Monday, December 26, 2005

Election Post #2: Can't Tell The Players Without A Program

This will probably be of marginal interest to anyone who is following the current Canadian federal election campaign closely, but I felt it was important to include a non-partisan, mainstream, progressive summary of the circumstances, both for the sake of completeness and for any non-Canadian readers who might happen by.

The Liberal Party of Canada has been called the country's "natural governing party" and they held power for much of the 20th century. They are also in power now, and have been since 1993. Weakened by scandal, in the May 2004 election they were reduced to minority status in Parliament, and it is that minority government that recently fell after the opposition parties combined to pass a non-confidence motion. In the recently deceased Parliament, the Liberals had 135 of 308 seatss, 75 of which were in Ontario, 21 in Quebec, and the rest scattered across the country.

The current Conservative Party is the product of a 15 year long civil war within Canada's right, which began when social conservatives mainly from Western Canada split from socially liberal or moderate fiscal conservatives largely led from central Canada. The split ended just before the last election, with a reunited party of the right that was totally dominated by the social conservatives. They tend to be more like the U.S. Republican Party than like the Tories of yesteryear (who were bad enough). The Conservatives held 99 seats in the most recent House, 68 of them west of the Manitoba/Ontario border and none at all in Quebec.

The majority of the Quebec seats in the recent Parliament (54) were held by the Bloc Quebecois, a separatist party that formed in 1990 from disaffected Liberal and Conservative MPs. The party tends to have a social democratic character.

The NDP is the social democratic party in English Canada, and they held 19 seats -- barely too few to hold the decisive balance of power.

The Green Party has never won a seat in Canada, but they polled 4.3% of the vote nationwide in 2004. Though at one time the federal party had (and some provincial parties still have, or so I am told) a strong social justice agenda, the current federal greens are quite right-leaning in many ways.

The scandal that weakened the Liberals in 2004 has continued to develop. The substance of the matter is that during the referendum on sovereignty held in Quebec in 1995, the federal Liberal government authorized a slush fund to be spent to keep the province in Canada. Controls over that money were very substandard, and there is evidence that some of it, perhaps a couple of million dollars, found its way back into Liberal Party coffers. There is currently an official inquiry into the matter which had issued a preliminary report before the election was called but is not scheduled to pronounce its final verdict until after the election. Not surprisingly, the report blamed the man who was Prime Minister at the time while largely exonerating the current Prime Minister, even though the current Prime Minister was finance minister and senior minister from Quebec at the time. Go figure.

Realistic outcomes to the current election range from a Liberal majority to a Conservative minority, with the most likely outcome another Liberal minority. The Conservatives do seem to be doing better than expected, mainly because of the success of their frightening leader in hiding his scariness and projecting an illusion of normalcy that is actually moderately convincing to many voters. The most progressive outcome would be a Liberal minority with the NDP holding the balance of power. An imperfect realization of this dynamic resulted in the just past Parliament doing some progressive things, including an increase in social spending (very modest, though still significant in that it represents a reversal of momentum since the major onslaught of neoliberal restructuring began at the federal level in 1995) and equal marriage legislation (not that I support state meddling in relationships regardless of the genders involved). Historically, a number of important advances in introducing aspects of social citizenship to the Canadian state resulted from Liberal minorities with support from the left in the late '20s, the '50s, the '70s, and in Ontario at the provincial level in the '80s. As well, one motivating factor for the (limited) embrace of the welfare state after World War II was the electoral threat of the left. The NDP is eternally disappointing to the left -- that seems to be the cosmic role of social democracy more generally -- and the current leadership has said and done some questionable things, but they would no doubt continue to exert a progressive influence on the Liberals.

A Liberal majority, however, would be likely to cut social spending, continue on with the neoliberal remodelling of the Canadian state, and accelerate its accommodation with Washington (recent theatrics between Paul Martin and the U.S. ambassador notwithstanding). A Conservative government would do all of these things but faster and nastier and worse.

In my next election post, I'll talk more about the differences (if any) between the Liberals and Conservatives, but not in terms of image or policy platforms but rather in the language of unities and divisions that exist among Canadian elites.

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