The Canadian Imagination

What it means to be Canadian; examining and reworking Canada as a nation.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Election 2006 - primary analysis

I was wrong. Or we were incredibly lucky. Or the people of Canada are capable of acting in a unified manner toward a common goal, the greater shape of which could not have been determined by any single riding, let alone individual. Or perhaps all three.

I am in awe. This is probably as good an outcome for the people of Canada as we could have hoped for. With the return of a western prime minister comes a first hope for true unity in nation in a long time: with western alienation and Québecois separatist tendencies both addressed and largely neutralised in a single stroke. (Unfortunately the aboriginal agreement will have to be started again from the beginning, although at least Harper has acknowledged its importance. Chalk it down to one can't have everything?) More: apart only from the Green party, this outcome comes as close to an expression of proportional representation as I yet have seen in any Canadian election (which is still on average 5% off the ideal across the board, a disparity which is sharpest regionally). Maybe that is why the dynamics of it will work so well.

I didn't see it coming. Individually, I had attempted to predict -- and case-by-case came much closer to the real outcome than I ever had expected to! -- but I just didn't have the time to look at the larger picture of what was coming into shape. How do you professional bloggers do it? Trying to keep up, this past month, was taking every single spare moment I had and trying to multiply it beyond recognition.
Bloc Québecois: 51
Conservatives: 124
Liberals: 103
NDP: 29
Independent: 1
What comes across most strongly here in an across-the-country generalisation is, not so much "punishment", as a sense that another return to the familiar structures would not, could not, solve anything. "Punishment" tends to focus on an abstract justice (in this case, turfing the Liberals), without regard for the consequences of the action. Often, it tends to result in successful huge majorities for wildly opposite parties in successive elections, the most recent notorious example of which might be the wild majority swings in Ontario post-Davis. Barring a few isolated cases and Alberta (where no one not Conservative really had a chance of winning, in this election), what happened here was not punishment ... although it most certainly did include hatred of the existing order.

Rather, I would term it caution, with a strong dash of consequence.

The Conservatives are voted into power: but -- defying all the January polls -- with about as weak a minority as can actually function through the first budget. Less, and the government would be too unstable to survive. More, and some might have suspected a frustrated national desire for a Conservative majority following a fully Conservative platform. (That no such desire exists outside Alberta has been made very clear.) The balance of power is such as to demonstrate national uneasiness with parts of the Conservative platform: social values, commodification, militarisation. The singular drought of Conservative seats specifically in Toronto also sends a direct and very specific message: whatever other solution is found, the Conservative platform as it relates to Toronto crime -- perhaps the major election issue -- is not acceptable to Toronto.

Thanks to the astute addressing of Québecois priorities and values in a federalist context: Harper now has a legitimate claim now to represent the entire country ... but only in compromise. It is a difficult position, but from the perspective of Canadians unwilling to trust any party at this point with the kind of power that could tempt either blind policy mandate or corruption, just about an ideal one. Step with care, Stephen: and appreciate, for you very much are the architect of what has been created tonight ... and in the course of what I have seen in this election, you have earned my respect.

The Liberals are handed a surprisingly strong mandate: not to oppose (for another thing that has been made clear was that there would be no tolerance of blind opposition quickly bringing down a government this time, let alone of sheganigans such as happened with the last throne speech), but to balance and anchor. Hatred, yes: but hatred specifically of individuals within a specific culture of entitlement -- and there the Liberals were punished, no question. But, interestingly, not hatred of Liberal fiscal and social policy. Had that existed, the Liberals might have pulled a Kim Campbell. Instead, they are given a sharp warning, across the country, and especially in the areas they had taken for granted. Every party would be wise to heed that warning, and take it into account in their own actions.

The NDP are handed a strong mandate: and this one we did see coming, only question was whether or not the NDP would be permitted to hold the balance of power in and of themselves. They were not. In fact the numbers end up very balanced: NDP + Conservative + independent = Liberals + Bloc (and one of the Conservative votes will almost certainly be lost to the speaker's chair). The only combination which cannot be overruled is that of Conservative + Bloc: more on this later. NDP centre of power is in traditional urban and industrial strongholds of immigration and labour, and this party does usually manage to take one seat of the three northern ones -- helps this time that Layton had actually taken the time to visit, in the middle of winter yet! Where NDP presence has not translated in the slightest into seats is in Québec and the prairies (especially Alberta): which might also relate partly to the growing rift between urban and rural expressed in these results. (But it is not an urban-rural split exactly either. Rather, the more civic "settled" the riding, the less likely it was to go Conservative.) The Bloc won't forget that there is considerable NDP sympathy in Québec ... but it might perhaps be too easy, in Alberta, to lose sight of the specifics of message sent by the rest of the country. Given Harper's stated willingness to seek national unity, these -- not so much regional, as lifestyle -- differences are something the Conservatives would be well advised to keep in mind.

The other party that was "punished" was the Bloc, even to the point of having one riding opt for the choice that was neither Liberal nor Bloc (nor any other political party). Failing even to achieve a 50% popular vote in an election where (had it not been for Harper's initiative) I had fully expected them to earn 65-70 of 75 seats and hardly anyone had projected fewer than 60, no longer can the Bloc claim to be the true voice of Québec. The people of Québec have sent a very different message here: it is no longer disruption that is wanted, but effective federal representation. For the time being at least, the Bloc can no longer be a separatist party.

It can, however, work with the Conservatives to entrench much stronger provincial powers and rights at the expense of the federal. In Alberta politics, weakening federal power goes back much further than the original Reform platforms: at least as far back as the Trudeau-Lougheed clashes over the oil boom and national energy policy. The one thing I expect definitely from this result is that federal-provincial powers will once again be redrawn, this time sharply in the provinces' favour: and since the provinces will never cooperate to lose already gained powers, the time of a strong centralist federal government in Canada is over, perhaps forever.

I will go into region by region discussion tomorrow.


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