A retired Foreign Service Officer and author of a recent book on the United States and Canada (see our review at: http://www.unc.edu/depts/diplomat/item/ 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.
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
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
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
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
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:
A Summing Up