Grade: I'd give this election a "D." No party succeeded in its aims, save possibly the BQ, which held its own when as recently as a few months ago the party appeared at last to have proved its uselessness to Quebeckers. This election wasn't about something; no party passed the Tim Hortons test of making any issue the topic of daily conversation among Canadians, again excepting the Bloc, which held off the Tories by seeking for itself a protest vote against Harper's pre-election arts cuts and proposed stiffer sentences for youth offenders. Ultimately, there were two issues, not of the parties' making: the perceived insensitivity of Harper over the generalized fear among Canadians about frightening world economic conditions, and whether Harper could be trusted with a majority.
The Tory setback: Harper came into this election telling Canadians he expected no party to win a majority, while secretly plotting for one. That was, at best, disingenuous: If Harper was indeed anticipating another two or three years of the status quo - which is what Tuesday's results yielded - why call an election that no one, least of all the public, wanted? Harper's answer was that the opposition was relentlessly sabotaging his government's ability to govern. That was a lie, as was pointed out at the time: The opposition repeatedly rolled over for Harper, supporting his two budgets and scores of bills, because Harper made even routine legislation matters of confidence, daring the Grits to force an election. The Liberals, mired in debt and hobbled by a new, untested leader, never called Harper's bluff. There was nothing stopping Harper from governing effectively for another year or two.
It was Harper who insisted upon and obtained fixed-election-date legislation. And it was Harper who was the first to break that law. Not because the nation was in crisis, but in hopes of gaining a majority at the expense of a Bloc thought to be crumbling and the inexpertise of Dion. He fell short, of course. In three outings under Harper, the Conservatives have failed to win a majority or even crack 40 per cent electoral support. (The Tories this time got under 38% of the vote.) The Tories were shut out of Newfoundland and Labrador, failed to make expected gains in Quebec. continued to be a non-factor in most of urban Ontario, and failed even to knock off a vulnerable and Tory-targeted Ralph Goodale, the lone Liberal in Saskatchewan.
Harper said Tuesday night, "The voters have entrusted us with a strengthened mandate to continue to lead...and to take the country forward." Not true.
A mandate to do what, exactly? Harper didn't ask Canadians for a mandate to do anything. He ran on his record, on the Tories' supposed competence, not on a vision for the future. Even by those unchallenging standards, the Tories remain sufficiently distrusted that 62% of ballots were cast for someone other than the Tories. That's not a mandate. Especially with Tuesday's disturbingly low voter turnout (not surprising given the paucity of issues).
Issues there are, and it's a disgrace to the parties that they failed or didn't try to engage the country in a debate about them. They include a troubled Afghanistan mission, the growing gap between rich and poor, nearly 900,000 Canadian children living in poverty, stagnant middle-class incomes over the past two decades, the hollowing out of Central Canada's manufacturing sector, appalling conditions in Native Canadian communities...one could go on. But even the environment failed to become an issue, because Dion so thoroughly bungled the marketing of the Grits' Green Shift that the Tories were able to duck responsibility for their own sanguine response to the climate-change crisis.
Red is blue. The Grits were the big losers on the night, suffering a loss of 18 seats, and their lowest share of the vote (26%) in modern times. The Liberal base has been reduced to the Greater Toronto Area and Montreal's west island. That's about it. In the Trudeau years, the West became a wasteland for Grits. Now the Liberal brand no longer sells in much of northern, rural and small-town Ontario, is poison in most of Quebec, and weak in Atlantic Canada. If Danny Williams hadn't declared war on Harper over oil-revenue sharing, the Grits would have suffered reversals in Newfoundland and Labrador, and as it is lost one of the four PEI seats.
As a former Grit insider said on CBC Television Tuesday night, "The buyers' remorse with Dion set in the day after he was elected leader. He was chosen because his name wasn't Rae or Ignatieff." Excuses were made Tuesday night regarding Dion's relatively brief tenure. But he had two years to recruit star candidates and develop a blueprint for Canada's future - an exercise the Liberals subjected themselves to after their humiliation at the hands of John Diefenbaker in 1958. Out of power, the Liberals of necessity developed a social-policy agenda that kept them in power from the early 1960s to 1984, and again from 1993 to 2006. By that second stretch, though, the Liberals had run out of ideas. Under Chretien, the Grits governed as Tories, and now they don't stand for anything. Liberal policy wonks would disagree. But that's the public perception, and we saw the results last night.
Obviously Dion has to go. He fails to connect with everyday Canadians, his caucus doesn't like him, and - as with Joe Clark - the knives were out even before the election. Unless the Grits want to invite two more years of internal upheaval, time that could be spent developing a new, convincing vision of Canada's future under a new leader, they're looking at another trouncing in the next election.
Blocked: Harper was thwarted from gaining a majority in largest degree by a party dedicated to the proposition that Quebec should separate from Canada. Absurdity doesn't begin to describe this. The Grits, for that matter, also are thwarted from forming a government by the two-thirds of Quebec seats held by the Bloc, a party that can accomplish nothing for Quebeckers, obviously doesn't run candidates outside Quebec, and whose 49 members elected last night will collectively be paid a $7.4 million annual sinecure. Plus these separatists get to vote on matters affecting all citizens of a country the separation from which is their sole purpose.
CBC Television commentator Andrew Coyne made the useful point last night that two relatively trifling issues - Harper's supposed neglect of the arts and his proposed youth-crime changes - were a sufficient bludgeon for Duceppe to convince Quebec nationalists to prevent a Tory majority. (See note below.) This after Harper made official Quebec's status as a "nation," gave it quasi-national status at Unesco, and appointed from among his tiny Quebec caucus men who held senior cabinet posts. From last night's Quebec results Coyne took that there is no satisfying Quebeckers. He might have added that this has been the case since the Quiet Revolution of the early 1960s. Duceppe put it in words during the English-language debate, when the topic was how the feds could do more to help the provinces fund health-care demands. Duceppe was all for that, as long as the feds didn't attach any strings - such as, for instance, monitoring the use of that taxpayers' money to determine that wait times were indeed being reduced. "Ottawa has never run a hospital," Duceppe snapped. "Just give us the money, and let us do our job."
In fairness, Duceppe is in company with past and present premiers who - it's part of the job description- say things to the same effect, although they haven't been dedicated to the breakup of Canada. Washington doesn't run hospitals either, save within the Veterans' Administration, but carefully monitors how its Medicaire and Medicaid payouts are spent - a good thing, too, because private-hospital fraud of those two programs is rampant.
This is the problem with Harper's decentralization agenda, the core of his political being. At a time when national governments from Washington to London to Berlin grasp that their abdication of oversight of financial markets has been the height of folly, and are taking control of a global banking system that cannot run itself, we have a PM who promised Quebec ever less "interference" in its affairs and has nothing to say about the environmental catastrophe taking shape in the Athabasca tar Indeed, Harper has bought into the whining of premiers like Jean Charest and Dalton McGuinty that there is a "fiscal imbalance" which in fact is illusory except in the minds of provincial treasurers. Harper's agenda of the gradual dismantling of Canada is a no-sale with Canadians. When the Grits grasp that reality, and figure out how to pitch themselves as uniters of what already is the most decentralized major economy in the world, they will have a future again.
The big Dip. Despite its seat gains last night - in percentage terms the highest of the major parties -the NDP showed again that it's simply not viable. By North American standards, Canada is a socially progressive land, yet our most socially progressive party chronically fails to impress Canadians even in the most liberal parts of the country - notably Quebec and Atlantic Canada. For too many Canadians, a ballot for the NDP remains a "wasted" vote. For too many Canadians, the NDP is a socialist party of impractical or dangerously radical ideas. Under six leaders since the party was founded nearly a half century ago, electoral futility has been the NDP's defining characteristic.
The Layton brain trust poured an unprecedented amount of money into this campaign, determined at least to achieve official opposition status. It spent about $1 million in Quebec alone, where it held exactly one seat at dissolution, money that would have been better spent getting Peggy Nash, one of the most effective rookie MPs in modern Parliamentary history, re-elected in Parkdale-High Park, where she was defeated by Gerrrard Kennedy - a rare Liberal seat gain. The gambit took the NDP from 29 to 37 seats, but the NDP's share of the vote was essentially unchanged at 18%. The NDP, currently led by a fluently bilingual Quebec native, was once again unable to win a persuasive concentration of seats outside of its redoubt in the West. And even there it isn't dominant federally to match its prowess in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and B.C. provincial politics.
The realistic future for the NDP is a reverse takeover of the Liberals. But that would require the NDP to win on the order of 60 seats - almost double what it achieved with all its might Tuesday - for the topic even to be raised. And the Grits would have to continue to be wandering aimlessly, which one expects won't last forever.
The Groans. The Greens are a substantial force in European politics, but after about two decades, appear unlikely to become so here. The party's 7% share of the popular vote Tuesday is spread so thin that the Greens posed a threat in not one riding across Canada. Its campaign was an embarrassment, leader Elizabeth May having happily conceded in the midst of it that her centrepiece environmental policy was effectively identical to that of Dion. Talk about hitching yourself to a mule. In the debates, May consumed a lot of airtime without saying much. One could certainly make that assertion about the other participants during those two 2-hour timewasters. But by parroting Dion, who in Boy Scout fashion chose not to run a candidate against May in the Central Nova riding failed to win last night - May made Harper and Layton's initial argument that May didn't belong in the debates because she's a surrogate for Dion. (Given that Duceppe has nothing of value to tell non-Quebeckers, neither should the Bloc be in the English-language debate. The weakness of the debates, in comparison with the McCain-Obama set-tos, is chiefly the over-abundance of yakkers, none of whom is able to hold the floor long enough to make a coherent point.)
By some miracle the Greens could fashion an absolutely irresistable global-warming policy, which immediately would be stolen by one or more of the established parties - the ones actually capable of electing people to the Commons. The Greens in Canada have lost their novelty factor without parlaying it into something that rises above a parlour game. Its 15 minutes are up.
And with that, I bid you adieu. Many thanks for dropping by, and enduring posts as long as this one.
Note: With his crack about artists as folks who attend black-tie soirees, champagne flutes in hand, Harper cast himself as what Steve Paikin, the English-language debate moderate, suggested was a "barbarian" in many minds. As with his suggestion that Canadians take advantage of stock-market bargains, a few days before the market crashed by 18% in a a single week, Harper yet again had a tin ear for what's on the minds of his constituents. On Monday, the Globe's Jeffrey Simpson noted that Harper's pre-election trims to arts and culture spending were "itsy-bitsy cuts to two cultural programs in the context of an enlarged arts budget [that] should not have been a problem...In Quebec, however, they became a cause celebre for nationalists [and] manna for the Bloc..." One imagines a Bill Clinton in his best days, the Great Explainer, in a press conference with a white board showing overall arts and culture spending at a record high under his government, and explaining in detail why the two programs he cut had become obsolete. But no, Harper chose instead to mischaracterize artists, who even the great unwashed, including your humble servant, understand to be in various states of penury most of their lives.