CANBERRA – In the first election debate between the leaders of Canada’s four political parties, opposition leader Michael Ignatieff of the Liberal Party attacked Prime Minister Stephen Harper of the ruling Conservative Party for wanting to shut down anything he could not control.
New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton criticized Ignatieff for being absent from Parliament for 70 percent of the votes, insisting that anyone wanting promotion must first show up for the job.
Ignatieff did himself no favors by dismissing Layton as someone who would always be in opposition while the Liberals often formed government.
The separatist Bloc Quebecois Party leader Gilles Duceppe began by congratulating the prime minister for taking a question from a citizen for the first time during the campaign.
For his part, Harper blamed the three opposition parties for foisting an unnecessary and unwanted election on the country and emphasized his economic management credentials. The debate had generated controversy even before it was held April 12.
Green Party leader Elizabeth May was excluded from the debate on the grounds that her party had no sitting member of Parliament.
Outraged critics pointed out that at least the Greens were a national party; why should English Canada have to put up with a separatist Quebec party in a nationally televised debate?
In any case, who were the television executives to decide who should be permitted to address the voters in any self-respecting democracy?
The 41st Canadian general election was held May 2 (mid-term) because, on March 25, the minority Harper government fell on a no-confidence motion by a 156-145 vote in the House of Commons.
Introducing the motion, opposition leader Michael Ignatieff attacked the government’s handling of international affairs, its neglect of the needs of Canadians, and for various scandals in which it has become embroiled, including allegations of election fraud and influence peddling.
One of the great ironies during the tumult of the Arab spring is the contrast between the apparent willingness of Arab peoples to die for democratic freedoms and a life of dignity, and the seeming political apathy of most Canadians.
In the 1963 federal election, 79 percent of Canadians voted. Since then, the election turnout has steadily declined and was a worrying 59 percent in 2008.
Edmund Burke is often quoted as having said that all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. Canadians are certainly good and worthy folks. But they also suffer from an excess of civil obedience, politeness and lack of civic rage that can be harnessed to combat political atrophy.
One result is that their democracy is under threat of creeping retreat from a thousand silent cuts rather than a frontal assault.
The centralization of power in the hands of the prime minster and political staffers, with the resulting diminution of the role and status of the Cabinet, parliaments and parliamentarians, is not a uniquely Canadian phenomenon. The same trend has been evident in the fellow Anglo-Saxon democracies of Australia, Britain and the United States (with differences allowed for its presidential system of government).
But the extent to which constitutional conventions, parliamentary etiquette and civil institutions of good governance have been chipped away in Canada, looked at in their totality, is cause for concern. The trend began under Liberal governments and has accelerated under Harper.
In power at the head of two successive minority governments since 2006, Harper now has a secure majority of over 165 seats in the 310-member Parliament, up from 143 when Parliament was dissolved.
But his majority in Parliament is based on 40 percent voter support; the majority was splintered among the leftist New Democratic Party (NDP) at around 31, the Liberal Party at 19, the separatist Bloc Quebecois at 6, and the Greens at 4 percent each.
Under the first-past-the-post voting system, this translates into 102 seats for the NDP, 35 for the Liberals, 4 for the Bloc, and 1 for the Greens.
This is a game-changing election result. Harper may be tempted to drive his hard conservative agenda, but the reach of the government will be dangerously over-exposed if it extends well beyond the grasp of 40 percent popular support.
The Liberals were humbled, and how. Party leader Michael Ignatieff lost his own seat. Anointed and crowned by party insiders after being parachuted in from Harvard despite a 30-year absence from Canada, he failed utterly to connect to Canadians. Few people knew any longer what the party stood for.
The young in particular deserted it in droves for the more clearly positioned NDP at the left of the Canadian political spectrum. The party has more than doubled its best historical tally.
Layton, catapulted to the post of opposition leader, will have the difficult task of managing many novice members of Parliament and softening their exuberance with the realities of being the official opposition and therefore the alternative government-in-waiting. But at least he should be able to offer clear alternatives to the government on foreign and public policy alike.
The most surprising aspect of the NDP’s performance was how it shot to number one place in Quebec. The Bloc was humiliated in its home province, ending 18 years of dominance, and party leader Duceppe lost his own seat and promptly resigned.
By contrast, May won the first ever seat in Parliament for the Green Party, which should guarantee her a place at the debating table in the next elections. She told a jubilant crowd that Canada needs hope over fear, compassion over competition, and fidelity to Canadian values over any one ideology.
Yet the night belonged unquestionably to Harper, who becomes only the third Conservative leader in Canadian history to win triple victories at the polls. Will he govern wisely and well, moderating his once hard neocon ideology?
Or will he fall victim to hubris and alienate large swathes of Canadians by pushing through an agenda at odds with mainstream values?
Ramesh Thakur is professor of international relations at Australian National University, and adjunct professor at the Institute of Governance, Ethics and Law, Griffith University. Until recently he was professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, Ontario.
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