Canada’s having an election! How exciting! I was actually ready to write a post about this back when the government was defeated at the end of March, but decided I should probably study or something instead.
The last few years have taught me that I shouldn’t take for granted that people know how a Westminster Parliament works. That’s pretty unfortunate, because every thread of this election campaign that isn’t about the economy (more on that in a moment) revolves around Parliament and the exploitation of the fact that Canadians don’t know how it works. This has made it very difficult to understand why we’re having an election in the first place and it’ll likely be the case that the campaign doesn’t actually end after all the voting is done.
So why are we having another dumb election again just two and a half years after the last one? Because the government could not retain the confidence of the House of Commons. This was the result of the government being found in contempt of Parliament for refusing to disclose the cost of various programmes. It is not because the opposition didn’t support the budget (although that would likely have been the case were it not for the contempt charge).
The charge of contempt of Parliament is similar to that of contempt of court, in which you’re charged if you’re found to be obstructing Parliament from performing its duties. This is for Parliament to decide and is pretty serious business. In the case of a government, the most severe punishment the Commons has is to withdraw its confidence in it.
The Conservatives have been brushing aside the contempt charge as political shenanigans because Canadians don’t understand the implications. This is why it’s important to examine the leadup to the vote itself. Most notably, it required the Speaker to rule against the government for a breach of privilege before it was handed off to committee to produce a report. This is important, because this isn’t the first time that this government has been ruled against for withholding documents.
Recall the prorogation of Parliament at the beginning of 2010. The prime minister requested that Parliament be prorogued in part to dodge questions surrounding Afghan detainee transfers. After Parliament had resumed, the government refused to provide documents regarding the transfers citing cabinet confidentiality. The Speaker basically said that Parliamentary privilege superceded cabinet confidentiality and that if they didn’t work something out with the opposition, they would be ruled against. That time, the government obliged.
That covers contempt, but I want to talk about confidence, because this is the thing that most people misunderstand about Parliamentary democracy and nothing’s changed since December 2008, when Stephen Harper was on the verge of losing the confidence of the House of Commons, only to stave it off by proroguing Parliament.
This misunderstanding of confidence is rooted in the misunderstanding of just who it is Canadians vote for in elections. You are not voting for a prime minister. You are not voting for a party. You are not even voting for a government. You are voting for a Member of Parliament. This may seem like a silly distinction to make, but it matters when we talk about forming governments. Peter Russell always makes these sorts of things succinct and easy to understand: “We elect the Parliament and the Parliament decides who gets the right to govern.”
Confidence of the House of Commons is all that’s required to become a prime minister and form a government. It’s based on the principle of responsible government, that the government is accountable to Parliament. The party with the least seats could form the government if it had the confidence of the Commons. And it’s just as possible that we could end up electing 308 independents who’d then need to figure out how to form a government.
The interesting thing is that within this framework, there is a way to form a government without having to face another election. This is deliberately allowed so that a government that doesn’t have the confidence of the Commons doesn’t just give up and ask for another election. The assumption here is that, within a reasonable amount of time, Canadians chose that particular Parliament to work with and it’s the duty of Parliament to be able to form a government with the members that it has.
The problem is, of course, that the Conservatives have been telling Canadians that forming a government in that way is unconstitutional. Which is silly, because anyone can just go to Wikipedia and find an example or two. There are plenty of things the Conservatives can attack such an arrangement for, whether it’s warranted or not: relying on the Bloc, the NDP’s governing record, or instability. The one thing they can’t and shouldn’t be attacking is constitutionality, because in doing so, it attacks the basic principles of Parliamentary democracy.
And for me, that’s what this election’s mainly about. A lot of people might criticize Trudeau centralizing power in the PMO or Chrétien for strong-arming Parliament, but I can’t speak to that, because I wasn’t cognizant of how they ran their government at the time. But I do know that Harper runs his government too dictatorially for my tastes and that his party is too obstructionist when dealing with the opposition. It shows in his campaign and contrasting that with Ignatieff or Layton or even Duceppe, I don’t get the sense that any of them would clamp down on their government anywhere near as much as Harper did. An open, transparent, and credible government is far more important to me than our economic recovery.
That’s not to say that the economy isn’t important. It is, but if a Liberal or NDP government is all it takes to ruin the recovery, then the Conservatives have done an awful job. This is not to mention that the stimulus spending is a direct result of the opposition forcing the government to act in December 2008. Remember in the dying days of the 2008 campaign when Harper flatly denied that Canada would be affected by the economic crisis?
Anyway, what are the prospects for each of our fine participants?
Conservative Party of Canada/Parti conservateur du Canada
The Conservatives ran their campaign with a very unambitious strategy: focus on a handful of swing seats and flail arms wildly about the dangers of a coalition to the rest of the country. And for much of the campaign, it looked like it was going to work. Most of the people they were targeting don’t care about Parliamentary shenanigans and are far more interested in how a Conservative government would benefit them.
The campaign hit a few snags. They were only minor snags from the campaign’s point of view, but it definitely intensified anti-Conservative sentiment, which made it all the more crucial that they pick up those few seats they were targeting. And Harper was able to fend off attacks from the opposition like some sort of giant immovable rock, not really hitting back, but repeating the same wearisome talking points again and again.
The thing that has put a Conservative majority in danger is, surprisingly, the NDP surge. Outside of Ontario, it puts several Conservative seats into play that were thought to be safe and within Ontario, it could affect just enough seats that the hope for a majority fades away. The huge tactical error that made this possible was the focus of attacks on Ignatieff alone.
Post-election prospects are fairly shaky. If the Conservatives lose enough seats, it could be enough for Harper to call it a day or be forced out. If they maintain or gain seats, but still have a minority, he could conceivably hold on, even if he does eventually lose power, since there could be a chance that any arrangement by the Liberals and NDP is as unstable as he says it is. Still, it’s a significant repudiation of the choice that Harper has presented to Canadians.
Liberal Party of Canada/Parti libéral du Canada
Michael Ignatieff’s career as a politician has been pretty unlucky. Remember that back in 2006, he was supposed to be the next Trudeau. He came back to lose the Liberal leadership race (which he probably should have, having spent so little time as an MP) and had to wait through two years of Dion capitulating to the Conservatives. When he finally became the leader, he continued a string of tactical errors and was subjected to good old Conservative character assassination for two years. He finally gets the chance to run a campaign and actually does it well, but ends up getting passed over for the NDP.
It sucks, because while he isn’t as progressive as Dion, he’s certainly a better leader. He’s a much more able speaker and campaigner. He had solid policy proposals and his war room was on the ball. Even if he didn’t win, he probably would have been able to continue and live to fight another election.
Except Quebec started to notice that the NDP existed. And then everyone else noticed that the NDP existed. Even Ontario, who hates the NDP is starting to notice. Even worse is that Jack Layton is a lot more likeable than Michael Ignatieff. Of course, much of that is perceived, since Layton hasn’t been the target of a two-year concerted character assassination effort.
At this point, things are not looking good for Ignatieff post-election. If he loses seats, that’s bad. If he loses Official Opposition status, that’s really bad. His only real hope is that the NDP vote is vastly overestimated in polling and that they’re not able to get the vote out. What’s more interesting to think about is how the Liberals will act in the next Parliament when it comes to supporting or forming a government. It’ll boil down to good old Liberal internal strife, so that’ll be exciting.
And of course, there’s the whole having to rebuild the party again. The Liberals have struggled to grow their base of support outside of Montreal, Vancouver, and Toronto. Now, they have even less of a hope in Quebec and are in danger of losing Atlantic Canada. And each of Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal are seeing red ridings in danger of flipping to orange.
New Democratic Party/Nouveau Parti démocratique
In retrospect, it’s pretty hilarious how Ignatieff and Duceppe kept on calling Layton out for considering his party a viable alternative to the Liberals and Conservatives. A lot of people wonder why he kept on presenting himself as this alternative and the genesis of that messaging comes from the 2004 election, where a large criticism of his campaign was that he wasn’t serious about running to form a government. And so, since 2006, the NDP have been trying to present themselves in that light, as hilarious as it may have seemed at the time.
Well, it looks like it finally paid off. That mindset seems to have pushed the NDP to make some organizational and strategic changes, the most notable of which has been in their push for Quebec. It’s kind of amazing how just having one MP in Quebec, even if he was pretty influential, was able to help their push into the province. The combination of Mulcair’s popularity and Layton’s performance in the debates created the conditions for that first Quebec poll that opened up this feedback loop of support.
Outside of Quebec, my guess is that there are enough people who wouldn’t mind voting NDP but never felt that the NDP would win in their riding or that the NDP would be effective as a third party. Now that they have a real shot at forming the Official Opposition, all of those people who would have liked to vote NDP now have their chance. In addition to these voters, we have people who never voted NDP before because they seemed kind of sketch, but now, they’re polling above the Liberals, so why not.
The challenge for the NDP, as it always has been, is to convert those polling numbers into votes. It’s helped that their polling has been on an upward trend even in the last few days of the campaign. By far the weakest aspect of the Quebec campaign for the NDP is the party organization on the ground, considering that up until pretty recently, there was almost none.
Much like the Conservatives, the Bloc Québecois really only needed to assert that they’re the only viable choice for Quebec. And Duceppe was probably right. There was still deep mistrust of the Liberals, Conservative ideology doesn’t really line up with the province’s, and the NDP was pretty much absent. Of course, it’s that last one that’s easiest to work with and once Layton started going for the province hard, people started to notice.
From my internet forum hangouts, I’ve come to realize that people don’t vote Bloc because they’re sovereigntists. People vote Bloc because they feel that it’s the party that defends their interests the best, regardless of whether how they feel about sovereignty. And it so happens that beyond the sovereignty question, the Bloc and NDP have a lot in common.
Green Party of Canada/Parti vert du Canada
The Greens are all about the environment. Apparently, their economic policies are more laissez-faire than that of the Liberals, but it’s not like it matters. Honestly, I don’t know why people continue to think they can win any seats. Their support is spread across the country and not concentrated enough to get anyone elected. For the Greens, the campaign will largely be about the continuing adventures of Elizabeth May and trying to win her a seat.
I’ve got about 20 or so ridings I’m watching.
In BC, there’s Saanich—Gulf Islands, where Green Party leader Elizabeth May is taking on Conservative minister Gary Lunn. If she can’t do it, then the Green Party could be finished, since they appear to have poured in a ton of resources into that riding. The other interesting one is Vancouver South, where, in one of the narrowest victories in the country, Liberal Ujjal Dosanjh won by 20 votes against the Conservative in 2008.
In the rest of Western Canada, there’s Edmonton Strathcona, the Eye of Layton, held by Linda Duncan in a province otherwise painted in blue. In Manitoba, Winnipeg North is held by Liberal Kevin Lamoreaux, who took it in a byelection from the NDP a few months ago.
In Quebec, we’ve got Pontiac, where Conservative minister Lawrence Cannon looks like he could fall to an NDP scrub. While it looked like it would’ve been a tough fight, it looks like NDP Deputy Leader Thomas Mulcair is going to hold on to Outremont pretty easily against former Liberal minister Martin Cauchon. And while they might seem safe, I’m a bit worried for Papineau (Justin Trudeau) and Westmount—Ville-Marie (Marc Garneau). There’s also some talk of Gilles Duceppe being on the defensive in his riding of Laurier—Sainte-Marie
In Ontario, there are a ton of swing ridings. Guelph is a pretty tough fight with a ton of shenanigans going on. London North Centre is going to be my home in a few months and it could be danger zone for Glen Pearson. Peter Milliken’s departure makes Kingston and the Islands a really close fight. And there’s the super narrow victories in Kitchener Centre and Kitchener—Waterloo that the Conservatives will have a hard time defending. And I’ve heard rumours that Ottawa West—Nepean, home of John Baird, could be in play as well.
In the 905, there’s Ajax—Pickering, where Mark Holland is fighting off Chris Alexander. Ruby Dhalla looks like she’s going to lose Brampton—Springdale. I would really like for the Liberals to be able to retake Vaughan from Julian Fantino. And for a longshot, there’s Bev “not” Oda’s riding of Durham.
In Toronto, we’ve got York Centre, where Ken Dryden is somehow in danger. Joe Volpe is also in danger of losing Eglinton—Lawrence. Trinity—Spadina is usually a pretty tough fight, but the NDP boost is probably enough to keep Olivia Chow safe. Parkdale—High Park makes me sad, because both Gerard Kennedy and Peggy Nash have been excellent MPs. And of course, there’s my unexciting home riding of Scarborough—Rouge River.