The UK isn’t the only place going to the polls this week. There was a federal general election in Canada on Monday, with the results emerging early on Tuesday morning.
The election was called after the minority Conservative government lost a confidence vote, in which it was held to be in contempt of Parliament. The opposition parties (and particularly the Liberals) triggered it – not the government. As opinion polls at the time hadn’t markedly moved since the 2008 election, this seemed a pretty rash step for Michael Ignatieff – it was unlikely he’d enable the Liberals to return to government, and quite possible he’d enable the Conservatives to secure their long-dreamt-of Parliamentary majority. In fact, it has turned out worse than that for him.
The results are remarkable. The Conservatives won a clear majority; 167 of the 308 seats. The previous official opposition, the Liberals, collapsed to 34 seats, from 77. The sovereigntist Bloc Québecois did likewise (from 51 seats to four). The New Democratic Party, the social-democratic party, were the biggest winners, going to 29 seats to 102. To add to the routs, the leaders of both the Liberals and the Bloc lost their seats, and have now resigned as leaders.
Those results are only part of the story, though. The Conservatives won because they are regarded as having governed from somewhere near the centre-right over the last few years. This marks something of a shift from the strongly ideological free-market party they were seen as being in the first years after they were formed in 2003, though whether they will continue to act in that way now they’ve got a majority remains to be seen. Their vote in Quebec went down, and they lost five of the 10 seats they formerly held. Their share of the vote increased only by two percentage points (from 37.6 per cent to 39.6 per cent). And although they gained a clear majority of parliamentary seats, 55.6 per cent of voters voted for parties to the Conservatives’ left. The outcome therefore doesn’t reflect the choice of the majority of Canadian voters. A large number of the seats the Conservatives won are in Ontario, mostly in the outer suburbs surrounding Toronto (the ‘905 belt’) where they’d done poorly in the past. And part of the reason for that appears to be the success of the Conservatives in securing the support of minority ethnic communities, who have traditionally voted Liberal. The electoral map shows the Conservatives now as largely a party of the western provinces and Ontario, though they also got eight of 10 seats in New Brunswick. The Liberals’ decline was similarly most marked in central Canada (Ontario and Quebec): in Ontario, they went from 38 seats to 11, in Quebec from 14 to seven. In other words, the Conservatives won (and Liberals lost) Ontario, and with it came a federal majority. The NDP’s surge was largely in Quebec, where they picked up 57 seats (having won one in a by-election), mostly from the Bloc Québecois.
What do the results add up to? They emphasise the extent to which Canada’s federal politics are highly dependent on territorial voting differences, across English-speaking Canada as well as Quebec. Indeed, one might go further. The west – British Columbia and the prairie provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba – voted strongly for the Conservatives, ahs they have done at federal level for some time. Quebec largely rejected both major parties, again, as it largely has since 1993. The Atlantic provinces mostly split their votes, New Brunswick excepted. What determined the outcome of this election was that the 905-belt went Tory. After initial neglect, when the Conservatives sought to build a revived version of the Alberta-Quebec alliance that kept Brian Mulroney in power in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Conservative minority government took to undermining Ontario and its economy. Now, it has made enough overtures to have reaped a large electoral dividend.
As regards Quebec, the initial reaction appears to be to welcome its re-engagement with federal politics. As the Bloc has taken the bulk of Quebec’s seats in all federal elections since it was formed in 1991, but never formed part of a government or even reliably supported one, this marks quite a change. But that may be premature. Given that the Bloc has failed either to secure sovereignty for Quebec (its main aim), or to safeguard and advance wider Quebec interests, Quebec voters’ search for an alternative seems to have lit on the NDP. What has probably been key politically has been the shift in NDP position (or perception of its position) from being both committed to a strong welfare state (popular in Quebec) and centralist (not popular), to being able to talk the language of decentralisation and respect for Quebec autonomy as well as social democracy. (The personality of Jack Layton, the Montreal-born NDP leader who speaks fluent, workaday Quebec-accented French, appears to have helped too.) Whether the NDP will be able to capitalise on that, and whether Quebec has really re-engaged with federal politics, is another issue. Its new MPs include many political neophytes, and how effective they will be is unclear.
The effect of these federal elections won’t be clear until we can see the outcome of two sets of provincial elections in any case. Ontario votes in October this year, as Ontario accounts for about 40 per cent of the whole of Canada’s population, what happens there has a greater importance than most other provinces’ elections. The question is whether the long Ontario tradition of voting for a different party to the federal government will be upheld. As it presently has a Liberal government (very close in hue to the federal Liberals), change would mean either opting for the Conservatives, or the NDP, who came third last time but who have formed the government there in the past.
Quebec need not vote until December 2013, but the expectation is that elections will be held next year. There’s no reason to assume that the cause of Quebec sovereignty is dead just because the Bloc has been so thoroughly trounced. Given the Conservative minority governments’ preference for allowing provincial autonomy, so far they have reinforced the importance of Quebec’s National Assembly and government, rather than undermined it. The expectation is that the sovereigntist Parti Québecois will win. If so – as with the SNP in the UK – constitutional issues will again be prominent in political debate, if only because talking about them helps the party even when it doesn’t secure its apparent goal.
In any event, the new federal government is going to affect federal-provincial relations in significant ways. Renegotiation of the main financial arrangements is looming, as the present legislation for the Canada Health Transfer, the Canada Social Transfer and the Equalization system are due to expire after 2013-14, though Stephen Harper has already said that the present ‘escalator’ of 6 per cent increases per year for CHT will be maintained. Bigger questions are posed by Equalization – at the recent Chatham House conference, former Minister Benoît Pelletier said the present system had no rationale at all. The federal government’s approach to those will profoundly affect services provided by provincial governments, as well as the overall fiscal shape of the Canadian federation. If there’s a PQ Quebec government after the next elections, the combination of a weakened Bloc Québecois and a Conservative federal government is a recipe for ensuring that any constitutional debates about Quebec’s place in the federation are intergovernmental in character, with the federal House of Commons on the margins.
Those interested in reading further will find huge amounts of coverage on the Globe and Mail’s website here, and that of CBC here. Jeff Simpson had an interesting article in the Globe and Mail a few days ago about the collapse of the Liberals, available here.