Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What's at Stake?

With the chances of a federal election coming this spring looking more and more inevitable, I'm going to be dedicating more time to posting on Federal Issues; with exceptions for major provincial stories that will arise.

It seems to me that the next election will be an election in which there is a lot at stake for the parties and for the people of our nation. These are terms which are thrown around a lot by politicians to hopefully scare us into voting for their party, but I'm saying this in all seriousness.

There are a number of potential outcomes when the writ is dropped and the last ballots are counted in the next election, some more favourable than others. I would like, if you'll indulge me, to explore what some of those outcomes are.

1.) A Conservative Majority

This option, as of this writing, appears the least possible. Canadians still haven't warmed up to the Conservative Party en masse, and as such the Conservatives have been unable to punch above their higher 30% approval ratings in opinion polls. Given that the Liberals have remained in the mid to higher 20% range, even in their darkest days, it seems highly unlikely that a mass shift will occur to give the Conservatives access to the voting pool they need to form a majority government.

Now, I could stand here on my soap box and talk about all the consequences that would come from a Conservative majority government. The implications to social minorities, the cuts that would come to social programs and artistic spending, and the untold numerous financial consequences that come from Conservatives taxing less while still attempting to improve programs and avoid cuts which in turn leads to massive deficit spending...

But I'm not going to spend a great deal of time doing that, as we already know the potential problems. But I am going to say this much:

Canadians: If we want to pay for health care, pension plans, and other social programs we need to pay taxes. We may not like it, but the alternative is to take those programs on ourselves and the cost we'd pay in those situations would far outweigh the potential tax increases needed to properly fund them. As long as we're taxed fairly, and the services we receive are worth the taxes paid, how could we possibly have a problem?

2.) A Conservative Minority

This is the most likely option, given Canadian's penchant for electing minority governments over the past couple of years. As mentioned above, the Conservatives have failed to hit above their polling numbers for the past few years; one would have expected some kind of movement in either direction, but the Harper Conservatives continue to remain in their bubble of 30 - 35% support.

Since it's unlikely that the Conservatives are going to find enough of a voter base to pull their totals ahead, the most likely outcome would be the re-election of a minority government. There is an implication here that has dire consequences for the Conservatives, which I will talk about later on in this post.

However, it's still possible that there could be movement forward for one of the opposition parties, which could result in a minority government of a different political stripe; though this does not seem likely.

3.) A Coalition Government

That's right, I used the C Word: Coalition.

Stephen Harper did everything in his power to discredit the Dion-Layton-Duceppe Coalition, calling it just a few notches short of treason. He did a relatively good job of kicking up a Canadian distaste for the concept, and even the word, and rumblings suggest that some Conservatives (ex. John Baird) are invoking it as a means of fund raising already.

But, there has a been a substantial paradigm shift since the failed Canadian Coalition: Two coalition governments have been formed in other Parliamentary Democracies. That's right, the United Kingdom and Australia both have coalition governments in the wake of elections which failed to produce a majority government.

As such, for any Canadians who pay attention to political news outside of Canada, the concept of a coalition as 'treason' should be worn off and proven as a falsehood; rather, these two countries have helped codify the idea as a virtue in Parliamentary Democracies. (Though granted, the UK Coalition is not without its faults.)

As such, Canadians could very well see a new coalition agreement formed in the wake of the next election. If the Liberals are able to regain some of the seats lost to the Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois; and the NDP is able to avoid losing the gains they've made (in Alberta, Quebec) and add to those gains in places like Saskatchewan (We're looking at you, Nettie Wiebe) the possibility to form a coalition government without the involvement of the Bloc Quebecois becomes possible.

I mention this, because by taking the Bloc out of the coalition, the Conservatives lose their talking point of 'getting in bed with the separatists', which was one of the major points that reflected very poorly on the first coalition idea.

As such, a Liberal - NDP coalition could form government, knowing that the Conservatives would never dare attempt to create their own coalition with the Bloc Quebecois.

Now, I mentioned a dire consequence for the Conservatives when I discussed the idea of another minority government. Perhaps I painted with broad strokes on that phrase, because the consequences are not really to the Conservative Party but rather to the leadership of Stephen Harper.

Since 2004, Stephen Harper has been struggling with the Canadian electorate to grant his party a majority government. Harper has undergone numerous elections as leader of his party, resulting in one loss, one less than substantial win, and one 'it was slightly better than last time' win.

Party leadership is a tumultuous thing; given that the successors are always waiting in the wings, sometimes with the knives out and waiting (Think Paul Martin to Jean Chretien), and there are always murmurs over the quality of the leadership being provided. And of course, every action is scrutinized under an electronic microscope.

In the 2008 Election, Harper was running an election campaign that for lack of a better phrase was his to lose. Stephane Dion was proving an ineffective Liberal Leader, and the election reflected this with the Liberals receiving their worst electoral result in decades...

And yet, the Harper Conservatives failed to form a majority government.

So, what does this mean for the next election?

It means, effectively, that Stephen Harper has the most riding on the next election and he is probably well aware of this. If the Conservatives fail to form a majority government, which is looking likely, Harper is going to face some difficult questions from his caucus and from his party.

This will be Harper's 4th attempt to form a majority government since 2004; as noted, he's had one loss in 2004, which was surprising in itself given the extent of the Sponsorship Scandal at this time. One less than impressive victory in 2006, where the Liberals still held on to a 103 seats in the House of Commons compared to the Conservative's 124.

This led to a better victory in 2008, over the Dion Liberals, where the Liberals dropped to 77 seats compared to the Conservatives' 143...But, this was not the defeat that the Liberals were supposed to be heading for. Of course, it was the worst Liberal result in decades as noted before, but they were not completely crushed and the Conservatives were not able to form a majority.

And that is why there is much to be gained, and lost, for Harper in the next election.

If Harper fails to win a majority, even if the Conservatives form a minority without losing or gaining too many seats, Harper is going to face direct challenges to his leadership. After all, with two electoral victories already under his belt, a loss now or the failure to gain a majority is going to bring down Harper's leadership.

There are no doubt contenders waiting in the wings (Peter McKay, Tony Clement, and probably numerous others) who will use the opportunity of another Conservative failure to gain a majority as proof that Harper is unable to gain the trust of Canadians and unable to connect their party with Canadians.

As such, for the good of the party, a new leader will be needed.

So, why risk an election if Harper's time in the sun is riding on it? One could take it as proof that there is clamouring in Harper's party over his leadership, and the only way to silence it would be to risk an election and hope against hope for a majority, silencing his dissenters in an instant. Of course, this looks highly unlikely, so perhaps it is not a good example.

Either way, the coming election does mean a lot to Canadians as it could have a fundamental impact on the way our country is governed; but I guarantee you, it has a lot more meaning to Stephen Harper.

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