Canada’s Conservative Prime Minister Stephan Harper has won another minority government in Tuesday’s Federal Election.
Harper’s Conservatives increased their number of seats in Parliament by 18 to 145, however they failed to achieve the hoped for majority. This puts the Conservatives more or less right back where they were before the election began; at the mercy of the opposition parties teaming up to block, delay or defeat various legislation or budgetary items.
The bottom line: Canadians could be back at the polls yet again within the next few years.
October 14, 2008, marks an event many Americans may be unaware of taking place north of the 49th parallel: Canada’s 2008 federal election.
It might be easy to dismiss the election as having no bearing on the United States. But, in fact, the various contenders for control of Canada’s parliament have very different stances on two issues that directly affect the United States and should interest Americans: energy and the war in Afghanistan.
In order to understand Canadian politics, Americans must understand the fundamental differences between the two countries regarding both the system of government and where the political battle lines are drawn. Although Canadian politics can be divided between the left and right, like in the U.S., Canada’s history over the last fifty years makes the divide more about West versus East — or more directly, English versus French. While the U.S. celebrates kicking the British out of their country, most of Western Canada, especially the oil-rich Albertans, would celebrate if the British had kicked the French out of Quebec. Western Canadians have long resented the uneven distribution of parliamentary seats and Quebec’s special status within Canada. To the West, Quebec seems like the spoiled child among the provinces who always gets her way at the expense of the other siblings. Much of Quebec’s special status has been given under the pretense of placating its separatist leanings. However many Canadians now feel the separatism threat is only to get more from the federal coffers. Only in recent years has the West been able to exercise much of a voice in Canada’s parliament. It was largely that voice that put the current Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper in power.
The Liberals who ruled Canada almost continuously since the 1960s aren’t really that far to the left of the Conservatives politically. The key difference between them is that the power which once lay in Quebec now lies with the Atlantic Provinces and Ontario. Confused yet? Wait, there’s more. Quebec’s voice in Canada’s capital is currently the Bloc Québécois, a separatist party who would like more than anything to take the francophone province out of the confederation.
Only in Canada would a party dedicated to breaking up the country actually be considered a “national” party.
The favorite contender for various union bodies, socialists, and alternative lifestyle types in Canada’s English-speaking urban enclaves is the New Democratic Party or N.D.P. Their current leader, Jack Layton, has gained the nick name “Taliban Jack” among Canada’s soldiers for suggesting that negotiations with extremists in Afghanistan is a better idea than actually defeating them.
No Canadian election is complete without a joke party of some type, a tradition going back to the Rhinoceros Party of the 1970s. Back then, the system made it impossible to elect anyone without winning in Quebec, and so many Westerners began voting “Rhino” as their votes didn’t matter anyway. My favorite joke party was the 1992 election’s Nation Law Party, led by illusionist Doug Henning. Their party platform was based around Transcendental Meditation and their political pamphlets featured diagrams of how levitating meditators would affect world events. This year’s joke party would have to be the Green Party led by overly kindly natured Elizabeth May. The Green Party, of course, is all about stopping global warming. Although never officially stated, their platform seems to be living in thatched roof cottages and eating twigs to placate Mother Gaia. The Green Party has picked up on another sore point with Canadian voters outside Quebec: election reform.
Canada has a parliamentary system based on the English system. Areas are divided into “ridings,” which elect seats in parliament. Unfortunately those ridings are not demographically even. Quebec is guaranteed 75 seats by the Canadian Constitution no matter what — even if everyone left, only 100 people remained in the province, and Alberta and British Columbia grew to 20 million people. This system has caused a great deal of agitation in Western Canada. There have been some attempts to rectify this unfair arrangement, but it may be some time before Canadians truly have a fair system.
In the meantime, this hodgepodge of parties and divisions on geographic lines has resulted in Conservative wins, but not Conservative majority governments. That has allowed the opposition parties to band together in various configurations to stonewall or block legislation and made it nearly impossible for the Conservatives to govern. In this election, they hope to finally win a majority.
How does this affect the United States?
Canada, of course, possesses massive natural resources, and the majority of its oil and gas exports go south to the United States. Unhampered by the rules preventing exploration in the U.S., the Conservatives are looking to expand those exports and continue to develop new reserves like the Alberta Tar Sands project. In a bid to gain some headway in the polls, the Liberals have jumped on the green bandwagon, so they, along with the N.D.P. and the Green Party, could subject those efforts to all manner of regulatory restrictions. If Harper fails to win a majority, then the Conservatives will continue to have to press with the weakness of a minority government.
The other issue in Canadian politics has been the war in Afghanistan. Canada, unlike many other NATO countries, committed combat troops to the effort in Afghanistan and has been willing to send personnel into harm’s way. Though the 98 Canadians killed may seem insignificant compared to U.S. casualties in Iraq, the number represents a tenth of all coalition deaths in Afghanistan. With each death, the opposition parties have attacked the Conservatives for continuing the mission and the media have latched onto and exploited any fallen soldier’s family who harbor anti-war sentiments.
It was the Liberals who were in power in 2002 when Canada honored its NATO commitment by sending troops to Afghanistan, and it was apparent very quickly that decades of underfunding of the military by Liberal governments was costing lives. Vehicles better suited to parking enforcement were no match for the Taliban’s roadside bombs, and the state of much of the equipment at the onset of the mission would best be described as substandard. The Liberals suddenly had no choice but to increase the Canadian Armed Forces budget and purchase more suitable equipment. Between the last Liberal budget in 2005 and the first Conservative budget in 2006, spending increased by 30%. However, Canada still ranks 16th amongst NATO nations for military funding. Despite their low level of spending, the Canadians fighting alongside the U.S. and British forces while better-funded NATO countries keep their troops in “safer” roles, or in the less troublesome North, is a sticking point amongst Canadians that the opposition parties have attempted to play upon.
Canada’s efforts in the war on terror would also continue to be hampered by a Conservative loss. The media and the left within Canada continue to dismiss the threat of Islamic terrorism, despite the arrest of a group of young extremists who had hoped to carry out London style bombings on the Toronto subway system, along with a more outlandish plan to storm Canada’s parliament buildings in Ottawa and behead Stephan Harper.
In 2007, the Liberal Party, Bloc Québécois, and N.D.P., joined together to vote down the Conservative attempt to restore Supreme Court of Canada-approved measures in the Anti-Terrorism Act, such as preemptive arrest warrants for those attempting to buy large quantities of explosives, or jail time for witnesses who refuse to provide information on pending plots.
Despite the fact that the measures were introduced by the Liberals, Liberal leader Stephan Dion led the vote against extending them on the grounds that they’d never been used.
The Canadian mainstream media can at times lean far more aggressively left than its American counterparts, especially the publicly-funded Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Although polls at the beginning of the election gave the Conservatives the advantage and suggested a majority government was within its grasp, it is now difficult to truly gauge how the endless headlines and opinion pieces attacking Stephan Harper and his government will sway the outcome on October 14.
With Canada and the U.S. sharing interests such as energy, trade, the war on terror, as well the world’s longest undefended border, Americans should pay close attention to what happens up north this autumn.
The irony? If Stephen Harper finally does get his long sought-after majority and the Democrats prevail in November, Canada may be the only country in North America with a Conservative government.