Do Canadians Trust Themselves?: The 2006 Federal Election

John von Heyking

December 1, 2005

Canadians are in an election campaign a mere seventeen months after their last one. The Liberal Party, which was reduced to a minority government in June 2004, lost the support of the opposition parties in a non-confidence motion at the end of November. Polls show a close race between the Liberals and the Conservatives. With both showing support around 30 percent of the electorate (with the Liberals a few points ahead), this election will produce another minority government.

Americans will be interested in what impact the election has on Canada’s commitment to North American security, the war on terror, and energy security, not to mention its impact on trade between the two countries, which is the largest bi-national trading relationship in the world. For instance, before the election the prime minister threatened to retaliate against U.S. softwood lumber duties by slapping export duties on Alberta oil and gas, which would increase U.S. reliance on Saudi and Venezuelan oil, and increase pressure to drill for oil and gas in environmentally sensitive Alaskan wild lands. In short, Canadian politicians, especially on the left, are willing to indulge in anti-Americanism, and in some cases threaten U.S. energy security, to win votes.

On the domestic issues, Americans will be interested in whether Canada can recover from a corruption scandal (and new scandals occur weekly) that has created governmental paralysis and has boosted Québec separatism (Westerners are grumbling too). Americans will want to know whether Canada can still be a reliable ally and, indeed, whether it can sustain itself as a functioning country. With the incumbent Liberals slightly ahead of the Conservatives, it is too early to tell yet whether Americans will find a more reliable ally in their northern neighbor.

For most Americans, not much seems to separate the Liberals from Conservatives from the viewpoint of ideology. With their support for public health-care, their hesitant opposition to same-sex marriage legislated earlier in the year, and their indecision over Iraq, Conservatives appear closer to the Clintonian wing of the Democrats than anything found in the Republican Party. The Liberals, whose twelve-year reign has depended on a mixture of support for free-market principles, social liberalism, and massive budget surpluses that enables them to buy votes, straddles the center—the location of all successful brokerage-style parties in Western democracies.

Support for the federal parties is regionally concentrated. The Conservatives’ core support is in the West and in rural ridings. Liberals hold support in urban Ontario, among English-speakers in Québec (concentrated in Montréal), and in the Maritimes. Québec is now dominated by the separatist Bloc Québécois (which runs candidates only in Québec) because the “Sponsorship Scandal,” which involved Liberal Party operatives using dirty money to battle separatism in the 1990s, has destroyed Liberal support there. Only the social democratic New Democratic Party and the environmentalist Green Party claim support across Canada, although the NDP’s national support is only about fifteen percent while the Greens is about five percent. They hope to be “king-makers” in the coalition government that the election would produce. The election will be decided among ridings in southern Ontario and in Vancouver, where Liberal and Conservative support is close.

Canada then lacks a viable national party. For some, this only aggravates its regionalism (and, possibly, Québec separatism). Indeed, The Economist reported recently that a large percentage of Westerners in British Columbia and Alberta regard themselves as belonging to the Pacific Rim, while those in Ontario and Québec, which are further east, obviously do not. This means that people in Vancouver and Calgary are more likely to look east (to China and Japan) or south (to the United States) than to Toronto for their political, social, cultural, and economic bearings. For example, Vancouver’s University of British Columbia is applying for membership in the NCAA with the hope that its sports teams would compete against PAC-10 schools like USC, instead of against other Canadian universities. Already competitive with, if not dominant over, Pepperdine in volleyball and some NCAA Division I teams in basketball, UBC officials dream of a Rose Bowl with USC instead of a Vanier Cup (Canadian universities’ national championship) with a university from Ontario.

This attention eastward and southward can only be seen as a threat for Ontarians who prefer to regard their province as the center of the country—a center that must keep the “periphery” in its orbit to keep the country intact. As a result, the conflict between Liberals and Conservatives is a conflict between the former center (Ontario) and the ascendant West, whose overall population and economic productivity now exceeds that of Québec. In short, the political center of the nation is moving westwards. The high oil prices driving the economic boom of Alberta, whose provincial government enjoys a budget surplus larger than the overall budget of many other provinces, only hastens this process.

Canadians themselves have had difficulty distinguishing the Conservatives and Liberals. The Conservatives, which formed as a merger between the Progressive Conservative and Canadian Alliance parties in December 2003, is relatively new in an institutional sense, and so has not had long to develop a party platform. Leader Stephen Harper, who has a graduate degree in economics, has moved his party toward the center which caused critics of the right to complain they had become “Liberal-lite.” In the June 2004 election, their inability to distinguish themselves clearly from the Liberals, their lack of policy, and their campaign that focused on Liberal corruption instead of their own policies, allowed the Liberals to demonize them as “neoconservative,” “radical,” and, of course, toadies of the Americans. The Liberals have no shortage of anti-Americans in caucus and in their support base. Just this week, the Ontario’s Liberal Attorney-General blamed the rise of gun violence among Toronto’s black gangs on the National Rifle Association.

Expectations are high (or low, depending on how one looks at it) that the current election will be characterized by the same dirty campaigning seen in the June 2004 election. That is why no one believed Paul Martin this week when he ridiculously declared that Stephen Harper is not a demon. However, the only blatant example of dirty campaigning has been within the Liberal Party itself. Michael Ignatieff, whom Americans know as a liberal hawk supporter of the Iraq invasion and a fellow at the Kennedy School at Harvard, is the Liberal candidate in a Toronto area riding with a high number of ethnic Ukrainians. Members of his riding association, annoyed by the party leadership parachuting him in over their own candidate, created a controversy by citing critical statements about Ukrainian nationalism he made in his book, Blood and Belonging, with some calling for his resignation.

With expectations so low, it is somewhat of a surprise that the early part of the campaign has not only been somewhat civilized, but also substantial. The Conservatives have successfully set the terms of the debate by introducing tax cuts and a voucher system for parents to spend on child-care options. These ostensibly bread-and-butter issues actually illuminate major differences—dare I say, visions?—between the major parties. On child-care, the Conservative voucher plan pits parental choice versus the Liberal plan, which seeks to establish a national day-care plan modeled after Canada’s national healthcare, of all things. In other words, the Conservative plan would enable parents to send their child to a religious daycare or to support a stay-at-home parent. The Liberal plan calls for a government-run standardized program that, needless to say, would not be supportive of parents wanting a religious upbringing for their children. The Conservative plan borrows from Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s child care plan, which has earned him four straight elections. The key to victory, it seems, is to befriend parents. Parents are the electoral constituency most concerned about the future of the country, and are the ones making the day-to-day decisions about the political, economic, and cultural future of the country.

Moreover, by putting childcare at the center of the election, the Conservatives and Liberals illuminate their fundamental ideological differences. The Liberals think the state guarantees our future while the Conservatives think civil society is best equipped to make these decisions. As Richard Ball wrote in a letter to the National Post, “what Canadians are being asked to vote on in this election is themselves.”

While it is a truism for representative democracy that elections are about themselves, this election is even more so about us. With the parties finally displaying distinct ideological visions, and with corruption scandals having undermined our faith in our representative institutions (which are an extension of ourselves), this election is indeed about whether Canadians can trust themselves.

John von Heyking is an associate professor of political science at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada.