Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Canadian election on 23 January

If the Canadian elections result in a Conservative victory we can expect a flurry of excitement in The Australian but some background is required ( I will ignore the Quebec issue). From an Australian perspective Canada is a land in which the Labor Party started out as the Country Party and the Liberal Party started out as One Nation. The left-right division is there but arranged very differently.

Canada entered the twentieth century like Australia with a liberal and conservative party, although unlike Australia the Liberals tended to free trade and the Conservatives to protection. Unlike Australia however farmers (particularly in the west) felt themselves oppressed by eastern capitalists and Conservative protectionist and inclined to the left. In the 1930s farmer organisations, some unionists and socialists united to form the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). The rise of the Federation is beautifully described in Lipset'’s Agrarian Socialism; Lipset is still alive and is the last of those young Jewish socialists who found their way to neo-conservatism, although he never went as far as some. Many thought that the CCF would supplant the Liberals as the party of the left (as had occurred in Australia) but this never occurred. The Liberals moved leftwards in a New Dealish kind of way, many pragmatic unionists stuck with the Liberals, the Canadian Communists supported the Liberals during WW2, and the Liberals held the culturally dissident vote: French Canadians, Catholics and First Nations. In the early 1960s the CCF reformed as the New Democratic Party (NDP) and shifted its appeal from farmers, a shrinking and increasingly conservative group, towards workers and the intelligentsia. In western Canada the CCF largely supplanted the Liberals as the left party. In 1944 it was elected to office in Saskatchewan, under the leadership of Tommy Douglas, grandfather of Kiefer Sutherland , as the first socialist government in North America and currently governs there and in Manitoba. However in eastern Canada the Liberals remained the dominant party of the left. It has been the same nationally; the NDP has never been able to supplant the Liberals. Former NDP members often join the Liberals as the only way to national office. The current Liberal Health minister was NDP premier of British Columbia, where he led the NDP to its worst ever defeat.

In 1993 the old party system was smashed not from the left but from the right. By the 1980s western Canadians no long saw themselves as oppressed by eastern capitalists but by high-taxing governments too beholden to Quebec, and they considered the Conservatives (in government since 1984) as much to blame for this as the Liberals. In 1993 they dumped the Conservatives en masse for a One Nation style populist right party; Reform. The Conservatives plummeted to 2 seats and the Liberal returned to power. The split in the right-wing vote between Reform (later renamed Canadian Alliance) and the Conservatives helped the third-wayish Liberals to easy victories in 1997 and 2000. The NDP was a distant third; it was hard hit by the disastrous term of an NDP government in Ontario (1990-95) which led to the loss of all its electorates in this industrial heartland and the rise of Reform which captured the western protest vote for the right. As the NDP challenged the centre-left Liberals from further to the left it was particularly disorientated by the crisis of the socialist project. Its current leader has tried to appeal to anti-corporate globalisation sentiment with some success, but the Greens now erode the NDP vote from the left. In 2003 the right reunited as the ‘Conservative Party of Canada’. The old Conservatives were an eastern establishment party, but Reform was influenced by the American right and tended to a religious social conservatism. In 2004 the scandal-ridden Liberals had a narrow victory over the new Conservatives, largely because many voters saw the Conservatives as being too extreme. Now however the Conservatives are leading in the polls, they seem to have been more successful in distancing themselves from the religious right, and like John Howard in 1996 presenting themselves as a moderate alternative (some Conservatives fear they have sold out) to a complacent government, even although the economy is booming, as the Liberals have highlighted. Liberals are depressed or very depressed and fear that many normal Liberal voters will abstain. NDP supporters are feeling more confident. The apparent Conservative shift to the centre also advantages the NDP, left-wing voters are less likely to rally around the Liberals to stop the Conservatives (this is encouraged by Canada'’s first past the post system), and the NDP has appealed to left-leaning Liberals. This appeal has been assisted by the replacement of Jean Chretian as Liberal leader and PM by Paul Martin, Chretian had a more left image than Martin.

What will happen on the 23rd? Current polls of decided voters have the Conservatives ahead about 37% to 29% for the Liberals with 18% for the Quebec based Bloc Quebecois and 5% for the Greens. Betting markets are more positive about the Liberals however. The Conservatives have made up substantial ground. Some in the NDP are now dreaming about the possibility of finishing second if there is a Liberal collapse. It is difficult to see where they could win the electorates to achieve this. I think the Liberals have enough safe seats, largely definable in terms of ethnic diversity, whilst NDP will struggle to gain Conservative seats (although a Liberal collapse will help them in western Canada). With first past the post and five parties predicting seat outcomes is a lottery but even an 11% swing from the Liberals to the NDP, which would put the NDP ahead in votes, would leave it behind in seats the NDP has to rely on the Conservatives substantially increasing their vote to have hope of beating the Liberals into second.

When the Australian press has mentioned Canada it has been in the context of debates about foreign policy and ties between the Australian Liberals and the Canadian Conservatives. The more interesting questions, from an Australian view, could arise in First Nations policy; some Conservatives propose similar critiques of indigenous self-determination in Canada to those made in Australia by conservatives. I will provide a further analysis next week.


At 4:24 AM, Blogger John Murney said...

It is premature to talk of Liberal collapse, but anything is possible.

Anyhow, your analysis of the Canadian election is excellent! I am adding your blog to my list!

At 6:18 PM, Blogger Geoff Robinson said...

Thanks. Nice to get a comment! Greg Barnes was expeleld from the Australian Liberlas for being too small-L liberal as we say.

At 8:31 PM, Blogger William said...

Its interestings analysis. Very interesting in fact.

I think I would point out three significant factors that make Canada slightly left of Australia:

1) Quebec. Quebec's populationt tends to be to the left of center of Canadian politics on any number of issues. Also, remember that Quebec isn't some kind of odd asterix to the "mainstream" of Canada. Its very existence is central. It contains 25% of the nation's population and probably the nation's third most important city (Montreal), which is also its second biggest. (of course, it should be noted that on the federal level, the issue of federalism/sovreignty is the primary)

2) Proximity to the United States. Canada's identity is intimately bound up with that of the US, and in many ways Canada defines itself against its large southern neighbor.

3) Related to point 2, I think in Australia, there is a kind of existential threat/fear that exists in the population (subconsciously, usually) of being so far from the center of the "west" and of the North Atlantic region as well as a kind of fundamental sense of unease about all of its very large Asian neighbors, with very different histories and cultures. This makes the issue of immigration, race, and outsider/insider status much more significant and salient than in Canada, where the defining existential "threat" comes from the United States.

4) Finally, all of these factors create a politics where a center right party can at best hope for about 40% of the popular vote, and where all the other parties could basically be described as center-left or further out. Remember, parties with left-of-center views are going to win about 60-64% of the vote on Monday.

So all in all, while I'd say there are interesting parallels, I also think there are important differences. I think Harper and the Conservatives could well hold on to power for a while if they prove themselves in the upcoming minority period if they demonstrate their governing competence and general sense of (or perceived sense of) moderation.



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