Canadians are gearing up for the October 19 federal election for which the campaign got underway in early August, making it the longest election campaign ever. The early start was one of the more recent strokes of Prime Minister’s Stephen Harper ability to influence the outcome of events, betting on a long drawn out campaign that should, at least in theory, benefit the party with the biggest war chest.
From the outset of this electoral battle it has been clear that a change in government would be its core theme, with the left wing NDP, the centrist Liberals and to a lesser extent the emerging Greens as the three key contenders to topple the incumbent Conservatives. There has been a lot of noise, quite a bit of it superficial, and no end to columns, social media posts and other commentary that decry the manipulations and penchant for secrecy by the man to be beaten, Harper. Yet, on closer inspection it would seem that Harper’s ability to govern Canada for almost ten years with varying degrees of success is rooted not so much in the nefarious qualities that his opponents ascribe to him, but in cleverly navigating the political tides of a rapidly changing nation. And while doing that, he is using an array of tools that have historically been available to most of his predecessors. In that Harper learned from the best.
And those best were on their way out after some thirteen years in office, which is a lifetime in politics. Such long tenors usually end with bickering over succession and scandals and many will recall the channeling of sponsorship moneys to Quebec and the relatively short-lived government of Paul Martin. The latter was no match for Harper’s ‘time for change’ message in 2006 as the Conservatives were at the time extremely tuned in to the changes enveloping Canada where globalization and the emergence of the Western provinces as powerhouses had started to redefine the northern nation. New immigrants from all over the world, but in particular from Asia, arrived and all were driven by the quest to start a new life, a new business and above all a stable future in a place where access to wealth and health was possible. The old Canada of the later 20th century with its relatively high taxes, big government, powerful unions and an ambivalent role in international affairs all represented a world that not only did not resonate with new Canadians, but it also was no longer in tune with a rapidly changing dynamic and global market place in which Canada had to compete. The columnist David Frum put a fine point on it by arguing that the East Coast elites had started to lose their grasp on a newer Canada and this consequent realignment gave Harper the window to become Canada’s leading politician.
And indeed Harper was astutely aware of the emerging ‘new Canada’ yet he could ill afford to adopt a hardcore right of centre agenda to govern and maintain support across the entire country. There is no party in Canada that actually can impose its ideological framework on the nation as its political, cultural and economic diversity requires a careful balancing act, in particular when as was the case with Harper, you only have a minority to govern with. So Harper has essentially governed from the center from the day he rolled into Sussex Drive, even when he finally got a majority position in parliament in 2011. In the process most of the items on the right-of-center’s wish list were steadily watered down or did not happen at all such as privatizing healthcare, wholesale selling of pubic assets, killing the CBC or marginalizing public sector unions. No, Harper has both as minority and majority government governed safely from the center while adding a gradual right-of-centre flavor to his policies. The often feared ‘secret agenda - whatever that was – never came to haunt Canadians.
In fact many real conservatives rolled their eyes at the GST cut (as the right will generally always favor a sales tax over an income tax), the car industry bail out and running budget deficits while not really cutting income taxes but producing endless tax credits for this group or that. All these have not made him that much different from any centrist or left-of-center outfit in the industrialized world. Of course this came at a cost, there are many libertarian minded conservatives who checked out of the conservative tent after the introduction of Bill C-51 and the near incomprehensible extradition of Vancouver’s marihuana king, Marc Emery, to the US. But in the last two instances Harper carefully played to the ‘law and order’ and ‘security’ voters. And Bill C-51, it should be remembered, was supported in parliament by the Trudeau Liberals. Harper has been both smart and careful in his approach while trying to ensure he had sufficient support across the nation and thereby steadily tilting the values in the political center rightward step by step. Whatever the opposition’s frustrations, they are more likely to be with Harper’s success that for a number of reasons eluded them.
So Harper’s ‘conservative-light’ framework was validated by the election results of 2008 and 2011. And where the rest of the industrialized world was ravaged by housing prices collapses, unemployment and bank crises, Canada actually did quite well in comparison and became the envy of many across the world. The late Jim Flaherty should at this place be remembered as an adroit captain of finance, not afraid to take on files that really alienated the conservative base such as when he initiated taxation of income trusts.
So despite the current calls for change, the evidence points to a relatively contented nation that appears to want change, but with more than half of the voters still undecided the question is, do they really want to bring in uncertainty and is there a real aversion to that new right-of-centre Canada?
Some evidence may be found in the way the leading opposition parties position themselves. One would think that the NDP would roll out a compelling left-of-center platform, capturing the aforementioned deep resentment that appears to exist in Canada. However its leader, Thomas Mulcair, has from the moment the campaign got going steadily moved his party to the right with promises of more police on the streets, balanced budgets and to go slow with any increases of corporate tax rates. If you add into this his past admiration for Margret Thatcher that was kindly dug up by some diligent journalist and his supportive position on Israel, you could as well be looking at the conservative front-runner. But Mulcair is neither a conservative nor a hardcore leftist, he is in the end a pragmatist who knows that Canadians are worried about the economy and absolutely do not want to rock the boat in uncertain times. He also knows that the road to power runs through the center and that center has indeed tilted rightward over the last ten years, thanks to Stephen Harper redefining it. Mulcair is simply reacting and navigating his way to election success, following a proven political recipe. In that he is also no doubt taking a page from the NDP in British Columbia where Adrian Dix’ defeat in the 2013 provincial elections a few years ago provided a textbook case of what not to do when you are riding high in the polls. Tack too far to the left and you lose, or in that specific case: threaten pipelines in attempt to establish your environmental bona fides and you will lose by alienating all those Canadians that make a living or whose pension depend on natural resources. You risk that the large group of undecided voters that float around in the center may vote for another party, or simply stay home on election day.
The power game in the center has strangely enough opened up an opportunity on the left and Justin Trudeau has now jumped into it with ideas around budget deficits to kick-start the economy. It may be one that will cost him dearly because he is abandoning that very place where the Liberal Party has historically been the dominant player: the center. At the same time he has opened himself up to be labeled a ‘flip-flopper’ when it comes to the economy and the deficit. That label is dangerous in any election – remember John Kerry for whom the term was coined - when competing against two formidable power players in the center like Harper and Mulcair, it could be lethal.
The three largest parties are tied in most polls with the bulk of the electorate undecided as of the day of this article. The debate is now almost entirely focused on the party’s leaders and their soundbites with very little analysis of what really is going on and where each party could possible take Canada after the October election. The safe bet is the center where Harper managed to win an election when the world was stumbling into a deep recession in 2008. He may repeat that feat and take some heart from the British elections where Cameron’s conservatives tied with a left tacking Labour until a day before the actual vote during which the British opted for safety and delivered the incumbent prime minster a majority. Using that analogy Trudeau will most likely be the one to remain locked out on October 19 where two smart centrists, one tested and one untested, will have to fight it out.