Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Canadian elections again

One of my only regrets in grad school was that I never took a class from Donald Forbes, who is currently visiting at the Australian National University, where his host is my old friend John Uhr.

Don gave a talk in Canberra on the Canadian election and generously shared his text with me. (It will find its way into print sooner or later, but hasn’t been published yet.) He has lots of interesting things to say and gave me permission to quote excerpts. Without further ado, I will.

[W]hat seems to be happening is that the Liberals are becoming the party of English Canada’s big cities with large recent immigrant populations, particularly Toronto, but also Vancouver and the anglophone and allophone parts of Montreal (the ‘West Island’). For the past 30 to 40 years the Liberals have been fostering two relevant beliefs, that multiculturalism is the Canadian essence or identity and that they as a party own the patent. In this election they used a variety of code words – particularly ‘Canadian values,’ ‘tolerance,’ and ‘the Charter’ – to suggest that the Canadian consensus would be irreparably damaged and the very essence of Canada threatened if they were to lose power. Their fear campaign seems to have sustained their vote in Canada’s sophisticated, ‘diverse,’ upscale urban markets, but progressive managerial multiculturalism sells less well elsewhere, even in large cities, such as Ottawa, Calgary, and Edmonton, where native-born Canadians and older European immigrants are more numerous. Admittedly, multiculturalism itself was not openly discussed: Paul Martin tried desperately to get his opponents to declare their opposition to ‘Canadian values,’ but they insisted on talking about other things (crime, scandals, taxes, health care, fiscal imbalances, etc.). The emotionally charged differences between Liberals and the Conservatives that were openly discussed – abortion, gun control, and gay marriage – have little or nothing directly to do with multiculturalism. Nonetheless, they seemed to be helping to create the divide between the cities of high immigration and the rest of the country that one can see in the returns.

If this division were to deepen and if the dividing line were to shift a little in the Conservative’s favour, so that they could count on winning a few more suburban ridings, the result would be a fundamentally new alignment of partisan forces. This is the alignment that I assume the Conservatives will be trying to create, without scaring anyone; that the Liberals may be powerless to avoid; and that some journalists may have been anticipating when just before the election they wrote of Canada ‘veering to the right.’

Don also writes with great subtlety and sophistication about the challenges faced by the various parties on the Canadian scene. I’m not going to give you all of it, but I will share a paragraph about the Liberals’ major challengers on their main big city turf:

In English Canada, too, the Liberals have enemies on their left in the form of Canada’s Labor party, the NDP, led by a former Toronto alderman, Jack Layton. A few years ago, when the party chose him as its new leader, it was not just abandoning an older, more doctrinaire style of ‘socialism,’ it was in effect choosing to focus on the big cities as the places where it should concentrate its future efforts (rather than trying to regain lost ground on the Prairies and in the one-industry towns where it had tended to win seats in the past) and on practical measures likely to appeal to middle-class city dwellers (rather than the old rhetoric that used to appeal to theoretically inclined farmers and workers). This new urban strategy seems to be working. If Layton’s modest success continues, the NDP could soon represent as serious a threat to the Liberal party in the big cities as the Conservatives party does now in the country as a whole, given its surprising breakthrough in Quebec.

Finally, here’s a chunk of Don’s conclusion:

Harper’s most important actions are likely to be budgetary and administrative. In parliament, the next two or three years are likely to be ones of very careful political jockeying. Canadians have had three general elections in a little over five years. No party will want the responsibility for bringing on another one any time soon, but the Conservatives, after a decent period of reassuringly moderate government, will probably be the most willing to try their luck again, in the hope of securing an absolute majority and a freer hand to make whatever transformative changes they may have on their ‘hidden agendas.’

If these bits have piqued your interest, drop me a line and I’ll send you the whole thing.

Discussions - 3 Comments

The analysis of the election strikes me as sound. I would however add that the difficulty facing the long term prospects of the conservatives will not be solved by policy. It is certainly true that "Harper’s most important actions are likely to be budgetary and administrative." The greatest difficulty faced by conservatives is indeed a cultural one. If Harper could convince the public to speak less of values and more of morals they might make some headway. The Canadian motto of "Peace, Order, and Good Government" does not inspire one to the virtues of self-reliance, industry and a general sense of civic virtue and duty.

Forbes mentions the importance of the immigrant vote for the Liberals. In 2000, they received about 75% of the recent immigrant vote. In 2004, that figure dropped to just over 50%. It would be interesting to see where it stands in 2006. We’ll find out when the Canadian Election Survey data gets released.

We Liberals can’t rely any more on particular ethnic communities voting liberal en masse. The old Liberal machine politics has collapsed, and the minor-league Machiavellis are all running for cover and consulting contracts. The old party-political warhorses have all declined to make a go for the leadership. We have finally arrived at the occasion where there is an opportunity to reorient the party to the philosophy of liberalism, a focus central in the Trudeau years, which it lost with Trudeau’s departure from political life. Stay tuned,


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