While our media have been obsessed with judicial and legislative efforts to resolve not only a Presidential election but a potential Constitutional impasse, Canadians seemingly reconfirmed a tranquil status quo in their elections. Jean Chretien's Liberals even increased their Parliamentary majority. Chretien thus became only the fourth Canadian leader to win three consecutive majority governments. Appearances may, however, be deceiving. Canadian politics suffers from some of the same limitations that currently beset our politics, with consequences for both sides of the border.
Chretien's Liberals won a majority of seats, but their share of the popular vote was only slightly more than 40%. The meaning of this "mandate" for Chretien, as for other Western leaders of the ever more centrist left and liberal parties, is hard to discern. As with Clinton/Gore, Chretien has been blessed by an economic expansion that has seen budget deficits morph into surpluses. His recent agenda merged such conservative staples as a tax cut with a more traditional left emphasis on increased funding for universal health care.
In the course of the campaign Liberals were forced to parry attacks on a health system in crisis. Though still delivering care that is both efficient and world-class by many indicators, the system has recently faced many crucial shortages. Chretien promises of more adequate funding glossed over the role that his own government's budget cuts during periods of deficit slashing austerity had played in producing the crisis. How Chretien will keep promises to preserve and extend tax cuts and fund health care adequately should the economy start to slide is far from clear.
Another round of austerity for Canadian health care would be more than a tragedy for Canadians. It would give aid and comfort to those on both sides of the border who seek greater privatization of health care. Alexa McDonough, leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP), correctly observed in a televised election debate that it was hard to understand just how tax cuts would build more hospitals.
Despite being in the midst of an economic expansion, Canada is still far from prosperous. Childhood poverty is persistent, and Canadians interviewed during the election expressed concerns about job security and conflicts between long working hours and the need for family time. The NDP proposed programs that at least acknowledged the depth of these issues, but the party still lost some seats, though holding enough to retain official party status.
It would be easy to infer that "stay the course" is the motto of a majority of voters in Canada. They fear radical plans to privatize their health care, yet they associate any bold new spending programs for such initiatives as child care with the dangerous deficits of the '80s and early '90s.
In a broader sense, Canadian politics reflects a sense of economic fatalism that now grips the Western world. Governments can at best continue traditional entitlements through careful management of surpluses accumulated during periods of economic boom, but they dare not embark on any new initiatives. Electorates everywhere are convinced that reduction of the public debt is the most prudent course. Governments are viewed as able to do little to control the basic course of economic development.
Western political leaders lack any vision of how tax, labor, and monetary policies could be coordinated with other nations to mitigate currency and business flight. Many citizens are left resigned to the hope that governments can at best react prudently to forces largely beyond their control.
Yet this chastened moderation leaves many discontented or even angry. Chretien's Liberals gained seats at the expense of the Separatists in Quebec and the NDP in Atlantic Canada, but voter turnout fell to a hundred-year low. Other regional animosities remain strong. The newly formed Canadian Alliance achieved stunning success in western Canada, but it made no significant inroads in Ontario. It even failed to displace the Conservatives as the right wing oppositional force in Eastern Canada.
As in the United States, social issues appear to divide conservative forces. Opposition to gun regulation as well as hostility to abortion resonates among Western Canadian Alliance supporters in a way that frightens and offends many Ontario suburbanites.
Chretien's triumph may be symptomatic of a fractured conservative opposition and a dispirited and directionless Left increasingly without a vision of how to address the new world economy. This mixture leaves Canadian politics increasingly open to another US import, the politics of demonization. To a degree that I cannot remember in Canadian politics, this election degenerated into a series of ugly personal attacks, with innuendoes about Alliance leader Stockwell Day's fundamentalist Christianity and Jean Chretien's alleged corrupt lobbying on behalf of his friends. As I contemplate elections on both sides of the border, I find cause for concern.
John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. He invites comments at firstname.lastname@example.org