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Canadian Parliamentary Election: Know Your ABCs – Anyone but Conservatives

Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada, at 2010 G8 Summit and Toronto G20 Summit. (Photo: Remy Steinegger / World Economic Forum)

To a majority of Americans, there are certain topics that are unlikely to ever be perceived as conducive to excitement: organic chemistry, maritime regulations, C-SPAN, the Dewey Decimal System and, of course, Canada.

O, Canada. Unlike poutine, your national dish, you are unlikely to cause any heart attacks anytime soon.

For some Canadians, this distinction is a mark of pride, a testament to the country's supposed commitment to responsible governance and a tribute to a level-headed temperament (minus hockey fights and Don Cherry) that prevails from Halifax to Victoria. After all, it is difficult to deny that Glenn Beck and his legion of rabid red, white and blueshirts aren't boring. Many progressive Americans, therefore, tend to think of Canada as what the US would be if people bothered reading.

However, that stereotype of Canada as a boring and well-managed country – a sort of Narnia of North America – is somewhat disingenuous. It's unsurprising that many Yanks cling to such a lazy generalization; we hail from a country that has a self-centered worldview and a sufficiently skewed vision of what's boring that many amongst us not only consider baseball exciting, but call its national championship the “World Series” (oh hush, Blue Jays fans).

While there's a grain of truth to the vision of Canada as a mundane paragon of democracy, it is nonetheless an oversimplification that should be quashed, particularly in the runup to Canada's May 2, 2011, election in which Prime Minister Stephen Harper – an imperious Conservative who has presided over a minority government for the past five years – is within arm's reach of a majority.

Canadian politics are therefore neither boring nor squeaky clean. The upcoming election should get the blood flowing, and Americans that actually have blood flowing through their veins should want Harper to lose. If he does win a majority, where will we sensible Americans seek asylum when the inevitable Tea Party coup takes place?

Maple-Syrup-Charged Politics

Never mind the fact that one shouldn't have to be goaded into taking interest in the politics of a neighboring country with which we share a 5,525-mile border; there are a multitude of reasons why the upcoming Canadian elections should register on the radar of any self-respecting American.

For one, Canada is America's largest trading partner. Not China, Japan or Germany. Good ol' Maple Syrupy Canada. On those pecuniary grounds alone, Americans should be glued to come May 2.

Secondly, separatism makes goings-on in Ottawa far from dull. The issue has flared up from time to time and has been a major factor in Canadian politics since the country politely requested independence from Britain. And it isn't just the Quebecois who have angled to break free, either; there have been separatist movements out west, where cocky cowboys tend to think that they would be better off without Ottawa – that is, until the oil runs out. How could the politics of oil and separatism not attract the attention of Americans, particularly those looking for the next place to “liberate”?

Thirdly, Canadian party politics are rather thrilling and relatively competitive because of their parliamentary system. Not only do their campaign finance laws create a system in which parties don't have to kiss up to corporate donors for the bulk of their funding – a framework that results in significant political diversity within the halls of power – but, as per the Westminster tradition, the prime minister and his cabinet are held accountable in a daily question time, during which heckling is not only allowed, but tacitly encouraged – a release valve for dissent that makes for gripping television. Moreover, if the prime minister loses a vote of no confidence, which can be and is called regularly, the country goes to the polls. So, not only is legislative procedure more exciting to watch, it is regularly far more meaningful than the dross we get on C-SPAN.

And it is this about Canada's political system – the constant accountability and competitive politics – which perhaps makes it seem like a promised land for lefty Americans. The difference between the United States' and Canada's political systems becomes particularly stark and consequential when one considers the relative strength of the Canadian economy in a time of planetary recession. Canada did not participate in the housing frenzy, thanks to responsible regulations that govern the Canadian financial system, and consistently had federal budget surpluses in the latter part of the nineties and throughout most of the aughts. Moreover, higher wages in Canada coupled with public health care mean that the financial system is not burdened by people taking out loans they'll never be able to repay just to settle medical bills or other regular expenses.

Yet, this does not mean that there are no problems on the expansive snowbound Canadian political landscape. Harper, despite the fact that he merely presides over a minority government, has shown streaks of authoritarianism. And, while some in his party have shown an eagerness to scrap policies that have helped earn Canada its relatively smooth sail through choppy economic seas and a reputation for being a bastion of good governance, Harper remains within an arm's length of the majority he so desperately seeks. Granted, he may not invade a country on false pretenses or go to war without parliamentary approval if he does obtain a majority, but that doesn't mean that a vast number of Canadians won't suffer if he is given a mandate to pass legislation without constant approval from the opposition.

Harper Squares Up to Parliament and Drops the Gloves

Before explaining Harper's dictatorial predilections, however, it is necessary to set the scene for those ignorant of Canadian politics with a quick summary of the last decade or so:

Just after the turn of the century, the Liberal Party (known collectively as “the Grits” in Canadian political slang) got itself mired in a corruption controversy known simply as “the sponsorship scandal.” Since that bit of political scumbaggery, it has never really recovered. The Liberal Party used to be considered the natural governing party of the country, and nowhere was this more true than Quebec, home province of prime ministers Trudeau and Chretien. In the wake of the scandal, however, the Grits lost most of their seats in the province to a separatist/nationalist/left-of-center party known as the Bloc Quebecois, and, nationally, it has lost ground to the Conservatives and to the New Democratic Party (NDP), the latter being a social democratic party (the party of Tommy Douglas, the architect of Canada's single-payer health care system). Thus, the center-left/left has been somewhat split in Canada ever since Liberal Party brass were caught with their hand in the cookie jar, and some on that party's right wing have defected to the Conservatives (also known as The Tories). Thus, Harper defeated Chretien's successor, Paul Martin, in an election in 2006.

But because Harper's rise was more the result of disarray on the left and disgust with nefarious politicians in the Liberal party, circumstances up until now have only allowed him a minority government. He has the most seats and, therefore, ruled as prime minister in an all-Tory cabinet, but because he was outnumbered by parties adversarial to his own, the sort of legislation he has been able to pass has been limited. Still, he has proven to be a shrewd and somewhat ruthless politician, and has led the longest minority government in the history of Canada.

In 2008, after Harper was re-elected again with only a plurality, things started to sour. Shortly after the election, opposition parties agreed to work together and planned on asking Governor General (GG) Michaelle Jean to form a coalition government in light of Harper's attempts to gut Canada's political finance regulations, as well as his lack of a stimulus package in response to the burst of the global bubble. Harper turned increasingly authoritarian and chauvinistic in a bid to cling to power and tried to paint the opposition parties – who represented a clear majority of the country – as some sort of subversive alien force. (Even though it is well within legal convention to form a coalition government, they are rare in Canada.)

Following a legal but unusual procedure, Harper himself asked the GG to prorogue (suspend) Parliament, which she did as per constitutional convention. When Parliament reconvened six weeks later, Harper proposed a stimulus and withdrew his proposal to change campaign finance laws. Thus, the government regained Parliament's confidence, albeit begrudgingly.

Then, in 2010, Harper asked Jean to prorogue Parliament again. This time the proroguing session was longer, occurred as the whole world was watching – during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics – and concerned a cover-up of the active involvement of Canadian forces in detainee abuse in the war in Afghanistan. While some have argued that proroguing is a legitimate means of pausing a dysfunctional Parliament so that members of Parliament (MPs) can go back to their constituencies, get a better feel for what their constituents want and subsequently return to Ottawa with new ideas, it is almost impossible to argue that this most recent bout of parliamentary suspension wasn't inspired by Harper's cynical desire to avoid rigorous scrutiny. In suspending Parliament, Harper ensured that the work done in parliamentary committees was all scrapped. Moreover, during the 2010 prorogation, Harper packed the unelected Senate with Conservatives, which acted as a de facto buffer between himself and accountability.

The Prime Minister has bristled at the prospect of being held to account ever since. A few weeks ago, when opposition parliamentarians decided that they had lost confidence in Harper, his government was adjudged to have been in contempt of Parliament for not disclosing either the full estimated cost of its anticrime legislation or the cost of a fleet of F-35 fighter jets it wants to buy from the US. It was the first time in history that a government in the British Commonwealth had ever been found in contempt of Parliament. Thus, the stage was set for an election, which has forced Canadians to take a good, long look at their prime minister and decide for themselves just how despotic he has been and whether or not they care.

Pseudo-Despotism Canada Style: From Eh to Zed

In addition to his love of esoteric parliamentary procedures, a number of scandals that have peppered Harper's reign call into question his commitment to democratic principles.

One of the more high-profile cases of Harperian authoritarianism occurred at the G20 summit in Toronto. Police from all over Canada kept a tight lid on protestors, and Torontonians who even wanted to pass through areas near the heavy police presence were subjected to questioning and intimidation. Those who actually did want to demonstrate against the summit were arrested indiscriminately. In one particularly powerful scene captured on video, the police attacked a group of peaceful demonstrators right after they had finished a rousing rendition of “O, Canada.” And, while the summit was tainted by violence, questions remain as to whether the disturbances were caused by agents provocateurs in the employ of the police.

It could be claimed that even if the G20 was marred by government violence, it was all planned at the local and provincial level, and Harper's government had nothing to do with it. But this is something that Canadians have yet to ascertain, as Harper's government has thus far blocked an inquiry.

“Our organization has pushed for a joint federal-provincial public inquiry to ask some questions,” said Cara Zwibel, a representative of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. “We really don't know whether the decision to arrest 1,100 people came from the chief of Toronto Police, the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police], or whether there were political actors involved. Now that the damage has been done, we need to figure out why and make sure that it never happens again.”

Harper's attempts to control information don't end there, either.

“He's managed to alienate the media quite deliberately, but then again, he's never had very positive relations with the press, except for some conservative newspapers and one explicitly conservative television network,” said Jeffrey Dvorkin, a former managing editor of CBC Radio News (and the first ombudsman for National Public Radio).

And Harper has used the government to try and manipulate social media, too. The Conservative Party, it was found, has paid public relations firms to post comments sympathetic to the government on various news web sites and articles that it deems “misinformation.” The president of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, Richard Rosenburg, even went so far as to denounce the initiative as a case of the government infringing on free speech and privacy rights, and claimed that it is the first time a Canadian government has spied on its citizens without a warrant. (An article critical of Harper that I once published in a quiet corner of the Internet elicited what struck me as a peculiarly longwinded response from someone defending the Conservative Party.)

Even in this election campaign, Harper has made no attempt to hide his antagonistic attitude towards democratic media principles. He has allowed members of the press only five questions per day at campaign stops, and the RCMP has prevented from attending his campaign rallies people who have revealed their sympathies towards Liberals and New Democrats on Facebook. So, not only are Mounties receiving orders from above to peruse the Facebook profiles of Canadians (“RCMP, Stephen Harper and 1 other person like this”), they are using the information on them to weed out voting citizens from attending Conservative rallies.

Republican in a Toque?

For his prickly attitude toward openness and the media, Harper has earned himself a number of comparisons to his imperial conservative counterparts in the United States, a serious charge in a country that prides itself on the fact that it isn't the United States.

And it is more than just his disdain for transparency and accountability that has led people to grumble about his GOP-like tendencies (although he is left of Obama in many respects). For one, he has attempted to consolidate power, which Canadian prime ministers, outside of wartime and national emergencies, have not been known to do.

“There are certain things that the Conservative Party has done that have changed politics,” Antonia Maioni, a political scientist at McGill University pointed out. “The shutting down of key programs that people felt were important, the way in which power has become concentrated in the office of the prime minister. The governing of Canada has become subject to the kind of things we saw in the House of Commons,” she said, in reference to the contempt of parliament issue. “This is new, and for observers of Canadians politics, it's obviously troubling.”

And although, south of the border, it's not exclusively the Republican Party that has attempted to consolidate power in the executive branch, they certainly lead the charge. More in line with the Republican mantra, however, is how Harper has reveled in the politics of identity.

“We're starting to see the beginnings of the US-style cultural war here in Canada,” Dvorkin said. “Harper is very much a suburbanite, and very much making an appeal to rural people. He's trying to distance himself from the city dwellers.” Other conservative politicians have caught this fever, such as newly elected Toronto mayor Rob Ford – himself a beneficiary of a schism in the left in Toronto politics – so it appears to be working to some degree.

“Harper has a strategic way of trying to divide and conquer,” said Maioni, adding that the Conservative party, “is playing regions off one another.”

An example of this is the way that Harper tried to drum up fear over the proposed anti-Conservative coalition that included the separatist Bloc Quebecois. Harper himself proposed a coalition with the Bloc in 2004.

For example, in the debate over the long-gun registry – a hot topic in Canadian politics – Harper's government misled the public in its bid to do away with the registry. “The government suppressed critical evidence on the program, its efficiency, and its costs,” Wendy Cukier, president of the Coalition for Gun Control said in an email. “In November 2009, it did not release a report on the program until after the critical second reading vote on their bill to scrap the gun registry, even though they were obliged by law to release it in October.” And, tying the culture war into their disinformation campaign, Harper's government also, “held expensive marketing campaigns that misinformed the public, and included divisive claims about 'urban elites' 'criminalizing rural Canadians.'”

For a government that bills itself as tough on crime (the Tories have proposed “mandatory prison sentences” and prison-industrial-complex-style super-prisons, yet have defunded more rehabilitation-centric programs), such maneuverings tend to incite skepticism. Cukier said that police consult the long-gun registry 14,000 times a day; that long guns are used in a significant amount of crimes and suicides in Canada (such as the Mayerthorpe incident, in which a cannabis farmer killed four Mounties); and that the cost of maintaining the registry pales in significance to the billions that gun-related death and injury cost Canadians on a yearly basis.

“The 2006 Small Arms Survey estimated the decrease in gun injuries and deaths since 1995 equals savings up to $1.4 billion annually,” Cukier said. But the Conservatives have steamed ahead in their attempts to scrap the registry and have tried to ruin anyone they can who stands up to their hypocritical agenda. The Tories, for example, “removed the RCMP officer responsible for the gun registry from his function after he defended it,” Cukier commented.

More Like Americans Than They'd Care to Admit?

Given Harper's record, one would think that Canadians – with their supposed desire to differentiate themselves from Americans – would abandon Harper in droves. But that has not been the case, and a majority is within his grasp.

The latest Nanos research poll has Harper in the lead with 36 percent of the vote, but with NDP leader Jack Layton trailing him by only 6 percent, it is not inconceivable that right-leaning Liberals, whatever is left of them, may throw their weight behind the Tory leader.

What is helping the Conservatives fight this culture war with some success is Canada's first-past-the-post system. Canadian Tories have been calculating in a way that should get Karl Rove to take notice. Maioni described the Tory political machine as conducting “surgical strikes like the Republican Party.”

“He is going for things that play well in certain places. In so doing, the party is trying to be strategic in the kind of seats they can try to win and amassing a message that will allow them to win those ridings.”

Liberal MP Bob Rae seemed to agree with that narrative of Harper showing little concern for either winning a true majority or building a consensus, despite his years of walking the tightrope as an effective prime minister presiding over a minority government.

“Harper's leadership numbers remain polarizing, with strong support and strong detractors,” Rae said in an email sent on April 25, 2011. “In a first-past-the-post system with a divided opposition, this can produce a result that seems more 'majoritarian' than it really is.”

Still, that he could win a majority means that either he must be doing something right, or that Canadian voters must be doing something wrong. In the wake of George W. Bush's re-election (courtesy of “faulty” electronic voting machines in Ohio, according to some), a firebrand (now former) Liberal MP by the name of Carolyn Parrish said that Americans suffered, “extreme psychological damage” in the wake of 9/11 and that, “America is completely out of touch with the rest of the free world” for re-electing Bush. Do Canadians also suffer from a fragile collective psyche in tough global economic times such as these?

“It is not unusual for tough economic times to produce conservative/right-wing movements,” Rae wrote in an effort to explain why Canadians seem to be willing to adopt a more American-style, Harperian approach to political economy in spite of the widening economic divide the United States has seen in the past decade. “Social and economic resentment and insecurity can often prompt an urge in important parts of the population for a more conservative, rather than a progressive response,” said Rae, who many are tipping to succeed Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff in the likely event that he fails to lead the Liberals to glory.

Indeed, parallels can be drawn between Harper's popularity and the rise of the Tea Party movement. But some credit Harper as a somewhat responsible manager.

“On the surface of it, Canada has come out quite well,” Maioni said. “Some of this is due to the different economic system we have – the banking system and the regulatory system – but you could argue that it's the way the Conservatives have guided us. We have a capable and competent finance minister in Jim Flaherty,” she said.

And the voters have taken notice.

“Canadians see [Harper] as being very competent, having a steady hand on the rudder and not being the prime minister that the opposition parties a few elections ago tried to paint him as,” said Bernie Morton, the Canadian associate editor of Campaigns and Elections.

“With Canada being the last country into the recession and the first country out of the recession, the opposition didn't want to have to fight an election based on the budget and the economy,” Morton said, arguing that the contempt of Parliament issue was a politically motivated effort by the opposition to force an election now – the most opportune time for them to do so before the next regularly scheduled election in 2012.

A Time to Give a Puck About Canada

Any claims, however, that Harper has been good for Canada must be weighed against the fact that he has been at the mercy of Parliament. In late 2008, his stimulus package and withdrawal of campaign finance deregulation, for example, only came after opposition parties threatened to form a coalition against him.

The main impact that he has made, then, it could be argued, has been to cut a divisive figure who has attempted to exert influence without a mandate. The way he has packed the unelected Senate with party loyalists to influence legislation, for example, has certainly been a bone of contention; especially when he made Senate reform a campaign issue in 2006.

The thought of what he might do if given a majority, therefore, sends shivers down the spines of many non-Tories. What sacred cows would he touch? The Canada Health Act? The Canada Elections Act? Would he sign Canada up for America's next imperial jaunt? Would he further sully Canada's troubled environmental record (something that is a source of great shame to a great number of Canadians)? Would he continue to spend Canada's budget surplus on tax cuts for corporations and the richest, while increasing the burden on Canada's middle and lower classes? Would Harper try to pander to the anti-abortion/anti-gay-rights wing of the party? The policies Harper would implement with a majority, however, may never become an issue as the Conservatives tout their economic credentials.

“We haven't seen the ethics question and the governance question take hold as an issue,” Maioni said. “Not just yet.”

Moreover, the political scientist said the she is not sure just what Harper would do if given a majority.

“There are many people who think that we ain't seen nothin' yet,” she said, “and it's hard to look inside the minds of Conservatives. But, first of all, the Conservative Party has its own wing of more progressive conservatives. Also, there's a fine line between what you can do to further your agenda and what you can do to maintain power. If they pillage and burn for five years, they probably won't survive.” Maioni added that, while there are a handful of Tories who find the single-payer system questionable, “they are a minority in Canada.”

On the other hand, Rae, representative of Toronto Centre, fears what a Tory majority could mean.

“I do think a Harper majority could well lead to reactionary legislation, on crime, on deregulation, on the economy, as well as some tough cutbacks,” he said.

The problem for “ABCs” – anyone but Conservatives – becomes how to exploit Harper's weaknesses. The split between the NDP and Liberals gives Harper the chance to at least walk away with a minority once more. NDP leader Layton has proved himself to be quite the capable politician – filling a void left by the Liberal Party in the wake of the sponsorship scandal, and, some might argue, that party's inching toward the right. Ignatieff, on the other hand, lacks the charisma needed to lead a successful election campaign, many claim.

“Ignatieff has a stiffness to him,” Dvorkin said. “You can see him tutoring a discussion of political philosophy, but he doesn't have the charm needed to work the campaign trail.” Dvorkin added that he thought Ignatieff would do well as prime minister. The problem for him is actually getting there.

That Ignatieff may have not been so concerned about the election itself exemplifies what many regard as the unelectable arrogance of the Liberal Party brass. As Morton pointed out, within the Liberal Party itself, there was resentment over the way that Ignatieff left his job at Harvard to get into Canadian politics under the assumption that he would eventually follow in the footsteps of Martin.

“The Liberal brand that used to be strong is rapidly eroding,” Morton said, adding that the party is “being squeezed on the right by Harper and on the left by the NDP.”

“There may be a narrative playing out here,” he said. “The Liberal Party has traditionally, very seamlessly, in a chameleon-like fashion, shifted from left to right in the context of the center without much fallout, but the center is increasingly shrinking and there's less ground for Liberals to try to move around to pick up support. The left is occupied by NDP; the right is occupied by Harper,” he said.

If the Tories end up with a plurality, however, it may not matter that Ignatieff has been underwhelming. The NDP and the Liberal Party, at this point, are likely to work together in some sort of minority government – the NDP may even win more seats than the Liberals, which means that Jack Layton has an outside shot at becoming prime minister. Harper himself has even said that he will resign if he doesn't get the majority he seeks. But although the NDP and Liberals have said that they are open to parliamentary cooperation, both are loathe to use the term “coalition,” which has become something of a swear word in Canadian politics.

“Mr. Ignatieff has ruled out a coalition in the event there's a minority parliament,” Rae said in response to a question about working with New Democrats. “What other forms of cooperation are possible is something we'll know more about after May 2.”

But should Harper lose, no Canadian concerned about rising authoritarianism will have the right to stop paying attention. Take Ignatieff, for example: some of the claims that he has made while still an academic don't endear him to those disturbed by the Afghan detainee scandal. He defended some of the defining policies of the Bush administration – preemptive war and torture – at Harvard. Just as Americans thought that anyone would be better than Bush, only to have Obama support the bailouts, let Wall Street write financial reform, extend the Bush tax cuts and sell out health care reform before the debate even started, Canadians shouldn't expect “Anyone But Harper” – Layton included – to be sterling.

“No matter who gets elected – minority or majority – we'll be watching to try and ensure greater openness and pushing the government to try and engage in initiatives to make government more transparent,” said Zwibel. She said that a recent controversy surrounding the mandate of caretaker governments that rule after a dissolution of Parliament demonstrates that government transparency and authoritarianism represent a problem that eclipses Harper.

“I think Canadians need to be vigilant and jealously guard those rights to participate,” she added. “And participate by doing more than casting a ballot. They need to be attending a rally, going out on the streets and asking candidates hard questions that they might not want to answer.”

What questions those are and to whom they must be posed remains unclear. Even after the election, Canadians may still have to wait days for the dust to settle before they know who their leaders will be. Indeed, the possibility of Ignatieff shocking Canada by agreeing to form a coalition with Tories remains. But regardless of the outcome, Canadians will know who to draft angry letters to shortly after May 2.

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