Who Forms the Government?

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Eight days from now days shall probably show the absurdity of the rhetoric and ranting, of tall promises, made not be kept, resulting in bitterness and cynicism for the sensitive souls. The forthcoming elections reveal the new power equations, while bringing into relief the theatre of the absurd to which our systems have plunged. Thomas Hardy called pleasure an occasional episode in the general drama of pain and our political system has evolved to be a theater of human greed and avarice, of wanton calculated payoffs and lack of any coherent policy with a rare evidence of visible ethical standards. The main protagonists in this Greek tragedy are manifestations of human traits.

With just 15 days to go, most commentators now believe the federal election will depend on which of the two main leaders — Conservative Stephen Harper or Liberal Paul Martin — the electorate finds more trustworthy. Based on the campaign to date, the general consensus is that the Conservatives appear to have an outstanding chance to form a government. Harper is inspiring more trust than Martin according to last week’s polls, suggesting it will be difficult for the Liberals to scare voters into voting Liberal as they did in 2004.

The other day I was watching the CBS news and I got a confirmation that there is a vacuum of political leader at all levels in Canada. The news revealed that you cannot trust any political leader; only 25 % of the respondents believed that Jack Layton would return your wallet if he happened to find it. The credibility of others was even less. Imagine this when any average Canadian would not even think of keeping a wallet that did not belong to him.

The Canadian political leadership; across the board, irrespective of their political affiliation, lacks vision, lacks imagination, lacks sense of direction and priorities. It is sunk into morass of mediocrity. This is visible both at the provincial and federal level. The lack of quality is leadership is apparent when we see their response to the major issues.

Here is Canada, indisputably an important nation, a big economic player, a foundation member of the G8, its political system closely modelled on the British system, grappling with its own special relationship with the US and its own multicultural issues, a major force in world peacekeeping, and a country where they (mostly) speak English.

There are some good colorful aspects to this election too. For one thing, it is taking place in the midst of a Canadian winter, and Canadian winters aren’t funny. Prime ministers who call midwinter elections in Britain tend to lose – Gladstone in 1874, Heath a century later – and that looks increasingly like Martin’s fate too. That’s one reason why the would-be successors are gathering, including the writer and TV commentator Michael Ignatieff, who is running for parliament explicitly to offer himself as Martin’s replacement.
But the meat of the January 23 contest is whether this marks the end of a 13-year period of center-left rule by the Liberals – in some respects the equivalent of Tony Blair’s Labor party. The Liberals had nine great years in government, led by Jean Chrétien, who won three general election majorities before he stepped down in 2002. Throughout that period Chrétien’s presumed successor was his successful finance minister of nine years, Paul Martin. But when Martin finally took over it all began to fall apart. Seeking his own mandate, Martin could only scrape in at the head of a minority government in 2004. Now he has been forced to call a further election. The latest poll has the Liberals trailing behind the Conservatives. Back in 1993 the Conservatives were swept from power in a landslide that left them with just two seats in parliament. It was the end of the Conservatives, they said. But in January 2006 a new young leader called Stephen Harper is poised to lead the Conservatives back into power, possibly in a minority government with Quebec separatist support.

The Liberal Party has been determined to divert attention from a corruption scandal that has left it weakened in every province. It is using its anti-American foreign policy as an election tool, continuously reminding Canadians that the Liberal government kept the country out of the Iraq war and the North American missile defense system. Some pundits say that Martin, with no ammunition against opposition candidates, has decided to run against George W. Bush.

The opposition has also played the America card. The Conservatives, who support deep tax cuts, Thatcheresque deregulation of the economy and a set of family values that could attract the vote of any evangelical minister, are sympathetic with Bush’s foreign policies but vow never to mimic them. At the other end of the spectrum, the quasi-socialist New Democratic Party has candidates who are so anti-American that they sometimes sound like an undergraduate student forum, performing stunts. The one thing all the candidates have in common is their strenuous assertions that they will not tolerate being bullied, even if they have to make up the bullying.

Although the government boasts about its non-cooperation with the Americans on Iraq, it is desperate to keep quiet its cooperation on the war on terrorism. Under the Liberals, Canada enacted Patriot Act-style legislation with the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001. Recently, it resisted calls to repeal provisions for increased police surveillance and far-reaching powers of arrest and detention. Federal authorities are currently holding five suspects under so-called security certificates, which allow non-Canadians to be held indefinitely if a judge is convinced they are a threat. These policies, however, have been kept low-key, for fear of an anti-government backlash in public opinion.

Since the Christmas break, support for the Liberals, plagued by corruption allegations and hurt by a new federal police investigation into a possible illegal government leak, has dropped four points. Meanwhile, the Conservatives, led by Stephen Harper, picked up six points, according to a daily SES Research poll for broadcaster CPAC.

“The Conservatives have dominated the campaign in the first half,” said Paul Thomas, a politics professor at University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Harper blundered a 2004 election because he was still an inexperienced leader and unprepared to face voters after just reuniting the political right, but now he appears “more confident” and “more comfortable in his own skin,” Thomas said. “I think people have gone from cool and leery of Stephen Harper to possibly voting for him, although I don’t think there is overwhelming enthusiasm.” “And, (the Conservatives) have managed to keep a lid on the loony factor in their midst,” he said, referring to the party’s social conservative fringe whose views on gay marriage, abortion and other controversial issues diverge sharply from the Canadian mainstream.

The way votes are distributed; projections show that even a tie in the popular vote would tend to give the Conservatives more seats in Parliament. The Conservatives were now the second choice of an increasing number of voters, and were taking support from all the major parties. In 2004 the Liberals won 36.7 percent of the popular vote and the Conservatives got 29.6 percent, even though polls had pointed to a stronger Conservative showing. The election yielded Canada’s fourth straight Liberal government, although the party won only a minority of seats in Parliament. The campaign was launched on November 29 after the opposition parties brought down the government over a report on kickbacks to Liberal officials in return for government contracts.

Conservative leader Stephen Harper spent the entire pre-Christmas period laying out policies one day at a time. The polls also show the rising Conservatives support in French-speaking Quebec, which had so far been a two-horse race between the Liberals and the separatist Bloc Quebecois. Support for the Conservatives are now in double digits in the province in all three polls and Ekos has them at 20 percent in Quebec, just two points behind the Liberals. Ekos also put Harper ahead of Martin in terms of who is doing best at articulating a positive vision for Canada.
The attempt to demonize Harper by suggesting he has a “hidden agenda” is not likely to succeed this time because Harper has led an issues-oriented campaign featuring policies that are well thought out and well researched. One such policy is to bring in an immediate cut in the GST to 6% and then to 5% within five years to bring tax relief to ordinary Canadians. The Liberal reaction illustrates Martin’s tendency to be a hypocrite: In 1993, the Liberals campaigned to “axe the tax,” with Martin calling it a “regressive and unfair tax on living.” In 1990, he called the GST “an incredibly stupid, inept tax” and vowed “I will send it back to the drawing board.”

Should Conservatives lead the next Parliament, Harper commits to pursue five priorities, involving (1) ethics (passing a Federal Accountability Act); (2) tax cuts (cutting the GST); (3) crime (tougher mandatory sentences for gun and drug crimes, more police officers, better border security and no more house arrest or mandatory prison release); (4) child care ($1,200 a year for parents for each child under age 6); (5) health care (establishing with the provinces a wait times guarantee).

Lacking moral authority
The three Opposition parties combined to defeat the Martin government in a vote of non-confidence because it no longer had the moral authority to govern. Its deceptions and deceits amply support that conclusion and indicate a new alternative government is needed now as never before. And the final results shall be visible. Possibly the Liberal policies amply justify the jaundiced view of Englishman John Gay, expressed in 1738 when he wrote:

“That politician tops his part,
Who readily can lie with art;
The man’s proficient in his trade,
His pow’r is strong, his fortunes made.”

You’d almost think he had Martin in mind! Let’s see how Harper brings about the change? Time will tell the veracity of his averments.

Dr. Bikram Lamba is a political and management strategist and can be contacted at blamba@torconsult.com. Ph. 905 8484205.