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The 2011 Canadian Election: I don’t even know

April 30, 2011

Last year I was much better at blogging about the UK General Election. I thought it was going to be incredibly boring, but then there was the rise of a third party in an unexpected way which changed the balance of power.

This year with Canada’s turn to re-stack the deck, I thought the election was going to be incredibly boring, but then there was the rise of a third party in an unexpected way which very well may change the balance of power.

It’s always a bit hard for me to gage the interest/reaction of Duck readers about the election. Apparently about 4.6% of the hits to the Duck are from Canada. So I don’t know if people know or care. Even the venerable Dan Drezner managed to tweet out “FT headline “Crowds Cheer Royal Newlyweds” rivals “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative” in its sheer banality” to which all I can say is, take off, eh?!

Over three posts I am going to reflect on the Canadian election: 1) the set up 2) what we have learned 3) the result (after the result on 2 May). Let the mindless speculation begin!

If you are familiar with Canadian politics, please skip the next two paragraphs.

The ground rules are this: Canada has a parliamentary system like that of the UK. We have a number of different political parties (also like the UK). The major parties are: the Conservative Party (the right-ish party) who has most recently formed minority governments for five years; the Liberal Party (the centrist party) who had governed the country 13 years before that but has sputtered under a series of leaders since 2005; the New Democratic Party (the left party – we’re talking VERY PALE PINK compared to Europe) who has never been in power; the Bloc Quebecois (the Quebec Separtist party) that has dominated Quebec-national politics since the 1990s. There is also a Green Party (environmentalists, more left-ish) which does not currently hold any seats.

Results of 2008 Election.
We be divided, yo.

Increasingly, Canadians have voted regionally. Major urban cities (Vancouver, Toronto) vote Liberal, the country and Alberta tend to vote conservative (our ‘Red States’) and Quebecers tend to vote for the Bloc (not necessarily because they are separatist, but because they believe that a party that is dedicated to Quebec interests will do the best job of representing them.) The end result is that since 2006 we have had a series of minority governments.

You can read now Canada-philes.

So what have we learned from this election?

Well, it’s all gone a wee bit crazy. Actually, a lot crazy. I leave the country and look what happens?! Black is white. Day is night. People are putting motor oil on their pancakes and then using maple syrup to lubricate their engines. People are contemplating electing a third party (which has not really ever gone beyond 15-20% in national popularity) to the Official Opposition, if not government. For the first time ever, the lefti-ish NDP looks like it will play a major role in government.

This rise has come at the expense of the Liberals – who have not been able to find their voice now for nearly a decade. I admit that I had hopes for Michael Ignatieff – but Canadians (like my parents, for example) never took to him; they don’t know who he is and never bothered to get to know him. The Liberals were simply unable to introduce him and unsuccessful in countering the pretty nasty paintbrush the Conservatives painted him with. (“He didn’t come back for you!!!) As such the Liberals are preparing for their worst showing in Canadian history (since 1867 as were sorting this ‘responsible government’ thing out.)

But if this has come at the expense of the Liberals, it has also come at the surprise of the Conservatives – if not also their expense. This was supposed to be the election where Stephen Harper got his majority and you can understand why he felt this way.

  1. The vote on the centre-left is split in such a way that has allowed the Conservatives to dominate the political scene. (It was quite the opposite in the 1990s when two centre-right parties split the right vote between them, allowing the Liberals to govern. This eventually allowed for a ‘unite the right’ movement which brought us the current Conservative Party.)
  2. Canadians are apathetic. Harper quite literally shut down the government when he didn’t like what was going on. He shut down a democracy because he thought he was going to lose power not once – but twice. And Canadians simply didn’t care. His government has shut down watchdogs, silenced critics (internal and external). I could give you a list of scandals but it would take up a LOT of room. But Canadians, really, really, really don’t care. Why? Things are kinda good. Our economy is relatively okay and Harper has yet to really go for the social issues that would really anger a lot of people. (Abortion – apparently off the table, gay marriage, etc.) So why should Canadian’s care if Harper ‘prorogues’ parliament – when they probably don’t even know what that means. The bills are paid, their gay son will have a fabulous wedding and there’s an all night marathon of 87 Kids and Counting on TLC.
  3. Harper has managed to successfully convince Canadians that a coalition of parties forming the government is an undemocratic and bad thing. This is a horrible indictment of the knowledge of Canadians about their own system of government – but it’s something that the Conservatives have taken advantage of. He has painted such a move (perfectly legitimate in a parliamentary democracy as we see in Europe) as reckless and dangerous. As such, every campaign speech has not been about what the Conservatives are going to do, but rather about STOPPING THE COALITION – which so far doesn’t actually exist.

So, painting himself as the safe and stable choice – “CHAOS IS LAPPING AT OUR SHORES”. (LAPPING!) Harper was in a reasonable position to believe that a majority government was in his grasp. When his government fell at the end of March (we do that – governments can be voted down in the House of Commons if they don’t have support, but elections must be held every 5 years at a minimum) I’m sure he wasn’t feeling so bad. His party was doing well in the polls and his party’s main rivals, the Liberals, were weak. The stage was set for the Conservatives to make a large break-through in traditional Liberal strongholds (Toronto, but especially its surrounding suburbs). As such, Conservative fire was aimed squarely at the Liberals.

May be it was too effective?

Don’t trash the ‘stache?

Sure, Canadians have been dumping the Ignatieff Liberals, but so far it seems they have turned not to Harper, but to Jack Layton – the very likeable and moustachioed leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP) – which has SURGED in the polls. This leads me to believe that Canada is the only country in the world where someone with a moustache can be elected as a viable candidate. (Pre-1920s American leaders do not count.)

The polls (as of 29 April) have Layton’s party somewhere between 33-36% compared to Harper’s 35-38%. And the strange thing is that this ‘surge’ has come from Quebec of all places – as apparently they are sick of the other three parties which have dominated their province for decades and they are looking for something new. There has been some controversy over the way Jack Layton has courted the vote there (it gets way too complicated to explain at the end of an already long blog post – read this if you care) but regardless of strategy, the NDP have become the new alternative to the Tories. And apparently the Liberals and Bloc.

This is what I think Michael Ignatieff is
probably feeling like right now.

The Conservatives, for their part, have struggled to turn the ship around and aim fire at Layton. We started to see that this week with talk about how NDP carbon policies would increase gas prices by 10 cents per litre (Although gas prices have pretty much doubled already under Harper?) And now the scummiest story of the election. But it’s late in the day – many Canadians have changed their minds and with only two days left to campaign, Canada could be in for a real electoral shake up. If it pans out the way ThreeHundredAndEight (don’t laugh Nate Silver) says it will, Harper will not get his majority government, the NDP will form the official opposition and the Liberals are going to be very sad pandas indeed.

I honestly can’t wait to see what happens. Has Canada found its white moustachioed Obama? Apparently, “We Can Do This”.

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Stephanie Carvin is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. Her research interests are in the area of international law, security, terrorism and technology. Currently, she is teaching in the areas of critical infrastructure protection, technology and warfare and foreign policy.

Stephanie holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and published her thesis as Prisoners of America’s Wars: From the Early Republic to Guantanamo (Columbia/Hurst, 2010). Her most recent book is Science, Law, Liberalism and the American Way of Warfare: The Quest for Humanity in Conflict” (Cambridge, 2015) co-authored with Michael J. Williams. In 2009 Carvin was a Visiting Scholar at George Washington University Law School and worked as a consultant to the US Department of Defense Law of War Working Group. From 2012-2015, she was an analyst with the Government of Canada focusing on national security issues.
Stacie Goddard