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?

Comments (7)

by Steve Barnes on October 16, 2008
Steve Barnes

You're spot-on about the need for some kind of proportional representation. The fact that the Liberals only won 8 seats west of Ontario just goes to show how many wasted votes there are in the FPP system.

I think there are also 2 other issues that Canada needs to address:

1) Using delegated conventions to select party leaders (as the Liberals and Conservatives do) is ludicrous. Given that policy is developed over the first 2 days and the leader is selected on the third, the leadership race essentially becomes a popularity competition combined with an attempt to select a leader that 'divides the least'. As a result, you end up with leaders like Stephane Dion. While I'm no great fan of Michael Ignatieff, there's no doubt he would have made a better leader than Dion.

2) Parties like the Greens need to learn how to campaign. Elizabeth May's decision to stand in Central Nova against Peter MacKay was electoral suicide. She needed to win a seat to get into Parliament no matter how their popular vote looked - and she failed. Given that May came second in the London, Ontario by-election a couple of years ago, it is insanity that she didn't have another crack at that seat.

It seems that Canadian politics is largely based on mediocrity - a trend that will continue in the new parliament.

(But may I add that it's excellent to see some comment on the Canadian election in New Zealand. No doubt about it!)

by Tim Watkin on October 16, 2008
Tim Watkin

Thanks Steve, we aim to please! The good thing about the web is that there's always room for more stories and a wider range of coverage.

by Carolyn on October 16, 2008

Yes, I appreciated this article and comparisons with MMP.

On a minor point, rather than seeing Thatcher as the real ungroomed deal, I think Clark's make-over is actually taking a page from Thatcher's book.  thatcher's image was carefully groomed and calculated from early on. e.g.

"Mrs Thatcher got great political capital from being a woman. In an age of image, she was shrewd enough to embark on a self-enhancement programme that no male contemporary could have undertaken. At the behest of her style guru, Gordon Reece, her hair was restyled, her voice lowered to a husky baritone and her wardrobe revamped."

by Andrew Geddis on October 16, 2008
Andrew Geddis

While PR appears to be the rational choice, given Canada's recurrent minority government problem, it might be worth noting that such an option recently has been rejected twice in referenda at the provincial level. Voters in British Columbia failed to agree to adopt STV (albeit that there was a 60% majority requirement - some 58% did favour change), while Ontario voters resoundingly rejected a move to MMP.

So change may be a fair way down the path yet!

by Marian Hobbs on October 16, 2008
Marian Hobbs

Really pleased to read the comment on the Canadian election. I was interested that little comment was made about NDP. Jane, have you any comment about that party? Like the USA, Canada appears diverse electorally and socially, especially between the coastal states and the interior. Do any of the parties support proportional representation? Is there any political interest? It might be a way out of the political stale mate and considerable lack of popular interest, given the low poll.








by HIlary Stace on October 18, 2008
HIlary Stace

Jane - thanks for this analysis of the Canadian election. There seems to have been very little coverage in our local media in spite of the fact that NZ and Canada are two of the first western style democracies to have general elections after the so-called 'fall of capitalism', As you said, 59% voter turnout - shocking.

by Jane Young on October 18, 2008
Jane Young

Hi Marian - just read your message re: NDP...the party increased its seat count to 37, up six with 18% of the vote.  It was expecting much more - wanting to ride on the despair that the Liberal party has fallen into but this didn't happen. From the second Harper called the election, NDP leader Jack Layton announced that since the Prime Minister didn't want his job any longer, he (Layton) was going to run for the job, and starting every speech of the campaign like that soon became a bit of a joke because it was never ever going to happen.  Its campaign was a bit rocky, losing 4  candidates on the way - two for illegal drug use, one who videoed himself driving while stoned and then posting it on the net, A candidate who stripped naked in front of teenage girls was shown the door, and another went for some comments (deemed inappropriate) to do with U.S, war objectors.  Layton had also aligned himself during the campaign with Harper in objecting to Green Leader Elizabeth May taking part in the only full leaders' debate (because the only MP she had was actually a Liberal defector who in the end lost his seat), but it didn't go down well with the electorate.  In the end May did take part in the debate/s (one in French then one in English) and performed way above expectations in both languages.

The party tends to do better on the West Coast where environmental/socially liberal views are more prominent, however one of the NDP star candidates who defected from the Liberals about 18months ago did win his riding in downtwon Montreal, which, given the strange nature of politics here in terms of representation in Quebec, was considered a real coup for Layton. NDP also did pretty well in Ontario - Toronto is Layton's base and his wife Olivia Chow is also an NDP MP from there,  However in the end the NDP with its 37 seats is still a distant 4th placing in the parliament.

Funnily enough the small parties are not beating any drum over proportional representation - yet.  There are small murmurs about it every now and then, but no real groundswell.  I know that the Canadian Electoral Commission did investigate NZ's MMP a few years ago, but you'll probably know more about that than moi.

I think Canadian's are sick of their politicians - 3 elections in the 5 years I've been here, and only 59% turning out to this week's vote says a lot.  Disgraceful really. They need the sort of oomph groundswell that NZ had for MMP, and really the only party likley to push that button is the Green Party if it ever got its act (small 'a') together, which doesn't look likely. Neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals, and especially not the Bloc would have any interest in MMP for obvious reasons. 

Post new comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.