The Fragile Minority Leads to Soft State

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February 6 shall mark the transition to the new conservative minority government, with Stephan Harper installed as the Prime Minister. The new government that shall take over shall be a fragile setup. We, the people of Canada, have elected the first Conservative government in 12 years; fully realizing that it is shall die in infancy. It has only limited minority mandate to change policies and priorities. One newspaper report aptly described it as party leader Stephen Harper’s “Thin Blue Line.” Blue is the color representing the Conservatives in Canada, while the Liberals are red. It is a negative vote, not a vote of confidence, as Globe and Mail said: “Canadians did not endorse neo-conservatism when they elected him last night. They voted against a Liberal Party that had become smug and arrogant.”

The Conservatives won 124 seats, below the 155 needed to form a majority. The ruling Liberals won 103 seats while the left-leaning New Democratic Party won 29 seats. The Bloc Quebecois, which campaigns only in the French-speaking province of Quebec, won 51 seats. I heard Harper tell an ecstatic crowd in the Western Canadian city of Calgary after his win: “Each and every day, I will assure you of one thing — I will dedicate myself to making Canada more united, stronger, more prosperous and a safer country. ” The result was a huge triumph for Harper, who shall be the first prime minister from the oil-rich Western province of Alberta for 25 years.

Minority governments in Canada rarely last longer than 18 months. The outgoing minority Liberal government stayed in power for 17 months before it was defeated in November 2005 over a kickback scandal. Opinion polls had pointed to a Conservative minority. But the number of Conservative seats was somewhat below forecasts, indicating an unstable government unlikely to last for long. Unlike the Liberals, who governed with the help of the New Democrats, the Conservatives have no natural allies in the four-party Canadian Parliament and will need the support of political rivals on an issue-by-issue basis.

BQ has assured him support from issue to issue. It is a monthly lease of lease. There cannot be a continuous implementation of any policy that Harper has pledged to execute. So has Jack Layton. But Layton has a personal agenda. He is playing the role of guy who gives all assurances and then pulls the rug under you, making you fall on the face. Look at poor martin. The defeat was a humiliating blow for outgoing Prime Minister Paul Martin, who inherited a large majority when he took over in December 2003, only to see support fade amid scandals, and for no fault of his own.

The Conservatives won 36.3 percent of the popular vote and the Liberals won 30.2 percent, their second-worst showing since Canada gained independence in 1867. Imagine trying to build a country with a mandate from just 36 %. Two-third of the Canadians simply have placed no trust in him.

Harper also vows to clamp down on crime, cut waiting times for health care and improve strained relations with the United States, with whom Canada has a number of trade disputes. He says he will allow a free vote in Parliament about whether Canada should repeal laws that allow gay marriage. There will be one independent, a Quebec talk show host who made a career out of lambasting politicians and railing against what he calls the Ottawa establishment.

Stephen Harper, soon to be anointed as Canada’s next prime minister, summed up the feelings of many of his compatriots after the Conservative party’s election victory on Monday: “The result signals a change of government, not a change of country”. He was trying desperately to reach out to opponents further to the left on the political spectrum who will help determine the fate of his minority government.

Apology for Victory

The Conservatives have ended 13 years of Liberal rule by tapping into a widespread desire for change. But what have they gained? Only a fragile mandate from an electorate that is nervous that they might use a landslide victory to ram through a right-wing agenda on social issues such as abortion and immigration, and snuggle up too close to the Bush administration.

The Tories won 123 of 308 seats in the House of Commons. None of them is in Toronto or Montreal, the two biggest cities. Three fundamentalist Christian Tory candidates in the western province of British Columbia failed to reach House of Commons. . Though the Liberals slipped from 133 to 104 seats, their defeat was not as dramatic as many had predicted.

The left-of-center New Democrats are the biggest winners, after Conservatives, who increased their representation in Parliament from 18 to 29, with gains in Ontario and British Columbia. To the satisfaction of Canadians across the political spectrum, the biggest losers on Monday night were Quebec’s separatists. The Tories went from zero to 10 seats in the French-speaking province. On the other hand, the Bloc Quebecois, once confident of scoring handsomely from a Liberal corruption scandal, slipped down to 51 seats. The Bloc got 42 per cent of the popular vote and they had hoped for 50 per cent target on which they had set their sights as a prelude to a push for a third independence referendum.

The Tories set out five priorities in their election platform: a two-stage cut in GST from 7% to 5%; correcting the “fiscal imbalance” by transferring a bigger share of federal tax revenues to the provinces; tougher measures against gun violence; a tax break to help parents pay for daycare; and a new “accountability” law for politicians and civil servants.
The Conservatives have also pledged a significant increase in defense spending as a part of the drive to improve relations with the US. Harper has indicated that he may participate in the US missile defense system. He opposes the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, but has stopped short of threatening to pull Canada out of the treaty.

The Tories may face some difficulty in finding support for their proposal to defer capital gains taxes on the sale of assets whose proceeds are reinvested within six months.
Negotiations with the 10 provinces could delay the Tories’ promise to correct the “fiscal imbalance”.
Harper is astute. He is aware that there is lot of money in kitty- a legacy of the Liberals. He realizes that in the short time at his disposal, he can afford to take poulist steps, to misguide and cast a spell of ‘ fiscal balance’.

The big guessing game is whether the new minority government will have a longer life than the 19 months of the outgoing one. The Liberals are faced by their own problems, particularly of finding a leader having charisma. The Bloc might spend some time licking its wounds. Its provincial counterpart, the Parti Québécois, has a new, untested leader. NDP and BQ have said that they want an other election. But half of respondents to a Globe and Mail online poll predicted that the next election would be held in 2007.

US Factor

What implications would a Conservative government have for the United States?
First, with Harper as Prime Minister, Americans will soon notice the absence of the shrill tone and holier-than-though attitude toward the United States that has characterized the Chrétien/Martin Liberals.

Secondly, under Harper, the Foreign Affairs Minister would most likely be Stockwell Day. He is a good friend of the U.S. and a passionate supporter of Israel. Day after 9/11, consistently pressured a hesitant Liberal government to proscribe terrorist groups operating in Canada, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and to ban all forms of fundraising for terrorist organizations. Day has criticized the Liberals for failing to seriously deal with the Iranian threat, even after the murder of Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi by Iranian intelligence officers in 2003 in Tehran.

Third, a Conservative government will take American concerns with energy security more seriously by limiting the federal government’s interference in areas of provincial jurisdiction, such as natural resources. Canada is already the United States’ primary supplier of petroleum products, including crude oil. But most of Canada’s oil is located in the Western province of Alberta, which has proven reserves of 174 billion barrels of crude oil, second only to that of Saudi Arabia. Western Canadians have never forgiven the Liberals for their 1980 ‘National Energy Program’, an attempt to wrest control of energy resources from the provinces by nationalizing the industry.

Harper calls his policy of limited federal interference “open federalism”. It is an assurance to Albertans and Quebecers alike that they will be allowed the full freedom and autonomy guaranteed by the constitution to administer provincial responsibilities. It might represent a coherent alternative to the Liberal vision of an expansive, paternalistic, central government. There are inherent problems in this vision. There are seeds of disintegration. Let us hope Harper is able to control the Frankenstein that he proposes to unleash. I worry for my country. The short life might tempt adventurers, who might like to make hay, while the sun still shines. I shudder at the possibilities. I hope that my concerns are unfounded, the alternatives is too horrifying.

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