  On the Canadian side, one could foresee “a page is turned” initial popular response – leaving open whether they like the text on the turned page any better than the old.  National border security and defense cooperation issues might be addressed with more pragmatism and less ideology.  There would be no concern over McCain revisiting NAFTA – he has repeatedly endorsed free trade.  One could posit closer U.S. support for Canadian forces in Afghanistan and the Canadian commitment to conclude military action by end 2011 is effectively three years in the future.

Conservatives and Democrats.  The political relationship, at least initially, would be wary.  Canadians will have new power relationships to manage – and may need a new ambassador to do so.  With Democrats controlling the Washington executive branch and Congress, there will be a transition period that could extend as long as a year (if history bears out) until all key personnel including a new U.S. ambassador to Ottawa are in place.  (A McCain presidency would also have transition delays; however, it would be more of a friendly takeover than a hostile one.)

The Conservative minority poses questions for “President Obama.”  Aside from the probability of an early official visit to Ottawa, Obama must calculate the utility of a close relationship with a minority Tory government.  Consequently, the relationship will be ad hoc, issue by issue, with the appreciation that a minority, even a strong minority, government could fall at any moment – and the Tories are not the politicians of choice for Democrats.  In any event, another election may well occur within two years – when the Liberals get their act together.  Since the Liberals remain the Official Opposition, there will be greater “unofficial” contact between Liberals and the U.S. government on all levels.  The new Liberal leader will want to visit Washington and seek implicit U.S. government/Democrat support for efforts to defeat the Harper Tories and force a new election that would install a Liberal government.  Such tactics would parallel the approach taken by the Liberals in 1992-93 when waiting for their opportunity to oust the Tory/Mulroney government.

An Obama presidency, although he has backed away from committing to a NAFTA review, ultimately may engage in such.  But nobody comes out of re-examining a major treaty happy.   And a mechanism such as the Republican-instituted Security and Prosperity Partnership probably will not survive the “not invented here” reaction in Washington – and will surely require a new name at a minimum.

The Canadian election has more than a “Comparative Politics 101” interest for the United States.  We are not looking into a mirror when we glance north.End.


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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