November 20, 2012
ATHABASCA, AB, Nov. 20, 2012/ Troy Media/ – Regardless of the result in the Calgary-Centre by-election next week, the real winner will be Stephen Harper.
Obviously he wins if the Conservative candidate Joan Crockatt takes the seat. Crockatt is a right-winger who has made clear that she will be an obedient backbencher who follows the government line on everything rather than trying to merely represent her local constituents. Following a longstanding and often successful Tory strategy, especially in Alberta, Crockatt refused to debate her opponents until a backlash from constituents forced her to appear on the weekend at one debate with the Liberal, Green, and NDP candidates who hope to unseat her.
But Harper arguably is a bigger winner in the long run if either the Liberal or Green candidates, both of whom have impressive resumes, manage to run ahead of Crockatt and take the seat. Two recent polls show Harvey Locke, the Liberal, closing in on Crockatt, with Green candidate Chris Turner behind but catching up to the two leaders, while the NDP candidate has dropped down to single digits in his support.
Of course, Harper would be embarrassed in the short term to lose a seat in Alberta, the most faithful province to Conservative ideology. But he will shuck the loss off as one of the vagaries of by-elections in which, after all, voters know that they are only electing a local representative and not a government. He will be able to bask in the predicted huge win the same evening in the by-election to replace the disgraced Bev Oda in Durham and not need to explain his party’s inability to defeat the NDP in its Victoria stronghold.
Harper will be the winner because an upset in Calgary Centre will feed the delusion that the parties of the centre in Canada (there is no left at the moment if one takes the stances of both the late Jack Layton and his successor, Thomas Mulcair, as the actual policies of the NDP) can continue to compete with one another in every electoral contest during the next general election in 2015, and do not need to cooperate in seats where the Tories are vulnerable.
Canadians, they will say, have decided to reject the Tory wrecking crew that is tearing apart Canada’s social programs, removing government oversight over everything from the environment to the safety of the food supply, and providing Canada with a militaristic and one-sided foreign policy. Each of the parties will argue that it offers Canadians the best set of alternative policies and personalities, and that, in any case, if a coalition is needed to defeat the Tories that it can be formed AFTER the election since the Tories have no chance of forming a second majority government.
But that is all nonsense. As recent polls by Abacus and Ipsos-Reid demonstrate, the Harper government has alienated only a small proportion of its 2011 social base. While the centrist parties don’t really quite get it, about a third or more of Canadians actually are conservative dinosaurs on economic issues. While they may not be consistent in their anti-government views, they generally trust businesses to make good decisions and think that government efforts to improve things generally backfire.
Perhaps three Canadians in five disagree and believe that government has an important role to play in the economy, in the preservation of Canadian identity, and in the creation of greater economic equality. But, with their votes divided among several parties, these centrist and left-leaning Canadians are less likely to elect a government than their American counterparts who represent half or less of the population.
Why? In part, this is because the Canadian Conservatives, when one excludes Quebec, are as plentiful as their American counterparts who face a united centrist effort. In 2011, the federal Conservatives won short of 40 per cent of all Canadian votes. But if Quebec is not included, that figure rises to an impressive 46 per cent. With the Greens on the rise, what are the real chances that in English Canada, three parties with only slight differences in policy that anyone outside of their small memberships can identify, will manage, while running against each other everywhere, to hold off a party that is just short of being the majority party outside Quebec?
Of course, there is the possibility that if the Conservatives appear to be corrupt or incompetent that a portion of their 2011 voters will move their votes to another party and make another majority victory unlikely.
The robocalls scandal might yet emerge as an issue that causes havoc for the governing party; or perhaps the economy will be in a shambles in 2015. But in the absence of something cataclysmic emerging, the likelihood is that the Tories and the boring Mr. Harper will still appear the most secure bet for the substantial conservative minority in Canada that can sometimes approach a Conservative majority in English Canada.
For progressives, that would be a disaster because the Conservatives are indeed making war on the poor, denigrating “entitlement” programs as if citizens have no right to social guarantees, and limiting the scope of government action. The longer they stay in power, the harder it will be to reverse their actions.
So what stops the Liberals, NDP, and Greens from coming to a working arrangement to give Canada a more progressive, if not exactly socialist, government? The simple answer is tribalism. Fewer than one per cent of Canadians belong to these parties, but those who join and stay in the parties get easily brainwashed into thinking that their little tribe is righteous, and the other two parties are insincere and tricky. In each party there are individuals with boring day jobs who long to be power-brokers in a government by their party tribe.
And there are long memories. The NDP, while taking credit for Canada’s social programs, claiming that only their pressures on Liberal party minority governments have produced important social programs like medicare and pensions, argue that the cutbacks by Liberal majority governments in the 1990s and early 2000s demonstrate that the Liberals are simply conservatives in disguise.
The Liberals denounce the NDP for having forced a federal election in 2005 when NDP polling numbers looked promising and thereby scuttling the Liberals’ proposed programs for national daycare, the Kelowna Accord, and the Kyoto Accord.
The Greens, who have never come close to governing anywhere in the country, can point to problems in the environmental records of both NDP and Liberal regimes.
But this is all self-defeating. These parties should be able to come up with an ambitious minimum program of the sort that Norway’s left and centrist parties produced to win the last two elections in that far more egalitarian country than Canada. Since they will be governing as a coalition, they would each have the ability to force their partners to live up to the promises in the program. They could then develop their own wish lists and long-term agendas which might allow the NDP to actually have policies that are not retreads of old Liberal policies, and the Greens to go beyond cliches to present a detailed vision of a Green economy for Canada. The Liberals can abandon their aggravating imprecise babble about balancing public and private needs, and produce some concrete policies, which they have completely failed to do since last losing federal office.
Most importantly, the majority of Canadians who want a more liberal or even left country will be able to pool their votes to throw out the Tories. Then, perhaps a centrist government could overhaul an outdated voting system, replacing first-past-the-post with some version of Proportional Representation, and conservatives, if they ever hope to govern again, would need the support of over 50 per cent of Canadians, not the fewer than 40 per cent who got them in last time around.
Canadians as a whole have given no mandate to any government to destroy the social fabric that emerged in the post-war period. But it is the centrist parties, not the Tories, who deserve the blame for what the Tories are doing.
By refusing to work together, they are giving the Canadian Tories the same carte blanche that Labour and the predecessor of today’s Liberal Democrats gave to Margaret Thatcher to use her minority of the vote to destroy the British welfare state, an accomplishment which a Labour government was unable to reverse after 18 years of Thatcherite rhetoric changed the basic social debate within that country.
Alvin Finkel teaches History at Athabasca University.
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