Wayne M. O'Leary

Positive Indecision in Canadian Election

In the midst of the year-long marathon contest for US president, something interesting happened north of the border. Our Canadian cousins held a national election of their own and managed it in less than a month. They did it with paper ballots, a uniform national board of elections, and a prompt vote count that produced a clean, uncontroversial result in a matter of hours. No Florida-like imbroglios; that would be un-Canadian. But also no clear decision. The Dominion will be ruled for the immediate future by a minority government in which the previously dominant Liberals will be forced to form a multi-party coalition with one or more smaller parties.

In some ways, Canada's election was a reflection of the general dissatisfaction and restiveness that is pervading most of the Western democracies at the dawn of the 21st century. Canadians were in a surly mood as they trooped to the polls, unhappy with the incumbent Liberal party government (which had managed to embroil itself in a financial scandal involving some misuse of public funds), but also skeptically unenthusiastic about the available alternatives. One result was that the June 28 contest drew just 61% of registered voters, a turnout American political scientists would die for, but still an all-time low and well under the 64% of four years ago.

The pervasive ennui, which I observed firsthand on a brief pre-election jaunt through the Maritimes, is a sign of the times. Like democracies worldwide, it seems, Canada is momentarily producing no political heroes. There was no Pierre Eliot Trudeau dominating the hustings, nor even a Jean Chrétien, the affable and respected small-l Liberal who vacated the prime ministership late last year. The majority Liberal party, which voluntarily called the election under Canada's parliamentary system (an effort to renew its mandate before its lagging popularity became fatal), was led into the fray by Chrétien's former finance minister, Paul Martin, an earnest but lackluster fiscal conservative who ascended to the top job in December. Martin, an Anglo Canadian, lacks the verve and easy charm of his Gallic predecessors and leads a party tired after a decade in power and split internally between warring left and right factions.

It was obvious to discontented Canadian voters that the Liberals, Canada's natural governing party, needed rest and renewal. In past years, this would have been no problem. For decades, major opposition was provided by the Progressive Conservative (PC) or "Tory" party, made up of moderate conservatives who could be trusted to spell the slightly left-of-center Liberals for a few years without dismantling the nation's social safety net or abandoning its sovereignty to the multinational corporations; the PC was a European-style, noblesse oblige conservative party with its own small social-democratic wing whose members, more liberal than the Liberals in some cases, were known as "Red Tories." Canada's dependably center-left party alignment changed utterly, however, in the 1990s with the creation of the hard-right, Western-based Canadian Alliance, which proceeded to absorb the socially liberal PC in a 2003 "uniting-the-right" party merger that was really a hostile takeover.

Should they vote to oust the Liberals henceforth, Canadians will be faced with the likely prospect of being governed by the new Conservative party, a mean-spirited organization resembling America's contemporary Republican party: culturally and economically conservative, dominated by business interests and the Christian right, and dedicated to privatization, deregulation, radical tax-cuts, and a pro-Bush foreign policy. The Conservatives' fledgling leader, Stephen Harper, young, impetuous, and arrogant, might be characterized as Newt Gingrich lite. The prospect of this new gang taking charge and imposing a "hidden agenda" caused most commonsense Canadian voters east of the prairie provinces to recoil in fear and loathing despite their disenchantment with the status quo.

This leaves the established minority parties: the Bloc Québécois, leftish on domestic policy, but concentrated exclusively in the province of Quebec and geared to a separatist agenda; and the New Democratic party (NDP), social democratic and national in outlook, with a history of minority participation in prior coalition governments. (Canada's Greens, who also fielded a slate of candidates, won no representation in Ottawa.) By achieving a parliamentary plurality, but not retaining their three-election majority status -- they lost 37 seats over 2000 -- Paul Martin's Liberals will be forced to deal with one or both of these parties of the left.

The final election tally, for those interested in such esoterica, was as follows: Liberals, 135 seats and 37% of the vote; Conservatives, 99 seats and 30%; NDP, 19 seats and 16%; Block Québécois, 54 seats, 13%; Greens, 0 seats and 4%; Independent, 1 seat. For progressives, it was not a bad outcome. The most likely coalition partner of the Liberals, the NDP (though the two fell one seat short of a combined parliamentary majority), will push the Martin government to the left, attract the support of disaffected younger Canadians, and provide "the vision thing." Its newly-installed leader, Jack Layton, is a Howard Dean-type character whose energy and enthusiasm offset his propensity to pop off at inauspicious moments. Layton added 5% to the national NDP vote with a platform that included serious new spending on Canada's publicly-financed health-care system and on expanded government drug coverage and day care paid for in part by an increased inheritance tax on the wealthy.

A Liberal-NDP alliance, reinforced by the Bloc Québécois (which may extract a separatist pound of flesh as payment), could accomplish great things for Canada. Similar coalitions a generation ago produced the nation's health-care and pension systems, a public housing program, and a government-run energy company. The NDP, which has never managed to displace the Liberals as Canada's ruling party of the left, has nevertheless served as the indispensable spearhead of reform in a succession of minority governments. In Paul Martin, they have a potential coalition partner who focused his own campaign on the need to preserve and strengthen the admired Canadian approach to medical care, rejecting Conservative party calls to go the American free-market route. Ironically, an indecisive election may, in the end, produce positive results that a continuation of Liberal majority rule would not have accomplished. It will be a story worth following as we work through our own political destiny over the coming months.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

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