Sunday, May 30, 2004

The Leaky Liberal Ship

Liberals fortunes in the upcoming federal election don’t look so good right now. It was just six months ago that Canada’s political pundits were predicting a Liberal electoral romp for newly crowned Prime Minister, Paul Martin. Today, the word on everyone’s lips is minority government. For the first time since the 1979 election, it looks as though Canadians could well have a minority government. And, for the first time since 1993, the Liberals look to be in real trouble.

That said, we have to remember that the polls are all showing that the Liberals will come out on top, but the majorities they’ve enjoyed in the House of Commons for the last 11 years are likely to become a thing of the past. Back in December 2003, when Martin became Prime Minister, the Liberal stranglehold on Ontario seemed likely to continue. Atlantic Canada also appeared to be in the bag. This meant that the Liberals would be free to throw all they had at the foundering Bloc Quebecois in la belle province, and at the newly united though electorally hamstrung Conservatives in Western Canada.

Things looked good for the only truly national Canadian political party. And in fact, the Liberals are still the only political party that can be seen to be relatively competitive across the country. But there are disadvantages in being top dog. While things were going well across the country, the Liberals were in the driver’s seat, but when things start to fall apart, the more regional parties, like the Conservatives, the Bloc Quebecois, and to some extent, the New Democrats have an advantage. Each one can wage a campaign that focuses on a certain region, forcing the Liberals to fight a host of electoral battles against numerous opponents. At the same time, these opponents focus all their firepower squarely on the one national party, to some extent, even becoming allies.

But what happened to the Liberals? First came the sponsorship scandal in which government money intended to promote Canada in Quebec was funneled to Liberal Party buddies whose only promotional activity involved their own bank accounts. The fallout, like so many things in Canada, was regional. In Quebec, it wasn’t so much the money as the affront to Quebecers represented by the cynical manner in which the Liberals used the money. Quebecers saw the scandal as an attempt by the federal Liberals to buy them off. That the money went to corrupt Liberal backers in Montreal only added to the insult. The result was a rebirth for the Bloc Quebecois, now enjoying a substantial lead in the opinion polls. This has forced the Liberals on the defensive in Quebec.

In Western Canada, something similar has happened, but somewhat in reverse. If Quebecers felt insulted by petty Liberal bribes, westerners were angered by the fact that their tax money was once again going into the coffers of Liberal Party hacks in the East. Old resentments about Liberals ignoring the West returned, and if only months the Liberals looked poised for major gains in the West, the scandal sent those hopes into a tailspin. The newly reunited Conservatives, facing a Liberal electoral landslide in their first election as a single party, suddenly looked viable again. Polls now suggest that the Conservatives will retain most western seats previously held by their forerunners, the Canadian Alliance.

So suddenly, Liberals found their great expectations for the West and Quebec ruined. But this in itself shouldn’t have led to worries about a minority government because for the past three elections, the Liberals were able to garner majorities even though they did poorly in the West and Quebec. The difference this time is that Ontario is also up for grabs. Not only are the Liberals on the ropes in Quebec and British Columbia, but their Ontario fortress is crumbling, and this they cannot afford.

The reasons here are numerous. The right-wing vote will no longer be split between the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance. The reunified Conservatives, buoyed by the sponsorship scandal and a more appealing leader, are likely to pick up seats across rural Ontario and perhaps even some suburban seats. Areas like eastern Ontario, Bruce-Grey and the Niagara Peninsula are fertile ground for the Conservatives.

By contrast, the big cities in Ontario, as well as many cities in western Canada, such as Winnipeg and Vancouver, don’t look particularly open to the Conservatives. But the Liberals aren’t safe here either, because the New Democrats are also on an upswing. With a bright new leader and a message appealing to the urban voter, the New Democrats are a serious threat to the Liberals in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Windsor, Hamilton and Ottawa. And this means the Liberals are forced to defend their left flank as well.

And all this means that the Conservatives, the New Democrats and the Bloc Quebecois are all aiming directly at the Liberals. They’re forming a sort of alliance of convenience precisely because their regional interests rarely infringe upon one another. In Quebec, the Conservatives and the New Democrats are non-existent and are no threat to the Bloc. Similarly, the Conservatives appeal primarily to rural westerners, Albertans and rural Ontario, where the New Democrats are weak. The New Democrats’ constituency rests primarily in urban centers, and despite some ridings in the BC interior and in Halifax where they might be in close fights with Conservatives, they have little impact on Conservative fortunes.

The moral of the story is that Canadian regionalism is coming to the fore and even the mighty Liberals – Canada’s “national party” – are unable to withstand the onslaught. Each of the other three parties are staking out territory, territory they’re using as a base to attack the Liberals, each in their own way. The only region where the Liberals seem secure is Atlantic Canada, but with only 32 seats, this isn’t exactly great comfort. Added to this regional problem is the fact that Canada’s three most populous provinces – Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia – currently have provincial Liberal governments, and all three are currently out of favor.

The Liberals will likely win this election, but with a minority, forcing them probably into the arms of the New Democrats, which isn’t exactly the worst scenario as far as most Canadians are concerned. And the result of all this, sometime down the road, may be that Canada introduces a proportional representative system. What is worth noting here is that proportional representation is, more or less, appropriate to a nation divided by various antagonisms that can’t be resolved under the banners of two or three national parties. In other words, by a nation that really isn’t a nation. Canada, it seems, is not a work in progress, but a conglomeration of regions. Paul Martin is betting he can unify this grouping by appealing to the one thing that seems quite Canadian: universal health care. Unfortunately for him, the devil here is, once again, in the details – the regional details. Canadians may all love their universal health care, but delivering that care is a provincial matter, and like everything else in Canada, it makes a nice political football.

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