Tuesday, June 22, 2004

The Liberals Retake the Lead – Sort of, And the Alberta Conservatives May be Just as Happy

According to an Ipsos-Reid poll, the Liberals are now ahead of the Conservatives in the opinion polls, 34 to 28%. This is the biggest lead the Liberals have had over the Conservatives in quite awhile. But does this mean the Liberals will win the Canadian federal election? The answer is sort of yes, sort of no, and oddly enough, it may be exactly the outcome Alberta’s Conservative premier, Ralph Klein, wanted.

First the outcome. Along with its poll numbers, Ipsos-Reid provides a seat projection, and according to these figures, the Conservatives are projected to win 110-114 seats, the Liberals 107-111, the New Democrats 19-23 and the Bloc Quebecois 64-68. So let’s start with the Bloc. This many seats in Quebec would be a devastating blow to the Liberals, because it would mean the Bloc wins every single French-speaking seat in the province, as well as some seats with both French and English-speaking populations. It would also mean that the Bloc will have its best showing ever.

Now, as for the Conservatives and Liberals, despite having a six point advantage in the polls, the Liberals have the problem that much of their vote is highly concentrated in some urban ridings in Toronto, English Montreal, Vancouver, etc. By contrast, the Conservative vote, in Ontario especially, is rather evenly distributed throughout the rural ridings. So, despite winning fewer votes overall, the Conservatives could come out with the most seats by a small margin.

But would they then form the government? Actually, I doubt it. If the Liberals lose by only five or so seats, Paul Martin may attempt to form a government backed by smaller parties. The problem he faces is that his most natural ally is the New Democratic Party, and the projections suggest that the combined seat total for the Liberals and the New Democrats still won’t add up to a majority in the House of Commons.

This leaves the Liberals to turn to the Bloc Quebecois. The problem here is that the Bloc and the Liberals are unflagging enemies, because it is these two parties, and these two alone that fight for Quebec votes. Therefore, the less threatening coalition for the Bloc would be with the Conservatives.

But this raises another question: Would the Conservatives want to form the government immediately? In fact they may not. The Conservatives know that a minority government is a shaky thing, especially when the Conservatives have more or less the same number of seats as the Liberals.

So, what are the Conservatives going to do? There are two issues around which this problem turns: scandal and health care. In terms of scandal, I’m referring to the ongoing investigation of the sponsorship scandal. As of election day next Monday, the final results of the investigation will still be a ways in the future. Perhaps the Conservatives will wait for the findings of the investigation, hoping to use that moment to gang up with the Bloc and bring down a Liberal minority. This could then lead to an election, in which the Conservatives would hope to improve their seat number, or it could lead to an attempt by the Conservatives to form a government, though this is a judgment that will have to be made at the time.

The second issue is health care, and here things get a bit murky. The reason I say this is that health care in Canada is desperately in need of change, but Canadians seem so foolishly wedded to a system that is collapsing that they would prefer to vote for Liberals who have no means of addressing the collapsing system, than vote for Conservatives who might actually do something to save the system. But there’s still more. There is one politician in Canada who looks finally ready to step up to the plate and take on the problem, and that man is Alberta’s premier, Ralph Klein. But to do so, he will have to fight the federal government and he’d probably prefer a Liberal in Ottawa to a Tory when doing so.

To understand this, we need a bit of history. Ralph Klein has been Premier of Alberta since 1993. In that time, he’s been known as an aggressive politician who has cut the deficit and helped lead Alberta back to being the richest province in Canada. In doing so, he’s built on Alberta’s reputation as the most capitalist province in Canada, one almost constantly at odds with the Canadian federal government. Of course, much of this is perception since Klein has actually worked quite well with the federal Liberal government of Jean Chretien, and it is his province that spends more per capita on its citizens than any other province.

Still, Klein has taken some highly innovative stands, stands which push Alberta from the static notion of social programs dominant for many decades, to a notion where increasing opportunity is the paramount concern. But health care has remained the one place where Klein has made only small changes. That may be about to change.

During the federal election campaign, Klein let it be known that two days after the election, his provincial government would announce its reforms to provincial health care services – reforms that may in fact contravene the Canada Health Act. Not surprisingly, the federal Liberals said that a federal Conservative government would be Klein’s lackey, allowing him to proceed with whatever changes he wanted. This, according to Paul Martin, was proof of Stephen Harper’s hidden agenda. And since then, the federal Conservatives have fallen in the polls.

Now, New Democrat leader Jack Layton rightfully pointed out that Martin himself has done nothing to defend health care. In fact, it was Martin’s federal budgets that slashed transfer payments to the provinces that funded health services. But this was lost in the tussle, as the federal Conservatives appeared revealed as the monsters they were.

The problem is that Klein must have known the impact his announcement would have on his federal counterparts in the Conservative Party. Which leads one to believe that this is exactly what Klein wanted, which is pretty much what he himself said during the Conservative leadership convention a few months ago. Indeed, during his address to the convention of federal Conservatives, Klein remarked that what interests Canadians is not Senate reform or constitutional issues (or at least English Canadians), but access to health care and education. Now, in Canada, this access has traditionally been seen as meaning public universal access, but this is an old notion more suited to the now defunct welfare state than the more market-based state of the twenty-first century. In fact, there are many avenues to access and Klein believes that we must have reforms in this area for the system to survive into the future. Convincing Canadians, even entrepreneurial Albertans of this, is another matter.

Basically, I believe that Klein was informing the country that he was getting ready to take a stab at it. But here’s where the strategy comes in. Klein also said, shortly after the convention, that the Conservatives would, despite their renewed hopes, win the next election. Perhaps what he was really saying was that he didn’t want them to form the next government. We can only speculate on why, but here’s some suggestions.

On the one hand, it may be that Klein had more or less come to an agreement with Paul Martin about the reforms and therefore wanted to see another Liberal government in Ottawa, one he felt he could really work with. On the other hand, it may also be the case that Klein plans to tap into Albertans’ almost innate dislike for the federal Liberals, using them as his whipping boy when he goes to the polls himself in a provincial election later this year. Health care reform will be a tough sell, made easier if Klein can portray the federal Liberals as his enemy.

But where do the federal Conservatives stand in all this? That’s not altogether clear, but if a fight breaks out between Klein and Martin, and eventually the Liberal government falls, Stephen Harper could use the opportunity to put himself forward as the great conciliator, building a new consensus with the provinces on health care reform.

Now, all that said, it seems a risky strategy, more so for Harper than Klein, but it may be exactly the strategy one or even both leaders have in mind. For Klein, it could be the ticket to a fourth provincial election victory. For Harper, it may be just the key he needs to work toward a majority victory two years down the road, rather than settle for a minority victory today. It may sound far-fetched, but if it could work, it would be one amazing strategic move.

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