A Nation of Four Solitudes

By Gord Gekko
web posted July 1997

Canadians have had a lot to think about, and occasionally vote on, during the last two decades. Since the first Quebec referendum in 1980, Canadians have been subjected to elections which have been promoted to 'finally' put to rest one issue or another. The Canada-U.S. free trade agreement, unity and Quebec separation (several times over), and what our vision of Canada in the 21st century will be, have been just some of the dominant themes.

So what happened on June 2, Canada's latest referendum on itself?

It was an election that mainly interested politicians and the media, although below the surface one could hear the average Canadian slowly wake up and begin asking questions.

The result was a answer that at once answered several questions and none of them at the same time.

No issues grabbed the public's attention but one could argue that the perpetual question of Canada's unity was foremost in their concerns. Canadians reacted to the next separation vote by creating not one strong party, but four.

The governing Liberal Party managed, barely, to hold on to majority status in the Parliament. Coming in with 177 seats, the Liberals called an election 18 months before their mandate was up. Neither Prime Minister Jean Chrétien or Liberal supporters could adequately explain exactly why he needed to call an election, but perhaps it seemed a good idea at the time. The Liberals had enjoyed wide popular support for aggressively fighting an enormous deficit that they, and the Progressive Conservatives, were responsible for, and had managed to escape a number of controversial issues (gun control, gay rights, potential Quebec separation) without a serious loss in the opinion polls.

After what was a poor performance by Chrétien, both in the debates and the campaign trial, the Liberals barely escaped minority government status with a 155 seat win, a tiny four more than needed.

The New Democrats managed somewhat of a comeback in this election. Based on a strong performance in Atlantic Canada, the party moved from obscurity to some prominence by winning 21 seats. In Canada 12 seats are needed to be considered an official party allowing one to collect the perks that come with that distinction. They even won a territory, the Yukon, although it is a territory with a lone seat.

The Progressive Conservatives managed perhaps one of the finer performances, moving from two seats to 20. While not completely able to escape the ghost of one of the most unpopular men in Canadian history, Brian Mulroney, the party did succeed in presenting itself as a credible choice in Quebec, where they and the Liberals managed to knock about the Bloc Québécois a bit.

And speaking of the separatist Bloc, led rather ineptly by Gilles Duccepe, they managed to lose 10 seats to a combined assault by the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives. The hodge-podge of socialist and separatist elements in the party seemed to be confused every day of the campaign.

The party that ESR supported did at once well and poorly. On the positive side, the party captured three provinces, eight new seats for a total of 60, and Official Opposition status away from the Bloc. The party's agenda was basically the election's agenda. Preston Manning and his party managed to hold the election in their hands, with their agenda being the one most reacted to and discussed by Canadians and the other parties.

The Reform Party can make a credible claim that Finance Minister Paul Martin's work on the deficit is reminiscent of their own plans. When the Reform Party spoke on national unity, it was the other parties that had to react. On crime, when the party released election lists that showed the names of mass murderers (child killer Clifford Olson and rapist-murderer Paul Bernardo), it was they who gained credibility on the issue of crime.

But for their successes, the Reform Party also suffered a failure that it cannot easily brush under the carpet. The party managed to not win one seat east of the Manitoba border, losing the only one they had managed to win in October 1993. The economic reforms of Ontario premier Mike Harris may have contributed to Reform's poor showing, or they may have helped Reform out. One must not ignore the fact that in many of the province's ridings the party polled second or third. Their failure was not to shore up the soft right wing vote in voter rich Ontario, which went to the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives. Out of 103 seats, the Liberals won 101.

Each region of Canada can now argue that their voice will be heard in Parliament. That will either give all Canadians a real voice in Parliament, or it will simply mean that the voices of all will cause too much noise for anyone to be heard. What happens will remain to be seen.

The election answered no questions. The West, although it is responsible single-handedly for the Official Opposition, has no voice in government apart from a few Liberal MPs led by Lloyd Axworthy. Quebec voters may have moved towards other parties, but the sovereigntists still won the province. Atlantic Canada voted for the New Democrats and the Progressive Conservatives, two parties still very much in the political wilderness.

Party Results (National)
  per cent of Votes # of Seats
June 1997 October 1993 +/- June 1997 October 1993 +/-
Liberal 38.7 41.6 -2.9 per cent 155 177 -22
Reform 19.3 18.1 +1.2 per cent 60 52 +8
Progressive Conservative 18.9 16.1 +2.8 per cent 20 2 +18
New Democrat 11 6.6 +4.4 per cent 21 9 +12
Bloc Québécois 10.7 13.9 -3.2 per cent 44 54 -10
Other 1.7 3.7 -2 per cent 1 1 -

What can Conservatives take from this election?

One could, if only one chose to play fast and loose with the facts by combining Reform and Tory numbers, take heart in the fact that Conservatism nearly won the election with 38.2 per cent of the vote. That could only be claimed if one ignored the fact that the Progressive Conservatives acted like Liberals before, during, and after the election. While their platform did consist of some good conservative principles, it was by and large a statement of beliefs that the Liberals would campaign on if they took a only slight swing to the right.

Rather than dwell on what could have been had there been no Progressive Conservative candidates, let's instead focus on what conservatives can actually feel good about.

No matter how much Jean Chrétien calls the Reform Party extremist, either outright or by implication, it was Preston Manning and his party set the tone of the debate during the election. While Chrétien all but begs the Progressive Conservatives and the New Democrats to join him against extremism, with all knowing exactly who he means, it will be the Reform Party who will determine the face of Parliament. The Liberals look tired and have no new ideas, and Chrétien isn't going to be around much longer.

We are the Official Opposition. Unlike the Bloc Québécois before us, we actually have a constructive plan to help solve the ills that plague this country. Unlike the other parties, the Reform platform actually comes from the people themselves. Can any other party make that claim? Nope!

That platform also set the pace of the debate during the election and it resonated even for people who did not vote for the Reform Party. Ask someone these questions:

  • Do you want a smaller government? An end to overspending and red tape?
  • Do you want a reduction in personal taxes? A simplified tax system?
  • Do you want a tougher approach to crime? Reform of the parole system and a reworking of the Young Offenders Act?
  • Do you want a party that believes in the importance of the family? Zero tolerance on family violence?
  • Do you believe in the equality of Canadians? Do you really want some provinces more equal than others?
  • Do you like the idea of a party that allows free votes in Parliament, wants an elected Senate, and abolish patronage appointments? Abolishment of the gold-plated pensions our politicians enjoy? Increased accountability?

You might be surprised that a lot of people walking around who voted for the other parties will reply in the affirmative to nearly all these questions. People of all political stripes have been affected by Reform's presence on the national scene. A national breakthrough in the next election is not out of the question. The platform is accepted by many of those who actually read it.

While its popular support only grew by 1.2 per cent, it grew. For the second straight election we polled more votes than two of the other traditional parties, and we've only been around for ten years! The Reform Party solidified its base of support in the West and it can build on that. Although Reform did not win one seat outside of the West, it placed itself in contention in a large number of Ontario seats, often finishing second or third.

Look at it this way. In ten years the Reform Party moved from being a small party with few members, to attracting millions of voters and gaining Official Opposition status. Not bad at all!

What the Reform Party must remember

It was Samuel Clemens who said history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

I can remember racing home in January 1995 to listen to Rush Limbaugh's broadcasts about the first 100 days of the first Republican Congress. Heady times it was back then...until the Republicans, taking wave after wave of assaults from all corners, became gun shy.

The defining moment of the Republicans moving towards the center, and away from their beliefs, was the shut down of the government because of the budget impasse several years ago. Polls showed that Americans blamed the Republicans for the shutdown and feared their "extremism".

So what happened? Newt Gingrich plays the role of Clinton's right-hand man pretty well today, well enough that he and Gore should think about running on a ticket together for 2000. Though some Republicans publicly talk ill of the party of 1997, they are not powerful enough to move the party back to conservatism.

The same may occur here. The attacks on the Reform Party during the election are similar to those that the Republicans heard. Pro-wealthy, racist, anti-women, Pro-White, Pro-English...well, you've heard them all already. Even a few days after the election, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien called on his government, the New Democrats and the Progressive Conservatives to band together against "extremism", the most used pejorative when describing the Reform Party.

Manning and his Opposition must stand tough the coming years. While Reform can't stop pieces of legislation, unlike the Republicans, they can influence the debate. They have already influenced the platforms of two of the parties (the Liberal's attack on the deficit and several parts of the Tory platform were originally Reform policies) so just think what they can do now.

The victory Reform won at the polls is not a given. Any movement away from their base will cost them seats in the next election.

The battle is yours as well. Join the party. Get involved. Help make policy. Keep the party to the right.

Oh yeah, and enjoy the next couple of years!

Want to read more about what the election meant? Visit Quackgrass Press for an interesting piece called What the heck happened? for Michael Miller's interpretation of the election.




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