Canada's Groundhog Election

Stephen Harper remains Canada's PM after an election in which barely half the electorate bothered to vote. What the country needs is the jolt of proportional representation

Canada has just blown $300m on its third election in five years, only to reproduce the status quo. They have groundhogs here, and electorally-speaking, Tuesday was their day. That an election was even called was to satisfy a surly Prime Minister failing to get his way with his minority government, who tossed the toys out of the parliamentary cot only for voters to hand him another minority government. If ever there was a country crying out for proportional representation rather than its immovable first-past-the-post, it is Canada, or as they say here, Canada eh?

This election was overshadowed by ‘that election’ south of the border for a number of reasons, not the least the economic turmoil, and therein lies a message for western democracies who may be following Canada to the ballot box. Canada’s financial infrastructure seems to be holding a little more firmly than that of many other nations, although the Toronto Stock Exchange has been in free-fall some days, bouncing around a lot on others, and the Canadian dollar has slipped from parity with the U.S. only three weeks ago to trading about 86c. However the housing market has not slumped–yet. And the banking system shows no need of any bail outs–yet. In short, the careful, if not boring, stewardship is paying its own dividends.

That said, like New Zealand’s next Prime Minister, Canada’s Stephen Harper is going to find himself in very tough times trying to implement the myriad of election campaign promises he was making right up to polling day. Hmm... this is the guy who recently dispensed the rather dubious investment advice that it was a good time to invest in the market, what with the numbers down as far as they were and all that!

Harper has promised not to run a deficit, but the reality check may be fast approaching with the sobering numbers on the books sure to put promises on the back burner. It is an unenviable position in which to be because the electorate is so used to being wined and dined in the election courtship. Teasing in such situations is never attractive; making downright false promises even less so. In that respect Harper is a step ahead of Helen Clark, because he’s gone to the polls before the economy turns even nastier and his promises may have been somewhat plausible. The results says that was as good as it got. The shockingly low turnout–59% of voters–said even more.    

Harper, like Clark, was been subjected to the big election make-over. It is a softening ritual all tough politicians seem to have to be put through, despite voters often wanting a bit of the Maggie Thatcher when times are as tough as these. But Maggie, bless her handbag, was the real deal. She was not the product of political groomers and advisers. As Clark is lambasted for the airbrushed images, Harper was ridiculed for being taken out of his business suit and stuffed into a nice, homely, woolly sweater for family-type discussions. Strategists said 'out with the board table and in with the kitchen table', but it wasn’t real, and so ultimately it didn’t work.

Sure, Harper was returned as leader of the largest party–and he even collected eight more seats for his Conservative Party from this unnecessary election. Remember, the last one was as recent as 2006, and in between Harper himself had passed legislation to set the election date every four years. He broke that promise and called an early election due to frustration at not being able to get everything he wanted through the minority government. He hit the trail vowing to earn a majority in the house, and the political carte blanche that goes with such a mandate under this electoral system.

The campaign was five excruciatingly boring weeks, broken only by the Conservative's efforts to sling mud at an inept Opposition Leader, Stéphane Dion.  The big campaign event was a fight over whether the Green Party Leader, Elizabeth May, would be allowed to be part of a televised leaders’ debate given her party didn’t actually have a seat in Parliament (save an MP who recently crossed the floor to join her–and on Tuesday lost). 

Canada’s system is also complicated by the Bloc Quebecois, headed by Gilles Duceppe, and which runs only in the province of Quebec, but holds now 49 seats in the Federal Parliament. Quebec is a happy hunting ground for political parties during the election campaign, but in the end it stays true to the Bloc, giving it a majority in the last six elections straight.

But I digress… Harper did not achieve his majority, so he now goes back to Parliament in Ottawa to face the same mish-mash of parties in opposition, and technically the same difficulty in getting his own legislative way.

He has not learnt to share. He gives no indication that he understands he is the Prime Minister only because he heads the largest of four parties, none of which Canadians trust to rule outright. On past performance Canadians have no reason to believe that another election is not right around the corner if Harper is blocked in his upcoming programme–which includes drastic cuts to the arts and sentencing offenders as young as 14 years to adult jails. These two examples are widely credited with his trouncing throughout Quebec province and in all Canada’s large cities–Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver and Montreal.

The trouble for this country is the main Opposition, the Liberal Party, is in complete disarray. Losing 15 seats, the party fell below what was its no go zone–less than 30% of the vote. While leader Dion has a dog named Kyoto, his green focus was out of step with the current reality. He spent most of his campaign trying in his professorial style and broken English to explain a very complicated carbon tax/wealth transfer. It may have been a great policy had the world economy not collapsed. It may well have the potential to create jobs and wealth in the future, but he couldn’t sell it now. In fact he couldn’t give it away. It will cost him his political head, although he’s not likely to go quietly.

What Canada needs is a good strong dose of proportional representation. That would result in a coalition government, rather than Harper forcing the Liberals to sign up to his policies in the knowledge that the Liberals couldn’t possibly bear or afford another election. It would most importantly mean that those one million Canadians who bothered to go out and cast their votes for the Greens would not have been wasting their time. When barely half of a democratic electorate bothers to go and vote–and it isn’t even snowing yet–the least they could expect is not to be flushing their franchise down the toilet. Under proportional representation and in a Parliament the size of Canada’s, the seven percent vote garnered by the Greens would have put more than twenty Green MPs in the House. That, if nothing else in the current electoral climate, would have made this increasingly Italian-like instability at least a little worthwhile. Eh?