Aftermath of the Unlikely Election

Now that the dust is starting to settle from last night’s results, and people (including myself) are starting to feel a little less shocked about the overall outcome, we can start to think about what is going to happen to the political landscape in the next four or five years.

First of all, the Conservatives deserve a congratulation for finally winning the coveted majority.  After seven years of minority governments, five of which were under the Conservatives, someone finally managed to end the Groundhog Day that was Canadian Federal politics.  But now comes the part where they convince the rest of us that giving them the majority was a good thing.  They no longer have any excuse of having to spend big dollars in order to appease the opposition.  If Harper doesn’t start governing in a competent, fiscally conservative manner, he will lose all credibility to call himself a conservative, and that will hurt him next time around.  Personally, I think that will be the hardest job for the new government, since they have grown so used to spending lots of money on anything they can think of.  I don’t think true fiscal conservatives will forgive them is they keeps spending money like they have been over the last 5 years.

The other thing they need to do is convince left and centre-left voters that they aren’t going to turn Canada into some American-style, so-con dictatorship, where abortion is illegal and gay marriage is banned, or whatever other insane arguments crop up every once in a while.  I think that will be the easiest thing for the Conservatives to do, since I always doubted they would ever do that in the first place.  There may be a few MPs that want that (and not just in the Conservative party) but clearly taking on that sort of agenda is political suicide, even in a majority government.

And as a fun bit of trivia, at the end of this majority mandate, Harper will have passed Brian Mulroney in length of time served as PM, putting him second of all time in terms of Conservative leaders.  That will also put him less than 2 years shy of Chretien’s record.

The second big winners of the election are obviously the NDP.  Jack layton led his party to a 175% increase in the number of seats to Official Opposition status.  He also decimated the Bloc Quebecois, which is making pretty much every non-spearatist in the country celebrate.  But the lasting legacy of this election is that the NDP has now been confirmed as a legitimate contender in the federal landscape.  After 40 years of also-ran status, the NDP has shown voters that they are not a wasted vote.  Soft support for the NDP will no longer automatically default to the Liberals in order to stop the Conservatives from winning an election.

With the Conservative majority, the chances of the NDP implementing any of its promises is essentially nil, but the NDP is now in it for the long game.  Nobody will underestimate them any more.  This may be wishful thinking on my part, but it’s possible that the increased scrutiny that comes from being mainstream will lead them to create platforms that isn’t based purely on wishful thinking.  It is theoretically possible to create a socialist platform grounded in actual economic reality, and the NDP has at least 4 years to build that platform.

The hardest part of the next 4 years for Layton will be keeping all of his support in Quebec.  Quebec voters have shown themselves to be very fickle (just ask the ADQ), so now is not the time to ignore the people who put you where you are today.

Lots of pundits are calling this election the end of Liberal Canada, and the end of the Liberal Party.  While this was a devastating blow, the Liberals will bounce back, but only after some serious introspection.  Their leader lost his seat, and this morning resigned as the leader.  Now is the perfect time to take stock of what they have and right their course.  If the Conservatives can come back from 2 seats in 1993 (yes, I realize that the Progressive Conservative are not exactly the same as the Conservatives) then the Liberals can come back from this.  It’s going to take a lot of work, and it’s still unclear if the current leadership knows exactly what went wrong.  Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff have both blamed attack ads on the Liberals’ poor showing, which indicates that they may be missing message that the voters sent them.  In his resignation speech, Ingatieff even said, “I think the surest guarantee of the future for the Liberal Party of Canada is four years of Conservative government and four years of NDP opposition.”  Clearly, the Liberals will be better off without him if he believes that.

Voters want a party that stands for something, and currently the Liberals only stand for being not the Conservatives.  Until they fix their identity problem, they will experience similar results at the polls.

The Bloc received an even bigger kick in the pants than the Liberals this time around.  I think the Bloc suffers from the same sort of identity problems as the Liberals do, but with less chance of recovery.  Like voters in the rest of Canada, I think that Quebecers want a party that stands for something, and a one-issue party dedicated to breaking up the country just wasn’t cutting it any more.  Jack Layton treated Quebecers almost like voters anywhere else, and the generally left-leaning Quebec electorate responded.

I think that the Bloc will have a very difficult time of recovering from this.  Gilles Duceppe was a good politician, but his party stopped resonating with voters.  At least the Liberals have the potential to stake a claim to the middle ground between the Conservatives and the NDP.  The Bloc have no hope at all if the voters decide they don’t care about separating.

Finally, the Greens had their minor win, with Elizabeth May winning her seat.  Unfortunately, that was overshadowed by the overall support dropping from 6.78% last election to 3.9% this election.  Elizabeth May better have an ace or two up her sleeve if she wants to grow her party’s support countrywide, because one opposition MP can’t always do a whole lot in a majority government.  This sitting of the House of Commons will be her time to shine, so hopefully she makes good use of it.

And as everyone has been saying, the election that nobody wanted has turned into a game changer for Canadian politics.  I think this will be an interesting 4-5 years.

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What happens if there is another Conservative minority?

If the current polls hold, then it seems very likely that the Conservatives will yet again win more seats than any of the other parties, and yet again will not win enough seats to gain a majority.  The the question is, what will Ottawa look like?

I personally think that the Conservatives will form a minority government.  Even though Michael Ignatieff has now clearly stated the conditions that would allow him to ask the Governor General to form a government, which would only happen if the Conservatives are unable to gain the confidence of the House.  I honestly doubt that Ingatieff would try this, unless it happened many months after the election.  Part of the reason that many people disliked the idea of a coalition last time is because it happened so soon after the previous election.  If Ignatieff tries to form a government too soon, it will look like he is trying to seize power without winning an election, and suddenly all of the “He’s just in it for himself” attack ads become true.  So I would say that he should probably wait at least a year before engineering the defeat of the Conservatives in order to at least make it seem like he is trying to ‘make government work.’

But a lot of things can happen in a year, and I expect a lot of changes if there is another Conservative minority.  First off, I doubt Ignatieff will last very long if he doesn’t win this election.  That will make two Liberal leaders in a row that are unable to deliver the party to their rightful place as the ‘natural governing party.’  I predict that there is already a number of very sharp knives waiting for Ignatieff to fail so someone else can have a shot.

So if Ignatieff resigns or is forced out, then the Liberals need to have a full campaign for leadership, which takes time.  The party also wouldn’t risk appointing someone else without a full campaign, since that’s how Ignatieff ended up in the leader’s seat.  And the party wouldn’t want to force an election if the leadership of the party is in flux.  And when the new leader comes to power, it will be unlikely that he or she will try to seize power without an election since that would automatically turn all the ‘contempt for democracy’ arguments back towards the Liberals.

I would also expect that Harper wouldn’t be too long sitting as Prime Minister, although he will definitely last longer than Ignatieff.  This will be his third election where the Conservatives have been unable to form a majority government.  If he can’t take advantage of the perpetually weak opposition, then many Conservative members will wonder if he is the right man for the job.  I don’t think that his ouster will be quite as public as Ignatieff’s, but he will eventually go.  He will probably act like he is leaving after a successful career in public service (which is true) but he will be forced out just the same.

So that leaves the Conservatives and the Liberals possibly looking for new leaders within the next year.  I think that probably the best possible situation for politics in Ottawa.  Getting rid of the current crop of leaders, especially the leaders of the two major parties could make a world of difference in improving the partisan bickering between the parties.  It will give the membership of both parties a chance to show that the status quo is not acceptable.  Both parties will be given a chance to pick a leader who is willing to work with others in order produce results that benefit all Canadians.

And what about Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe?  The NDP are still light years away from becoming a party that the voters trust to govern, regardless of whether or not Layton is leader.  The NDP can be trusted to oppose  whoever wins any election, because that’s what they do.  They have a long track record of opposing bills before reading them, and a short track record of compromise.  And of course the Bloc will happily extort money for Quebec no matter who is in charge.

The (not so) Great Debate

After watching the English leaders debate, I am left wondering what the point of the debate is.  From what I saw, I can’t imagine anyone basing their voting decision on what they saw there.

If I had to decide, I would say that Harper ‘won’ the debate solely based on the fact that the opposition members didn’t say anything that really stuck to him.  Layton, Ignatieff and Duceppe would all make accusations about Harper’s policies, and Harper would easily deflect them every time.  The opposition members never really made a serious attempt to attack Harper with any evidence or hard numbers, so Harper could easily say it wasn’t true, and then he would move on to mention all the great things that he has done in the last four years.  Ignatieff was especially bad for this because every time he had a chance to speak, he would mention at least four or five different issues with the Conservatives, but then Harper would respond to the one or two that he actually had a good defense for and then ignored the rest.  If Ignatieff was a little more focused, he probably could have done a better job of forcing Harper off of his talking points.  And as a bonus, Harper laid off the coalition boogeyman, which was becoming pretty tiring to listen to.

Speaking of which, Ignatieff was pretty terrible for most of the debate.  He wasn’t nearly focused enough to land any decent shots on Harper.  He also seemed to stutter a lot when he was trying to get through his talking points.  This was his chance to really shine as a viable alternative to Harper, but was lackluster by comparison.  He spent too much time with his “jets, jails, and corporate tax cuts” line, throwing it in wherever he could.  My biggest pet peeve was that he appears to forget that the corporate tax cuts have already pass in Parliament because the Liberals purposefully didn’t send enough MPs to the vote when they voted against it.  It rings a little hollow when you oppose something after having let it pass.

Layton did a bit better.  He had decent criticisms of both Harper and Ignatieff but still suffered from not being able to stick anything on Harper, although he did a reasonably good job of painting Ignatieff as a friend of the Conservatives for propping up the government repeatedly over the last few years.  And the high point for the night was when Layton mentioned ‘bling’, when talking about gangs.  That almost made the two-hour ordeal worth watching.

Duceppe was far less entertaining than he was in the previous debates.  It almost seemed like he wasn’t trying.  I do expect him to do better in the French debate, when people that actually care about him will watch him debate.

The worst part of all was that the questions that were asked were for the most ignored by the candidates.  They generally started with the general theme of the questions and then veered off towards whatever talking points that they waned to get to.  It’s hard to find out where the party leaders stand on specific issues when they ignore the question and then talk about something else entirely.

The format of the debate was pretty bad too, although it was better than the last election, with the roundtable of everyone against Harper.  The one-on-one format seemed like it could have been interesting, but seeing Duceppe and Layton go head to head on multiculturalism was about as useless of a discussion as I can imagine.

As I said, I can’t really imagine anyone changing their decision based on this debate.  No new policy planks were mentioned, and there was no ‘knockout’ that people seem to expect from these debates even though they never occur.  It was really just a continuation of the bickering that we have all come to expect from the people we keep sending to Ottawa.