June 22, 2004

Who's on first?

If the latest poll numbers from Ipsos-Reid (for the Globe and Mail) are right, then the Liberals have finally managed to stop and even reverse the freefall they have been in since the election was called. Could the all-important political momentum be shifting?

If so, then it might be time to cue up the "the only poll that counts is the one on election day" rhetoric for Stephen Harper and the Conservatives.

This has been an intriguing election campaign, to say the least. Watching it from abroad (Australia) has made the entire experience even more surreal than it might have been from home, in Ottawa Centre.

Everyone knows the story by now. Paul Martin -- man of destiny, winner of 90% of his party's support for the leadership, poised to win a crushing majority -- has experienced a precipitous fall from grace. The low point, from the perspective of political pride, might be when Gilles Duceppe called Jean Chretien a stronger fighter and campaign opponent in an interview with a Calgary newspaper a few days ago.

Stephen Harper, leader of a united right (if you don't count the bits of the right running as Liberals and independents as a result of this "unity"), is suddenly talking about moving into 24 Sussex.

Both the NDP and the Green Party are enjoying a surge in support, while the Bloc Quebecois is gleefully picking up the shattered remains of the Liberal party in Quebec.

What the hell is going on? A lot of people are saying that it's something quite Canadian. The desire, every once in a while, to evict the all-too-comfortable governing party -- more often than not the Liberals -- to teach them a brief, albeit dramatic, lesson. Indeed, change is in the air and a lot of people think the Liberal deserve an electoral spanking for a mounting series of scandals and "oopses" that culminated with the sponsorship scandal (which, for the record, has everyone outside of Canada extremely confused.)

The problem with punishing the Liberals this time around is that this might be a case of biting off the nose to spite the face. This is the message that the Liberals, of course, have been trying to push. It may finally be working, if the latest polls are any indication.

You see, it's all good and well to reward the Liberals' indiscretions -- small and large -- with a term (or a few) out of office, but then of course somebody else will have to take over the driver's seat. That somebody, currently the Conservative Party of Canada (the artist formerly known as the Alliance), would appear to not be taking Canada in the direction that most Canadians want.

Amazingly, Stephen Harper has managed to dodge many of the issues that would pit an overwhelming majority of Canadians against Conservative Party policies. I'm not talking about gay marriage or abortion, which have become election issues (and where Paul Martin has flip-flopped, on the former, as much as Stephen Harper has hidden behind free votes and private members' bills). I'm talking about things like the Kyoto Protocol and the war in Iraq, which are still largely off the radar screen.

These are issues where Liberal decisions driven ahead by a free-wheeling Jean Chretien typically commanded in the order of 65-85% support among Canadians in polls. Stephen Harper promises to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol (although this may be a pander to his constituency which he knows he will be unable to fulfill under a minority government situation) and has effectively disavowed his own and Stockwell Day's lobbying, including a pointed article in the Wall Street Journal, to send Canadian troops to fight alongside the so-called "coalition of the willing" in Iraq. On the latter issue, even conservative media have taken to panning Harper's flagrant about-face.

It doesn't add up until you realize, as various newspaper pundits have pointed out in the last week, that the Conservatives only have about 30% support across Canada in most polls. On June 28, they may fail to capture even the sum of support for the Alliance and Progressive Conservative in the 2000 election. The distribution of the vote could put them in a strong minority position, but it gives the remaining parties, arguably all centre-left (particularly if you generously consider the late-term Jean Chretien version of the Liberals) when it comes to social, environmental, and foreign policy, 2/3 or better of popular Canadian support, which jives much better with issue-specific polling on everything from abortion to Kyoto.

The Liberals have done about as good a job capitalizing on this fact as they have selling their economic record -- which is to say not good at all. Liberal-friendly advisors, official and unofficial, as well as scores of mystified by-standers, have urged the Liberals to run on their record and on a united, progressive Canada. Run on the future of our country! Run on the vision of Trudeau!

For the longest time the message was not sinking in. Paul Martin had, now infamously, jettisoned his own record along with that of Jean Chretien. But Chretien had, if nothing else, a good read on the Canadian "mood". His decisions during his "farewell tour" year or so in office had often resonated with Canadians. Chretien, suddenly liberated from tight political obligations and the Martin-as-Finance era debt-cutting mantra, seemed more a son of Trudeau than ever before.

Now it is hard for Martin to run on this record and legacy. He is reduced to running against Mulroney-ism instead of with Trudeau-ism. His pride only part-swallowed, he has called on some Chretien supporters for help with the election (Stephane Dion), while others are campaigning only for their local candidate (Jean Chretien himself, for example) or in their own limited interests (Sheila Copps is stumping for Dennis Mills in Toronto-Danforth). Paul Martin has stayed stubbornly on a vague and non-differentiating health care message and, for all the supposed inspiration of the "politics of achievement," has not managed to muster up a -- dare I say it -- Chretien-esque vision of Canada. Jean Chretien, of course, was ribbed by the media and critics for allegedly being unable to speak either of Canada's official languages. Yet, as a campaigner, it seems he was much more capable of summoning up feelings of national pride -- of succeeding in branding the Liberals as "Canada's party." His trademark speech-closer "Vive le Canada!" made you want to shout out a vehement "damn right!", even when you weren't sure exactly what you were agreeing to (Jean Chretien's vision of Canada was not always a model of 20-20 clarity).

The subtext to this entire election, then, may be as much about good old party politics as anything else. The Martinites take-over of the Liberal party[*] left it weak and vulnerable, prone to going off-message and missing many of its stars and staunchest defenders, old (Sheila Copps, John Manley, Brian Tobin, etc.) and new (Martin Cauchon, Maurizio Bevilacqua, etc.).

The Alliance take-over of the Canada-founding Progressive Conservative Party will at some point go down in history, once it is rightly and properly noticed. The lawsuits will eventually all die, and the independents are unlikely to last long in political life as such, but eventually more ears will perk up to the words of disaffected ex-Tories. It is, in fact, one of the curiosities of this election how many people are already lining up, no doubt some self-servingly, to take down the new Conservative Party. Joe Clark endorsed Paul Martin over Stephen Harper. David Orchard is writing more OpEds than Canadian newspapers know what to do with. A group of Tories (ex-politicians and public servants) have backed up Anne McLellan in her fight to retain her Alberta seat. It's hard to read the news these days without coming across some new right-wing source that has warned Canadians about Stephen Harper and the Conservatives.

The range of criticisms of the Conservatives is quite broad. Some simply lament what they see as the manipulative passing of the Progressive Conservative party at the hands of Peter MacKay. And where is Peter MacKay in all of this? Very quiet, of course. Why? Because the Conservative party doesn't want you thinking the following thought: it's o.k. to promise and sign something saying you won't do something and then do it anyway, but only if that something is uniting the right and doing away with the Progressive Conservative party ("Peter MacKay is a hero!") and not, say, raising taxes in Ontario ("Dalton McGuinty is a liar!").

Many of the criticisms are policy-related, though. There is one camp that is afraid of the overall direction Stephen Harper would take the country in, largely in terms of social policy (abortion, gay rights, etc.) and democratic institutions (the nature and powers of an elected Senate, a change to judicial appointments, etc.). There is another camp that can't believe the Conservative Party's "tax less and spend more" numbers. The latest critic on this front, amazingly, was the conservative C.D. Howe Institute. What next? Will the Fraser Institute call Stephen Harper's social conservatism extreme?

Both camps, however, are ultimately afraid of two things. One is what's being referred to as the hidden agenda. What exactly is Stephen Harper not getting at when he says things like "That's not part of my/our campaign" or "We've already talked enough about that" or "That's just shows the desparation by the Liberals ... next question!" What is hidden behind the potentially deadly combination of private members' bills and free votes (potentially not too much, if Stephen Harper has a very weak minority government)? And what government programs will have to be cut for the Conservative numbers to work out (one Liberal half-joked that no fewer than eight government departments would have to be eliminated to do the math)? The other fear is what some might refer to as certain trends towards Republican/George Bush-style Americanization. These fears are usually expressed in reference to the anticipation of deficits under the proposed Conservative platform. There are also concerns that some of the democratic reforms (particularly proposed reform to judicial appointments) sound nice in theory but have proved troublesome in practice, failing to eliminate, and sometimes ratcheting up, heavy-handed partisanship. The pro/anti-U.S. policy divide is most heated between the Conservative Party and the NDP, in this election (missile defense, anyone?).

Continuing on with party politics, it's worth noting that the Green Party is led by a former Progressive Conservative (and is indeed fairly progressive; also, the platform policies are apparently assembled from the grassroots of the party), while Jack Layton has seized the reigns at the NDP and tugged the partly gently to the right, with a suffusion of green, in a so-far successful effort for more mainstream acceptance and popular success.

Everyone is predicting the race will go down to the wire. Those who vote strategically will be wringing their hands over the confusing options. Do you vote for the NDP, trying to send a message to the Liberals about their slide to the right and hoping for an NDP-backed Liberal minority? But then what if that in fact sends the vote to the Conservatives? But if you vote for the Liberals as a flanking defence against the Conservatives, what about the NDP? Should you vote for the Greens as a protest against the Liberals, thus spurning the ruling party but without handing marginal seats to the NDP? What about voting for the Greens to give them enough of the popular vote for government funding, but thus denying the NDP, say, their breakthrough year? If you're a former red Tory, do you vote Conservative to send a signal to the left-leaning Liberals or Liberal to send a signal to the right-pitching Conservatives? Similar issues arise in Quebec, where so-so federalists are wondering whether to support the Bloc, at the obvious risk of heading down separatist lane once more, because of the Liberals' sponsorship boondoggle. If you're an Alliance supporter in Quebec, do you bite your socially conservative tongue and vote for the Bloc to deny the Liberals?

Me, I'm watching the Toronto-Danforth battle. Jack Layton took a gamble in trying to unseat the very popular Dennis Mills, who decided to stick around in politics just to fight this election (Mills was also selected as constituency MP of the year by the Hill Times). It could be devastating for Jack Layton if he loses (he did last time by some 7000 votes, I believe), although if the NDP does extremely well his personal defeat will likely be forgotten, and a seat will be found for him, whether by sacrifice or by by-election. The Liberals would also hate to lose Mills, who is ironically on the left side of the party on some issues and is considered one of the party's visionaries (credits include the Pope's visit, the SARS-stock Rolling Stones extravaganza, and the proposed U.N. Peace University; he even mused about moving the entire U.N. from New York to Toronto -- good luck!). And guess who else is in the running? Jim Harris, the leader of the Greens. As Mills noted in a recent interview, no doubt intending to invoke a David-against-two-Goliaths, he's the only Liberal running against two national leaders. Of course, this means that both Layton and Harris have probably spent less time in their riding than they would have otherwise. That's not necessarily so bad for Mr. Mills, is it?

The only people more dizzy than strategic voters would be the party leaders themselves, who are jockying for position in what has all the makings of a new reality T.V. show: "Who wants to be a minority government partner?" Here it's a question of what will be sacrificed for that coveted position? Jack Layton has apparently said he would drop the inheritance tax proposal in a minority situation, while Paul Martin has agreed to look at proportional representation. On the flip side, Stephen Harper is holding his cards pretty close after getting burned early on for his enthusiasm at the prospect of working with the separatist Bloc. Paul Martin is actively trying to cultivate that link (a vote against the Liberals equals a vote for a Conservative-Bloc nightmare), while Jack Layton is doing his best to fight the same notion (because many of the aforementioned strategic voters might panic about a Conservative government and withdraw support for the NDP in favour of helping the Liberals survive the Conservative challenge). The Bloc, meanwhile, has released a long list of no-no's (no pulling out of Kyoto, no backtracking on abortion, etc.), but it's unclear whether these social justice promises would hold up against the tantalizing promise of devolution of powers to the provinces. Gilles Duceppe would appear to have an easy escape hatch on this one: "Well, we'll have to give up on Kyoto/gay marriage/whatever for now, but in a few years when we're our own country, we'll bring all of it back in! Think of the long term!"

I've already sent in my "special ballot" (which Elections Canada very promptly delivered to me in Australia -- thanks Elections Canada!). So I'm just hoping that the candidate I voted for isn't revealed as an "evil reptilian kitten-eater from another planet" in the last few days of the campaign. Happy voting!

[*] Incidentally, op-ed page writers love to refer to Martin's tight, nationwide grip on the "Liberal party machinery", as though they're in on a little secret about his success. I just wish one of them would be able to (or could be bothered to) explain -- with some more in-depth analysis -- what exactly that means or how Martin accomplished it. I can only imagine that several of the books out about Martin and the Liberal party would explain. Sure sounds impressive, though. "That Martin. He sure has a grip on the party machinery!" It sounds like a good "wink, wink" line for parties.

Posted by anatole at June 22, 2004 09:46 PM

This year's version of the reptilian kitten-eater was the charge that Paul Martin supports child porn. Clearly this is nonsense. Jan Wong supports child porn.

(For the record, I support URL linking in blog comments, which I could have used to back up my wild accusations.)

Posted by: Alasdair at June 26, 2004 01:54 AM


I double-checked my settings and URL linking is allowed, actually, just not in the context of full use of HTML.

For example:

Posted by: Anatole at June 27, 2004 10:08 PM