The Canadian Imagination

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

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

No one won. There was nothing to win.

Rex Murphy may be a neoconservative in denial, but in this single comment he has caught at that essential truth that transcends political boundaries.

After all the swings and sweaters and stutters and what are still the first low hills of an economic roller coaster that may end up reshaping global infrastructure, the final result was exactly what we all knew it would be, long before Stephen Harper ever called it. Nothing has changed, except our vision of ourselves.

Harper's Conservatives gained the largest number of seats, 143/308: but he gambled everything on finally gaining a Conservative majority, and lost. He dominated vote-rich Ontario, and lost. All that saved him the slight increase he did count was the stock market dead cat bounce of the past two days. Had the stock market happened to slide the other direction on that crucial Monday, so would his minority.

Stéphane Dion's Liberals clung to 76/308 seats. He gambled everything on Canada's being ready to accept the tiniest of steps away from isolated individualism and toward social justice, not even to iron out inequities in our societal fabric but to invest in the future: but it was painted (inaccurately) as increased taxes, and he lost. The Liberal party gambled everything on anglo Canada being willing to hear the message of a vrai francophone, one who speaks English as most of the anglophone leaders speak French: and they lost. That last comes down to a simple mathematical equation: more Canadians don't speak French than don't speak English, while at the same time we seem to understand anything less than perfect fluency in our language as somehow reflecting intelligence and leadership alike. We are an increasingly unforgiving nation.

(We could be otherwise, but forgiveness is no longer seen as a virtue, and other people no longer have a face. There are those who speculate that economic cycles are driven by new technologies displacing old but outdated ones. Perhaps it is time and even healthy that our modern communications and image-building media be displaced in their turn ... to be replaced by what?)

Michael Ignatieff has already all but declared his candidacy for the Liberal leadership, Bob Rae edged into that territory, never mind that there is still a determined "anyone but Ignatieff or Rae" Liberal contingent. They represent the two primary extremes of the Liberal party, hard conservative and ... not liberal as the Americans understand liberal, no longer labour either, call it something close to the Greens' pragmatic economics. We saw the first cracks of it in the rift between Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien. Dion was a temporary band-aid over it. This time, rather than compromising each with the other, the Liberals will tear themselves apart.

Jack Layton's New Democratic Party is ecstatic tonight, perhaps thinking that the gain of a few seats to 37/308 somehow represents a greater power in Parliament than they had in the previous session. A significant part of those changes rides on the backs of transplanted Newfoundlanders, those family men who have never completely ceased to be migrants of economic necessity: and so a riding in solid blue Conservative Alberta, Edmonton-Strathcona, might turn a colour other than Conservative blue for the first time in decades. Their livelihood challenges create NDP fortune. But the celebrants perhaps forget that before, the Conservatives always required the co-operation of two parties to pass legislation. Now, they will only require one: and the NDP are their polar opposites. Layton's NDP may have gained seven seats, but they have lost all real power.

The Bloc Québecois has once again consolidated its 50/308 power base in Québec, and once again awareness of what the Bloc is begins and ends with the francophonie. If Dion has little that anglophone Canada is willing to hear, Gilles Duceppe has less. The deep francophone parts of Canada voted francophone, Liberal and Bloc Québecois, rejecting anglophone interests entirely; and the deep anglophone parts of Canada voted anglophone, Conservative and NDP, rejecting francophone interests entirely. However, in the current structure their presence guarantees Harper the passage of any legislation that increases provincial power at the expense of a federal unity. How many ways can we possibly rift this country?

The Green party edged up another few tenths of a percentage in the popular vote, to 6.8%. They also lost the single seat they had negotiated in the previous session of Parliament.

Two independents won, running campaigns independent of party structure. One is for all intents and purposes a Conservative wearing civilian clothes, and will probably become a Conservative in truth as soon as Harper accepts his petition to join the Conservative caucus. We are a long way from Chuck Cadman, who was able to set all partisan loyalties aside in the best interests of his country.

All these numbers, these superficial changes, resulted entirely from a popular vote change of less than 2% per party, and an electoral turnout that at 59.8% was the worst in Canadian history. Four times in six years Canadians have gone to the polls. Each was billed as a pivotal election. This time, three hundred million dollars later, nothing has changed, and everything. Nearly half of all eligible Canadians chose not to vote.

For all that the numbers have changed such that now the Conservatives only require the support of any one of the other parties, sooner or later Harper will start running this session of Parliament as though he had a majority, and in time the other three sitting parties will lose patience. Rex Murphy's prediction notwithstanding, this 40th session of Parliament will last a much shorter time than its predecessor. With rotating co-operation, the Conservatives might as well be running a majority: and thus there is no percentage in co-operation.

Even with all this, we go into these uncertain times in better shape than virtually any other country in the world, without qualification.

Has politics become utterly irrelevant?

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