Let's face it. Canada is just not a place that Americans think about all that much. I even thought of writing my first post on PolySigh about another topic because of fears of eliciting mainly a big yawn. However, Canadian politics has been quite turbulent in recent years with Canadian unity, always fragile, under a great deal of pressure.
Americans learned during the 2000 election that the rules governing elections really do matter. Canadians, who use the same method to elect their House of Commons as we do our House of Representatives, are painfully learning the same lesson. In Canada, the electoral system accentuates regional divisions—not a selling point in a nation where national unity remains a major issue.
In 1993, the Canadian party system experienced a meltdown in the wake of the collapse of first the Meech Lake and then Charlottetown Accords designed to gain Quebec’s acceptance of the Constitution. Despite dumping incumbent Prime Minister Brian Mulroney prior to the election, the governing Progressive Conservatives (PC) lost all but two seats.
Much of the PCs support went to the Bloc Québécois (BQ) and the Reform Party, parties driven by Quebec and western alienation. While the BQ argued the unwillingness of the other provinces to accommodate Quebec’s distinct character shows why Quebec should leave Canada, Reform contended that Quebec should be treated exactly like other provinces and demanded an American-style Senate to make parliament more responsive to western provinces. Reform also gave voice to socially conservative elements largely shut out of Canadian politics.
Although Reform and the BQ made a big splash, especially when the avowedly separatist BQ became Her Majesty’s “Loyal” Opposition in 1993, the Liberals were the real beneficiaries of all of this change. Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien won majority governments in 1993, 1997 and 2000 with 41%, 39%, and 41% of the vote, respectively, as the conservative vote remained split between the old PCs and the new more radical Reform and its successors.
In all three parliaments, the winner-take-all electoral system has greatly magnified regional differences. The Liberal victories were based almost entirely on sweeping Ontario. For example, in 1997, the Liberals won 101 of Ontario’s 103 seats with just under 50% of the vote. Reform won over three-quarters of the seats in Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia with just 46% of the vote. The BQ has repeatedly won a majority of Quebec seats even though they have never won a majority of votes in the province.
Although Canada had a near-death experience in 1995 (totally unnoticed in the U.S., of course) as Quebec came within a hair of voting “Oui” in a sovereignty referendum, none of this mattered all too much as long as the Liberals remained popular and the conservatives were disunited.
However, the question remains as to who will govern and hold the country together when Canadians finally want to chuck out the Liberals. The Liberals may have their base in Ontario but are the only remaining party with at least some support in all regions of the country.
Canadians almost found out the answer in 2004. Conservatives had high hopes as the two conservative parties had merged into a new Conservative Party that resembles Reform more closely than the old PCs. New Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin’s Liberals have been suffering greatly from the “sponsorship” scandal in which federal monies intended to be spent promoting Canada (read: waving the flag in Quebec to fight separatism) seem to have found their way into the pockets of prominent Liberal supporters.
Martin nonetheless managed to win a minority government with 37% of the vote and 135 of 308 seats. The election was almost a “perfect storm” in that no two parties that might actually form even an informal coalition have a majority of seats. The sponsorship scandal continues to drag on Liberal fortunes and Conservatives and the BQ recently had hopes of bringing down the government but fell just short.
Political ineptitude combined with their social conservatism has since caused Conservative support to plunge. The left-wing New Democrats, who are currently propping up the Liberal government, actually poll higher than the Conservatives in Ontario. However, the BQ still polls at record highs in Quebec.
For some reason, Quebecers find it incredibly galling that the federal government thinks it can buy its support by placing flags on buildings. The idea that PM Paul Martin, who served as Finance Minister for nearly a decade before becoming PM, should have known what was going on seems to have crossed their minds as well.
Canadians thus have temporarily avoided finding out what happens when the Liberals finally go. That’s probably good for Canadian unity in the short term. If the Conservatives managed to win a majority as an anti-Quebec party, it would be a major boost for Quebec separatism. A Conservative minority government that depends on BQ support appears untenable even though both parties want to send more power back to the provinces. Politically, the Conservatives cannot be seen to depend on Quebec separatists. The BQ would similarly find it hard to explain propping up a party seen as too socially conservative and anti-Quebec.
In the long-term, regional alienation may continue to grow as anglophones in the West and francophones in Quebec feel shut out of the political game. A more proportional system might aid the building of cross-regional coalitions by allowing for the election of greater numbers of MPs from different parties in each region. At the same time, it would make forming single-party majority governments much more difficult and be a radical change in a country that follows the British parliamentary tradition.
Canadians see no easy solutions to these problems and neither do I.