Canada in May 2011
by David T. Jones
A frequent contributor to this journal and an acknowledged expert on Canadian affairs provides us with a snapshot of the recent parliamentary elections in our northern neighbor—elections that no one wanted and which provided a surprising outcome. .–Ed.
On May 2, Canadians went to the polls. It was an election that nobody really seemed to desire.
And then it morphed into what a pollster labeled, “possibly the most bizarre, unstable, upside down election since Confederation.” It became an event that no one had predicted in the most wild dream/nightmare scenarios—one whose outcome was totally unpredictable until the voting.
And the outcome was historically definitive: a Tory majority after five years as a minority; the socialist New Democratic Party (NDP) tripling its seats to become the official opposition for the first time in history; the Liberals dropping to third place (also for the first time in history); and the Quebec separatist Bloc Quebecois (BQ) virtually annihilated, losing 90 percent of its seats. In the process both the Liberal and BQ leaders lost reelection bids (the BQ leader immediately resigned; the Liberal leader resigned the following day).
Ultimately, Canada enters an “anything can happen” zone. The country may be moving toward a two party, left/right system; the Liberals and NDP could merge; the generation long separatist movement in Quebec has endured a massive, perhaps definitive, defeat.
And it is good news for the United States. A close ally is assured of stable, majority government for four years; and Ottawa’s ability to cooperate with Washington without fearing a forced election by an opportunistic Opposition will enhance the relationship. On a day when the death of Osama bin Laden was announced, the election of a majority Canadian government is even better long-term news for Americans.
But First, Some Background
In mid-March, the Tory minority government was grinding along. It had just passed the five-year mark as the longest minority government (covering two separate elections) in Canadian history. The Opposition had become even more fractious than previously, and there was a sense of frustration among all parties. The government was frustrated as, without a majority, it was hobbled in passing major actions, e.g., a budget; law and order legislation; eliminating registration provisions for “long guns”; ending federal funding for political parties. To be sure, it was better to be the government than not—and they were able to accomplish some of their substantive political objectives. Conversely, the Opposition was frustrated because it was not the government.
Consequently, in continuing their complex minuet for governing, the Tories devised a federal budget that addressed (partially) some of the expressed concerns of Opposition parties. Simultaneously, they quietly appreciated that should the Opposition reject the budget as had been threatened, it would give them a platform for an election campaign. Nevertheless, the polls suggested that any election would result in approximately the same distribution of seats and votes represented in the current parliament. Although polls always vary, the Tories were approximately 38 percent; the Liberals 28 percent; NDP 16 percent; BQ (Quebec only) 8 percent), and Greens 10 percent. Hence, observers hypothesized that the Opposition would let the budget pass with suitable critical bombast, continue to hope that “something would turn up,” and/or perhaps even wait until the end of the theoretical mandate (October 2012) to have an election.
Nevertheless, the Opposition determined to defeat the government—but not on the budget. Instead, having been reading their parliamentary handbooks, they battened on an unprecedented device—censuring the government for contempt of Parliament, claiming the Tories had failed to provide them with documentation on the costs for purchasing F-35 jet fighters and constructing additional penitentiaries. Moreover, a cabinet member had butchered her explanation for the government decision to deny funding of a popular charitable NGO, leaving her with thoroughly shredded credibility regarding what she did/authorized/intended/etc. regarding the funding decision. This provided the Opposition with a further cudgel to contend the government was lying to Parliament.
So the government was defeated on a red herring issue since it had indeed provided documentation on costs for both jets and jails. To be sure, the documentation submitted was doubtless inadequate and likely wrong, but when has any significant military weapons system or government construction project been delivered on time and at cost? Prime Minister Harper rather blithely blew off the censure, regardless of its unprecedented nature, as the equivalent of insider baseball of no interest to the public.
The Opposition apparently thought otherwise and, apparently, had a more complicated scenario in mind for the election/post-election period. It was high risk, but potentially high gain. As their worst case, they believed, the government would win another minority; they couldn’t believe they could underperform the 2008 disaster when poor leadership and an unpopular issue (a complex tax-raising environment plan) prompted 800,000 Liberals to stay at home and drove Liberal numbers/vote percentage close to historic lows.
Consequently, if the best available private as well as public polling suggested that Harper/Tories would be limited to another minority government, the Opposition could put into effect what they had attempted in December 2008-January 2009: create a coalition to govern after the Tory minority government was quickly defeated following the election. The 2009 “coalition” effort failed when the Harper government obtained authority from the Governor General to suspend (prorogue) government over the Christmas holiday, thus avoiding a confidence vote. PM Harper then mounted a vigorous public relations campaign to denounce the “coalition” as a putative coup that would put the Liberal/NDP government hostage to the Bloc Quebecois (BQ) separatists for survival.
The result was an attack of cold feet by the Liberals/NDP (as well as a Tory commitment to withdraw the proposal to eliminate federal funding for the parties which was the proximate cause for defeating the government). A rather chastened Harper dodged the bullet, and continued to manage his minority government.
This time, however, the Opposition apparently believed the scenario would be different. They remained furiously frustrated that while attracting upwards of 60 percent of the electorate, they were unable to translate their combined strength into a political victory. They had two years to accustom the Canadian population to the concept of a coalition (and the current example of the British government helped as well). Various commentators noted that such a coalition would be a normal parliamentary mechanism (see Italian, Israeli, French Third Republic, etc. for contemporary and historical parallels). Polls suggested that Canadians remained unenthusiastic about a coalition government formed from “losers”—and the Tories campaigned on the need for a majority government to thwart such a construct.
In quick shorthand, appreciating that telling the players even with a scorecard can be difficult, the following are identifiers when the campaign started:
Tories, the government with 143 seats; led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper; a conservative (in Canadian terms) center right party. Harper, trained as an economist and running his fourth national campaign, is highly intelligent, professionally astute, respected but not loved. He has successfully battled to defuse charges that he is “scary” by revealing engaging personal facets of his life but remained plagued by charges he has a “hidden agenda” that will (if he gained a majority) transform Canada into a USA clone (presumed to be a fate worse than the average Canadian winter).
Liberals, principal opposition party with 77 seats; led by Michael Ignatieff in his first national campaign. Ignatieff lived the bulk of his adult life (34 years) outside Canada as a prominent international scholar, journalist, and commentator. Lured back to Canada six years ago with expectations of leading the “natural governing party” Liberals, he had failed to connect with average Canadians as the Tories effectively portrayed him as “just visiting” and claiming that “he didn’t come back for you.” Some Canadians even believed he was a U.S. citizen.
NDP, (Socialists) with 36 seats; led by “Smiling” Jack Layton in his fourth national campaign who had steadily improved the NDP vote/seat numbers. Personally the most popular national leader in the “one you would prefer to have a beer with” category, Layton started the campaign recovering from hip surgery and the after effects of cancer treatment.
Bloc Quebecois (BQ), a Quebec separatist party with 47 seats; led by Gilles Duceppe, the most experienced national leader, the BQ had held a mortal lock on the majority of Quebec’s 75 seats and its Francophone voters since 1993. Its dominance had been reinforced by Liberal financial scandals (Adscam) and Tory ham-fistedness in previous national elections. The BQ approach is to push constantly for more federal benefits for Quebec while helping its provincial analogue, the Parti Quebecois, develop policy that would lead to independence.
The Green Party, no seats; led by Elizabeth May in her third national election. Focused on “green,” primarily environmental issues, the Greens were running a candidate in every riding. Their popular support has proved to be a continent wide but not deep enough to elect anyone/anywhere.
The Coalition and the Campaign
Canadian elections are carefully scripted: essentially they run five weeks (this time it was 37 days) with a pair of debates (one in English; one in French) in mid campaign. Advertising is limited during the campaign by federal financing but not before it begins—a loophole that permitted the Tories, who are much more efficient fundraisers, to pound the Liberals and define Ignatieff invidiously for the two and a half years prior to the official campaign.
The first two weeks of the campaign were essentially (Canadian) dull. Ignatieff out-performed very low expectations; he also benefitted from friendly media and Tory efforts to get past charges of fiscal malfeasance, particularly associated with $1 billion price tag for hosting the G-8/G-20 summits. Layton was regarded as struggling with his health problems. Duceppe was dominating Quebec. May was incensed over being excluded from the national debates by the public broadcaster syndicate as not meeting the basic criteria of having parliamentary representation.
Harper conducted the standard front-runner campaign—and the media hated it. He restricted media traveling with his campaign to five questions per day (two in French; one for a local journalist). The approach was designed to eliminate unforced errors; while Harper is remarkably disciplined, casual, unscripted comments on his part have damaged previous campaigns. This approach largely eliminated “gotcha” questions. Additionally, his advance team vigorously screened attendees at his campaign events, which were by invitation (only loyal Tories need apply), ejecting those identified as supporting other parties—a tactic that eliminated heckler disruptions. Consequently, Harper was sneeringly referred to as “bubble boy” and characterized as being afraid of the Canadian people. To be sure, but he made no verbal gaffes either.
Ever since the Nixon-Kennedy 1960 debates, such confrontations have become a staple of western world political campaigns. Usually, they are uneventful, featuring briefed-to-the-eyeballs candidates responding to predictable questions with focus-group-tested responses. The 2011 Canadian debate choreography of mixing/matching four candidates over two hours left little for free form reaction. Timing normally schedules a day between the first (English) and the second (French) debate; however, as the original date for the French debate conflicted with the opening Stanley Cup hockey match playoff featuring the Montreal Canadiens, the politicians realized what was really important, responded appropriately—and moved up the French debate.
Regardless of the ostensible format, the strategy was obvious: hammer Harper. So Harper was belabored with an alleged expensive predilection for “jets and jails” and giving tax breaks to the wealthy (as well as being undemocratic, censored for the first time in parliamentary history.) No fool he, Harper maintained a preternatural (some described it as robotic) calm, answering charges, batting off (or ignoring) accusations and staying “on message”—repeating the mantra that the Tories had effectively managed the still fragile economic recovery; the opposition would raise taxes and could not be trusted for their desire to create an un-Canadian coalition of losers with consequent political instability.
The only solid shot of the debates came in the English language exchange when Layton caught out Ignatieff by noting that he had the worst attendance record in Parliament, missing 70 percent of votes, and suggested that any employee who wanted a promotion needed to show up on the job. Ignatieff was nonplused, had no effective response, and even two days later had not produced a convincing explanation for his absenteeism.
Phase II of the Campaign
And then everything changed.
Although Layton was recognized as the English language debate “winner” and a strong second to Duceppe in the French language debate, initial post-debate polling indicated a standard positive “blip” for Layton but no special reaction. However, during the week following the debate, Layton’s personal popularity (and that of the NDP) began to rise in Quebec—normally a desert for the NDP (which usually polled in single digits and had only one NDP MP). Nevertheless, the numbers didn’t just “blip” but surged and continued into the final week of the campaign, propelling the NDP into first place in Quebec and second place across Canada; one poll, regarded as an aberration, even suggested the NDP could win 100 seats. Although polls continued to put the Tories in first place albeit with a diminishing lead, the Liberals appeared to be in free fall, behind the NDP in third place.
An anthill reacting to an infusion of boiling water could not have demonstrated more frenzy:
• Those who had not read the NDP 26-page, 200 plus promises party platform (i.e., everyone who was not an NDP activist, read it; most denounced its tax increases (including immediately obtaining $3.6 billion from a still-to-be-invented “cap and trade” energy program) and spending projections designed to provide two chickens in every pot;
• The BQ in a fit of desperation to solidify their separatist base called out 80-year-old former provincial Premier Jacques Parizeau. Duceppe denounced Layton as no friend of Quebec, having opposed inter alia fundamental Quebec objectives, such as retaining the national “long gun” registry and supporting loan guarantees for a massive hydro project in Newfoundland;
• The Liberals called upon former Prime Ministers Jean Chretien (77-years old) and Paul Martin (72) to rally their base (the popularity of these ancients was as questionable as Parizeau’s);
• Liberal TV ads first attacked Harper and Layton as two sides of the same coin (probably a surprise to both of them) then focused on attacking Layton/NDP as inexperienced amateurs. The Tories continued to denounce both Liberals and NDP as seeking a coalition that would destabilize economically and demoralize politically;
And coincidentally political scientists had the happy opportunity to hypothesize on a variety of outcomes:
A Tory Majority, resulting from Tory strength throughout Western Canada, Ontario, and Atlantic Provinces, combined with “hold your own” in Quebec. The size of the majority was contingent on how much of the Liberal and BQ lunches the NDP could consume by May 2;
A Tory Minority, assuming that the always-fragile projection of a Tory majority collapsed, the Tories would be left with a circumstance that more-or-less resembled what they held at the start of the campaign. What then? And here the creativity began:
Tories temporize. Regardless of their commitment to present the same budget that the Opposition promised to defeat, Harper could adjust his budget to appeal to demands of various Opposition parties. Theoretically, he could back-pedal sufficiently that rejecting his budget and defeating the government could be politically dangerous (and perhaps even prompt the Governor General to call for another election). Harper would be dining on crow sandwiches, but it might taste better than the ashes of Opposition. One might say, “The worst day in government is better than the best day in Opposition.”
Liberals finish second. Liberal leader Ignatieff had dropped heavy hints that the Opposition would defeat the Tories, perhaps on a budget that Harper had pledged would be identical to his un-voted-upon budget in March (which the Opposition had also committed to reject). With such a defeat on a confidence measure, the government would fall and the Liberals would ask the Governor General for the opportunity to form a government. This government (not a “coalition” but something comparable—an alliance/arrangement/AA-style support group) would gather the backing of the NDP and the BQ (on an issue-by-issue basis) and leave the Tories with their politically useless plurality to fulminate in the cold.
NPD finishes second. Same scenario as a Liberal second place finish only with the prospect of “Prime Minister Jack Layton”—enough of a nightmare to cause apoplexy in much of Canada west of Ontario.
Bloc Quebecois eviscerated—or at least decimated, at “decimated” the BQ would have “saved the furniture” partly because the NDP surge was not translated into seats (or came at the expense of Anglophone Liberals). Duceppe could be criticized as having been off his game in the campaign and suitably chastened in comparison with his confidence at the campaign’s outset. The question would arise, however, whether the BQ had lost the support of “soft nationalists” who no longer believe in Quebec sovereignty and are willing to try a sympathetic federalist party (NDP) for prospectively greater leverage in Ottawa.
“Eviscerated”—let us say reduced to 25 seats or lower—would leave the BQ/Duceppe with serious questions. Without seriously looking at its “best before” date, the BQ would be regarded as having past its popular utility as a vehicle for Quebec aspirations. All types of questions on if/when/wither would arise regarding the Quebec sovereignty movement, particularly if a Bloc collapse also coincided with a Tory majority.
As detailed below in “winners and losers,” this was an election over which the ultimate graduate student will “dissertate” for decades (after the instant analysts are finished). Essentially, the Tories earned a majority; Harper’s constant theme that only a majority would secure continued Canadian prosperity and political stability and his solid professional performance as Prime Minister got him past his errors in governance and the visceral distrust of many voters. Having “kicked the tires” on the Tory machine for five years, they have trusted him with the keys.
The NDP excelled beyond its wildest dreams. They may, however, encounter the proverbial hazard of “be careful of what you ask for as you may get it.” Many of their unprecedented, 102 MP caucus, are totally unknown—even to NDP leader Layton—and unfamiliar with anything associated with responsible opposition, e.g., four students from McGill University were elected. The 58 MPs from Quebec include many elected with former/borrowed BQ votes—and hence in thrall to “sovereignist” expectations to produce “booty” for Quebec (or be defeated in the next election).
The Liberal decision to pull the plug on the Tory minority government and force an election proved catastrophic. They are now plunged into totally unknown political terrain: third party status with a defeated “leader,” who immediately resigned, and forced to confront the existential issue as to the future of what was once the “natural governing party.”
More than eviscerated, the BQ has been annihilated, reduced to four seats (and thus no longer an official party in Parliament). After almost 20 years, positioned as the “outpost” for Quebec sovereignty in Ottawa, pressing for benefits and accumulating grievances that would stoke separatist fires, they are now gone. The BQ defeat leaves Quebec politics, provincial as well as federal, in turmoil.
The Greens have finally (third time, lucky) elected their leader to Parliament. She doubtless will get disproportionate media attention—and have a seat at the next election debate.
Winners and Losers
The Tories, Prime Minister Harper finally has his elusive majority. At 167 seats (155 provide a majority), it appears prospectively four-years stable. Virtually all incumbents running were reelected; newbies, almost all defeating Liberals in Ontario/Toronto, appear politically experienced and unlikely to be embarrassments. A carefully devised campaign, designed to maximize Tory votes in specific ridings combined with rigorously controlled media/public access to Harper, provided the small uptick in vote percentage that pushed the Tories into a majority. They were able to deflect a largely hostile national media.
Harper clearly has chafed over his inability in minority to implement specific programs. As noted above, the party is committed to eliminating the federal subsidy for political parties, implementing a package of “law and order” revisions, and canceling registration requirements for “long guns” (rifles and shotguns). He will be operating in a polarized Parliament against a leftist NDP Official Opposition and a Liberal party about to depart on a long march in search of its soul, from which it may never return. Moreover, he has virtually no Quebec connectivity in his caucus—five of his 11 incumbents (including the Foreign Minister) were defeated. Reaching out to Quebec has proved futile, and he has proved that getting a majority without Quebec support is politically possible. Efforts to mollify Quebec demands will be minimalistic.
The NDP, Jack Layton waited 20 years to become an overnight sensation. And it still remains unclear what drove his thunderstorm of popularity; analysts are still viewing the resulting wreckage with mixed awe and amazement. And, in a high wind, even turkeys fly as some of his victorious MPs demonstrate.
There was nothing new in the 2011 NPD platform (it remained a tax and spend promissory note to the electorate) nor did he have compelling candidates (many of his Quebec candidates were “warm bodies” assembled to fill slots; students who did it for a hoot and to add a line to their resumes and other individuals known mainly to their families. One even may have been a construct that was never located during the course of the campaign, and another took a prescheduled vacation in Las Vegas.) But it didn’t matter; Canadians were either fed up with same old/same old traditional candidates or, in Quebec, hoped that a federalist party expressing sympathy for Quebec interests could get them better results than the long incumbency of the Bloc. So, just as they swept out Liberals in 1984 and installed Tories—and then swept out Tories in 1993 and installed the BQ, they have now given another federalist party (the only federalist alternative with a socialist program akin to Quebec preferences) an opportunity to disappoint them.
Layton has a personal victory in Quebec; regarded as “un bon Jack” (a good guy), his massive Quebec victory reflects “Jackomania” more than commitment to or even knowledge of NDP objectives. He gets four years to prove himself to this fickle electorate.
The Greens, on her third try, Elizabeth May, the Green leader, was elected in a BC riding, defeating a Tory minister in the process. No other Greens were elected, but May will get extensive media attention (she is not spotlight adverse) in Ottawa and, in the next election debate format, has earned a place on the rostrum. On the other hand, Green vote declined from 6.8 percent to 3.9 percent during an election in which Green issues (many also embraced by the NDP) might have seemed popular—but weren’t.
The Liberals, Whatever the internal logic that compelled Ignatieff/Liberals to force an election, it proved to catastrophic. There are those now mulling over the “Death of Liberal (Party) Canada” (dredging up analogies with the demise of British Liberals after World War I). They find roots of the disaster lying in past Liberal policies toward Quebec and reliance on old verities (the ethnic vote) that had slipped away over the years.
Liberal leader Ignatieff flubbed his one chance to connect with Canadians. It was not that he did anything egregiously wrong; indeed, he was judged to have run a solid, largely error-free campaign. But he never was able to refute the impression that he was “just visiting”—a man, who for all his talents, had questionable Canadian roots (and was a bit “snooty” as well). Moreover, while his French was technically excellent, it was the French that a diplomat would learn, lacking the common tone. In contrast, Layton (born in Montreal) spoke a “used car salesman” colloquial/ungrammatical French and Harper a painfully-ground-into-him standard Canadian French, careful, accurate, but measured.
The result has been an expectation that the Liberals must re-invent themselves. Every prescription is touted from combining with the NDP to make a party of the “left” to compete with the Tories party of the “right” to maintaining the current approach only doing it better with regard to fund raising, local organization, candidate selection, etc. But presumably without Ignatieff, who lost his own seat and resigned as party leader; the Liberals will probably prefer new blood to get them out of the wilderness rather than the old blood that got them into the wilderness. As for Ignatieff, perhaps a visiting lectureship at the University of Toronto while writing his “tell all” account of Canadian politics may be his future.
And, in some respects, the Liberals have been here before. The 1984 election was a disaster; the Liberals lost the government (and 107 seats) falling to 40 MPs. Prophets of doom proclaimed, but the Liberals (even retaining their 1984 leader) recovered substantially in 1988 and returned to power in 1993. And they may draw further comfort from the Tory rebirth; virtually annihilated in the 1993 election, falling to two seats from a majority government, they regained power in 2006, and now own a majority.
The Bloc Quebecois, the BQ didn’t even “save the furniture” collapsing to four seats, losing “official party” status in Parliament, and suffering Duceppe’s defeat (and immediate resignation). The stunning results have driven serious questions about BQ’s future as an irrelevancy in Ottawa. Previously, the Bloc had argued that its presence in Ottawa forced attention to Quebec issues, and they had a series of successes, e.g., even during the campaign the Tories promised to refund previous expenditures for harmonizing the provincial and federal sales tax—one of the BQ initially dismissed demands. But suddenly the NDP’s professions of sympathy for Quebec nationalist objectives caught “soft nationalists” interest, apparently prompting conclusions that a national federalist party such as the NDP might be a more effective foil to expand Quebec’s autonomy. That the NDP had been all over the map on Quebec issues (as pointed out by Duceppe in desperate rejoinders to the rising NDP polls) had no immediate effect on Quebeckers.
Duceppe has appeared shell-shocked during the final campaigning; the sea change reported in the polls appeared literally unbelievable. Some have argued that Duceppe’s speech at the PQ leadership review convention that suggested, “all things are possible” with a PQ victory raised the specter of another referendum, which horrified the soft nationalists and drove them to the NDP, and subsequently the NDP took 44 seats from the Bloc.
Concurrently, another “loser” from the election is Quebec sovereignty. The raison d’etre of the provincial Parti Quebecois is preparing for Quebec sovereignty; they currently stand high in the polls against the provincial Liberals and can be regarded as the government in waiting. However, the smashing rebuke delivered to the federal sovereignist party doubtless will prompt the PQ to downplay even further their commitment to Quebec sovereignty; it would appear suicidal to do otherwise.
What Does this Mean for the United States?
The short answer is that a majority for the Tories is good news for the United States. For obvious reasons, we said nothing regarding our political preferences during the campaign. However, a friendly country on our border has enhanced its politico-social stability. In contrast, for the past five years, the country was on tenterhooks poised for the next election at any moment. Now, Canadians will not go to the polls for another four years. This permits the Tories to act on controversial policies such as “perimeter security” for North America and to reduce hostile speculations on costs for military upgrades such as the F-35. With all of the foreign affairs crises plaguing the USG, we can be grateful for one clear positive development.
David T. Jones, a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer, served as Minister-Counselor for Political Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa. He is frequent contributor to American Diplomacy and other publications as well as the co-author of Uneasy Neighbo (u) rs, a book about U.S.-Canada relations.