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Conservatives win only a slim minority government in Canada

By Mark Wegierski
web posted February 13, 2006

In the January 23, 2006 federal election in Canada, the Conservative Party (under Stephen Harper) won a thin minority government, with 124 of 308 seats (36.3 per cent of the popular vote). The Liberals (under Paul Martin, Jr.) who had been weakened by various corruption-scandals, won 103 seats (30.2 per cent) - which was substantially more than most predictions had expected. The Bloc Quebecois (under Gilles Duceppe), the Quebec separatists (running candidates only in Quebec) won 51 seats (10.5 per cent of the countrywide vote). The New Democratic Party (NDP) (under Jack Layton) - Canada's left-wing social democrats - won 29 seats (17.5 per cent). One independent M.P. - a controversial radio talk-show host -- was elected from Quebec. The Green Party (under Jim Harris) won 4.5 per cent of the popular vote, but no seats, since Canada has a "first-past-the-post" system of ridings, and the Green vote was very widely scattered. The voter turnout - probably encouraged by the unusually mild weather - went up by 5 per cent from the previous election, now standing at 65 per cent of eligible voters.

The Conservative Party had the favourable circumstances of a massive Liberal corruption scandal, called "Adscam" - where over $100 million dollars (Canadian) of public money had apparently gone to the private coffers of a handful of Quebec Liberals - which had been examined by the Gomery Inquiry. Harper's campaign was nearly flawless. Nevertheless, the Conservatives failed to win a majority, or even a strong minority. The Conservative Party truly faces an uphill battle against the Liberal Party and the extra-parliamentary Left.

In the Twentieth Century, the Liberals in Canada had almost always formed the government by combining virtually every seat in Quebec with a minority of seats in English-speaking Canada. In 1984 and 1988, the Progressive Conservatives (P.C.s) under Brian Mulroney swept Quebec, along with most of English-speaking Canada. (The name of the Conservative Party had been changed in 1942, ostensibly to bring in the Progressives, a Western-Canadian-based populist party, but it was also rather convenient in what increasingly became a liberal-tending society. Nevertheless, the P.C. Party had been home to a number of factions of varying ideological complexions. John Diefenbaker, Canada's Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963, was an especially staunch Conservative.)

Mulroney's tenure in power was a disaster for so-called "small-c conservatives" - for example, Mulroney raised immigration from the 54,000 persons a year to which it had fallen in Trudeau's last year in office, to a quarter-million persons a year - where it has remained ever since. He also cheered on the Canadian Supreme Court's striking down of all laws restricting abortion in 1988. Mulroney's reputation as a "strong leader" was mainly exercised in keeping "small-c conservatives" in his caucus under tight wraps. The term "small-c conservative" arose in Canada because the "big-C Conservatives" (i.e., the P.C. Party) were (by the 1970s and 1980s) often remote from conservative principles. The "small-c conservatives" finally rebelled in 1987, with the founding of the Western-Canadian-based Reform Party (which formally became a countrywide party in 1991). The Reform Party won 52 seats in 1993 (when the federal Progressive Conservatives were reduced to two seats), and 60 seats in 1997.

In the wake of the failure of the Meech Lake Accord in 1990 and the Charlottetown Agreements in 1992 - two major attempts to conciliate Quebec - the Bloc Quebecois had arisen to represent Quebec in the federal Parliament, winning 54 of 75 seats in the 1993 election, while the 1995 referendum on sovereignty in the province of Quebec failed by the slimmest of margins.

Despite the attempt to broaden the Reform Party in 1998-2000 - from which the Canadian Alliance (officially called the Canadian Reform-Conservative Alliance) - arose, the federal Progressive Conservatives refused to join until 2003. The agreement was signed between Stephen Harper, the leader of the Canadian Alliance, and Peter MacKay, the leader of the federal Progressive Conservatives, on October 16, 2003, and overwhelmingly ratified by the memberships of both parties by December 2003.

The federal Liberal majorities of 1993, 1997, and 2000, were heavily based on support from Ontario - a new fortress for the Liberals. In the June 2004 election, the Liberals were reduced to a minority government, which was finally brought down in Parliament in November 2005, thus necessitating the election in January 2006.

The situation in the federal Parliament now will make it extremely difficult for Harper to govern effectively. It seems to be the case that he will be looking for an opportunity to go the public again, if he feels that a majority win for him is possible.

Stephen HarperHarper's best hope for broadening his government to a majority in the next election may be to try to increase his support in Quebec (where the Conservatives now won 10 seats) - which would also serve to lessen the threat of the Bloc Quebecois. Gilles Duceppe is already demanding that Harper deal with the so-called fiscal imbalance between the federal government and the provinces, as well as give Quebec a bigger role on the international stage - for example, separate representation in some international bodies. Harper could also try to raise his support in some parts of Ontario, where the Conservatives now won 40 of 106 seats. It is also possible that he could attract greater support in the Atlantic provinces, which have remained a Liberal stronghold. However, Harper is rather unlikely to make inroads in Canada's largest cities - Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver - in which the Conservatives failed to win a single seat in the 2006 election.

The fact these cities are Liberal bastions is the consequence of close to forty years of Liberal social and immigration policy. In the 1950s and early 1960s and before, Toronto was considered such a conservative and British-oriented city, it was nicknamed "Tory Toronto." It is said derisively today that in the 1950s, you could fire a cannon down Toronto's main street on Sunday, and not hit anyone (because everyone was at church).

The destruction of "Tory Toronto" is one of the most massive changes on the Canadian social, political, and cultural landscape - a piece of Liberal social engineering. Similar though slightly less drastic changes have occurred in Montreal and Vancouver.

As far as Canada's relations with the United States, these are now expected to significantly improve, considering that some American newspapers have suggested that Prime Minister Harper would be the most pro-U.S. foreign leader in the world. However, Harper could consider that being anti-American in a somewhat more intelligent fashion may win him much admiration in Canada - and might be important in winning the support of the NDP for some of his legislative agenda.

Among the most important tasks that Harper could set for himself is to attempt to re-shape the civil service - where Liberals have dominated for long decades -- in a direction more congenial to Conservatives. He will also have to begin an attempt to tackle the vast, left-liberal, extra-parliamentary infrastructures, whose funding comes mostly from the federal government. The resources available to these infrastructures, which are indeed often enmeshed with various branches of the federal government, outweigh those of putatively right-wing infrastructures, such as the mostly economically-focused National Citizens' Coalition and Fraser Institute (who rely strictly on private donations), by astronomical factors. It is not surprising that Canada has become such a "progressive" society under all this infrastructural weight.

Insofar as Harper decides not to engage, at least to some extent, in the infrastructural battle, he will find the position of his government will likely grow weaker, not stronger.

It does appear that, unlike someone like Joe Clark (the leader of the federal P.C. Party from 1976-1983, and 1998-2003, as well as Prime Minister for nine months in 1979-1980), Stephen Harper does have some viscerally conservative instincts, which he can of course express only in the most reserved way in the social environment of current-day Canada. It seems rather obvious that any right-leaning party today cannot achieve much success if its leader himself lacks any sort of visceral conservatism or convictions. If some right-leaning party leader is even unsure in his own mind about the extent to which he believes in conservatism, he quickly gets defined by his opponents - rapidly succumbing to a feeling - even, to some extent, in his own mind -- that "conservatism" is little more than some kind of ghastly combination of selfishness, intolerance, cruelty, bigotry, and so forth.

The current-day Canadian situation -- of near-total left-liberal intellectual hegemony, and of comparatively little authentic academic or journalistic debate -- cannot be described as offering prospects for a truly humane future for Canada. There is certainly no intellectual balancing of Left and Right in Canada today. This concretely means that the Conservative minority government is likely to be overwhelmed by ferocious infrastructural opposition. Even Mulroney's huge majority in 1984 was effectively sandbagged by such opposition. It could be argued that the ongoing, decades-long, "prior constraint" against "small-c conservatives" coming to or ever exercising any meaningful degree of power in Canada - fundamentally contradicts Canada's parliamentary and democratic ideals. It remains to be seen whether the aftermath of the January 2006 election will be any different. It is certainly possible that the slim Conservative minority government may in fact turn out to be the last hurrah for the Conservative Party of Canada.

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher, published in Alberta Report, Calgary Herald, New Brunswick Reader, Ottawa Citizen, Humanitas, Review of Metaphysics, Telos, and The World & I, among others.

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