Canadians have elected the Conservative Party of Canada to a minority government, with 124 seats in the 308 seat House of Commons (up from 99 in the 2004 election). The Liberals, who had been in power since 1993, dropped to 103 seats (down from 135 in 2004), while the Québec separatist party the Bloc Québecois (who run candidates in Québec only) won 51, and the social-democratic New Democratic Party won 29 seats. The election is significant because it marks the end of the Liberals’ 13-year rule and because Paul Martin, the shipping magnate who waited his entire life to become Prime Minister, announced his resignation as leader of the Liberals after only serving seventeen months as elected Prime Minister.
The simple fact of a rare change of government has raised expectations (and fears) of major changes in Canada, which displays how stagnant Canada’s political institutions have become in the past thirteen years. Despite bizarre accusations (and here) that the new Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, is the poster child of a group of Bush-loving Straussian neocons from Calgary, his election signals no revolution nor “regime change.” Canadians can expect changes in the ways government is held accountable and minor changes in taxes and healthcare, but no changes to social policy including same-sex marriage and abortion. With the Bloc, the Conservatives will try to decentralize some powers to the provinces. Positive changes will occur in foreign and defense policy, as the Conservatives will attempt to repair Canada-US relations and to start the process of returning the once world-class Canadian military to international prominence.
The Conservatives, with their power base in the West, made significant inroads into Ontario and, surprisingly, Québec. Unlike the previous Parliament under the Liberals, this minority government will be genuinely national, with all regions having significant representation. Also unlike the previous Parliament, no party is willing nor has the financial means to push for another election any time soon. Only the Conservatives are debt-free (because they were first to learn the strategy of soliciting campaign contributions through direct-mail), which might be the key to understanding how the next Parliament will operate (more details on the parties’ finances here).
As the new Prime Minister with a relatively small minority government, Stephen Harper will use the upcoming months to work with the NDP and the Bloc Québecois to undermine the Liberals, whose energies will be directed to finding a new leader (Harvard intellectual, Michael Ignatieff, who won his Toronto-area riding, is a contender to replace Martin). They will do this by implementing a range of reforms meant to increase governmental accountability, thereby distinguishing themselves from the Liberals whose scandal-ridden rule prompted the election in the first place. The Conservatives can also marginalize the Liberals in Québec by working with the Bloc to decentralize various powers currently held by the national government to the provincial governments. However, they cannot be seen to work closely with the Bloc for fear of appearing too cozy with separatists.
The Conservatives have a number of policies that lack support from other parties, including repealing same-sex marriage, repealing Kyoto, restarting talks on ballistic missile defense with the U.S., and a voucher-style plan for parents to spend on childcare (as opposed to a national system of government-run daycares the other parties prefer). They have three options in approaching these plans: 1) forget about them, 2) water them down in order to obtain sufficient support from other parties to get them passed, or 3) take advantage of their superior financial position and a weakened and fractured Liberal Party to call a snap election within two years in the hope of obtaining a majority. The third option depends on the Liberals remaining weak for the time-being, and runs the risk of angering the electorate who might regard calling another election as mere opportunism.
The Conservatives will also attempt to repair Canada-U.S. relations. Unlike the Liberals, the Conservatives have no anti-American constituency to which to pander, so gone are the days where the Prime Minister looks the other way as members of his government call Americans “bastards” or calls the U.S. President a “moron.” Canada and the United States enjoy the largest trading relationship of any two countries in the world, with a significantly integrated auto sector and with Alberta being the single largest contributor of crude oil to the U.S. (not Saudi Arabia, and Alberta’s share is growing [and here]). This means that millions of dollars of trade occur smoothly without government leaders on either side of the border making any difference. Even so, there are some thorny issues including softwood lumber and border security (though the Liberals showed competence and willingness to cooperate with the Bush administration on security). Improved relations mean improved access for Canadian officials to the Bush administration, while U.S. officials would have less of a worry that Canada would slap export duties on Alberta oil as a trade weapon, as suggested by Paul Martin before the election. The federal government receives significant tax revenues from the Alberta oil sector, and all the parties realize it is in their interest not to harm the goose that lays the golden egg and pays for their election promises.
Harper has broad based support to increase funding to the Canadian military, which in the long-term will also enable Canada to meet its international commitments more effectively. Canada already has soldiers in Kandahar in Afghanistan. Among the Conservatives’ funding promises include strategic airlift capacities (currently the Canadian Armed Forces rent planes from the U.S. and Russia for deployments), and increased capacities for Pacific and Arctic naval forces. While the other parties pledge increased military funding, the Bloc and the NDP prefer funding go to the military’s humanitarian missions. Those parties (and the Liberals to a lesser extent) include numerous pacifists and those who have imbibed the principles of Kantian perpetual peace that they see no reason for the military in a world governed by humanitarian internationalism. However, with Canadian forces already deployed in real military missions, they will not unduly oppose efforts to support the troops.
Part of the reason the Conservatives won is that they earned the broad support of the middle-class and the working-class. Their campaign targeted “ordinary Canadians” by highlighting the corruption of the elites and with various measures aimed at giving taxpayers “their money back,” including vouchers for parents to spend on childcare and on hockey equipment for their kids. They pitted Tim Hortons (the Canadian equivalent of Dunkin’ Donuts) against Starbucks, hockey moms against postmodernists, much in the same way that U.S. Republicans have successfully peeled away working-class Americans from the Democratic Party. Their appeal goes beyond urban-rural, West-East, religious-secular dichotomies.
The minority Conservatives lack the support to implement many of their objectives the way they would wish. Moreover, they understand they were elected not simply because Canadians have embraced them and their agenda. They owe much of their power to the fact Canadians finally got fed up with the Liberals. Even so, the Liberals are divided and weak, and all of the Conservatives’ rivals are in debt. Despite their minority status, they need not worry about the other parties withdrawing their support anytime soon and the Conservatives can afford to play some hardball to implement some of their agenda. Their long-term also appears bright if their short-term objectives succeed. Maintaining the support of the “hockey moms” will be the key to whether the Conservatives can maintain or even strengthen their grip on power, or whether they let the Liberals pick themselves up off the ground.
John von Heyking is an associate professor of political science at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada.