The Shifting Landscape of Canadian Politics
So as most of you are probably aware, there was a national election here in Canada yesterday. The votes have been tallied, and the results are in — and in many ways, they’re surprising, but not as much as it might seem on the surface.
The Conservative majority is, sadly, not one of those surprises. Despite the fact that Stephen Harper’s minority government over the past few years has been by turns ineffectual and out of touch with reality, the official opposition (the Liberal party) have been even more so. While in 2008 the rallying cry in many areas was “anything but Conservative”, it seems that in 2011 most people have completely lost faith in Ignatieff’s Liberals, and would prefer to go with “anything but Liberal”. And from my perspective, it seems a logical conclusion: just what, exactly, have the Liberals done in the last few years? They couldn’t even manage to successfully arrange for an election to be called — it took months, and a proroguing of parliament (one conveniently arranged to put things off to a more convenient time for the Tories, by the way), before they could finally get Harper to go to the Governor General and get the ball rolling.
Taken in that context, the biggest surprise of the day — the unprecedented number of seats gained by the NDP and the mantle of Official Opposition falling to Layton’s party — is less of a surprise. For many years in this country, politics has been a 2-party game. Vote for the puppet on the left, or the puppet on the right, or throw your vote away on one of those pathetic little smiley-faces-drawn-on-fingers in the back. It has only been very recently that this familiar game has started to change, as the NDP under Layton’s leadership has gained strength and, slowly but surely, become a serious force to be reckoned with. Long-time Grits who no longer wanted to vote red were faced with the choice of going Tory or going elsewhere, and a lot of them went orange instead.
Another factor here has been, undeniably, the backbiting nature of Tory and Grit campaigning in the post-Chretien years. With Jean Chretien’s departure, the last vestiges of the Pierre Elliot Trudeau mystique were pretty much stripped away from a party that had gone largely unchallenged for a good solid decade, and thus had little practice in the art of serious campaigning. Followed up by Martin, Dion, and Ignatieff, the party has struggled to find a new identity in the changing social climate of the 21st century. In the absence of a solid party line, most Grits have gone to simply attacking the Tories, relying on the illusion of a two-party system and assuming that if people can be convinced not to vote Conservative, they’ll by extension have to vote Liberal. The Tories have, of course, been more than happy to respond in kind, launching concerted smear campaigns against each of the Liberal leaders in turn and, one by one, forcing their resignation (and thus assuring that the party’s confused, directionless state is continued for as long as possible). Liberal support has slipped, their party coffers have emptied, and by the time this election was finally called, they lacked the drive or the money to put up a decent fight. Meanwhile, of course, the Conservative juggernaut was able to grab a larger slice of the media-control pie, spreading anti-Liberal (and, specifically, anti-Ignatieff) sentiment rampantly across the country.
Of course, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Quebec politics has had a huge part to play this year, as well. Almost 16 years after the second Quebec referendum ended in a nail-bitingly close 50.56% “no”, the world has changed drastically. Post 9/11, with ongoing conflict in the middle east and a major economic collapse that we are still recovering from, Quebec is much less eager to declare itself separate from the rest of Canada. Striking out on your own is, after all, a lot harder when you’ve got no money and there are scary people with guns and bombs out there. The tendency, in unsure times, is to hunker down and protect what you’ve got. This added up to major losses for the Bloc, and in most cases those seats were grabbed up by the up-and-coming NDP.
The economic crisis has, of course, been one of the major factors in determining where people’s shifting alignments have landed. Traditionally, the Tories have been seen as the party of the rich — the upper classes, as well as private industry and business, tend to be well-served by Tory policy. The Liberals, on the other hand, have traditionally been the party of the middle class, pushing for family-friendly policies, health care, education and the like. To continue this, the NDP could be argued to be the party of the working class, and especially of the working poor, as their policies tend to fall further to the left on the political spectrum, favoring social assistance programs, workers’ rights, equity for women and minorities, and advocating higher taxes for the rich and for corporations in order to pay for increased social programs. The economic crisis of the past few years has served to severely sharpen the rich/poor divide in this country (and around the world), and so it’s not surprising that the party of the middle class has lost some support: the middle class itself is shrinking as more and more people fall below that invisible “poverty line”, while corporations and the rich are raking in cash from tax breaks and ill-advised “economic stimulus” programs.
Overall, I’d have to say I’m saddened by the results (I was sincerely hoping that the Tories wouldn’t gain a majority), but still somewhat hopeful (the NDP got my vote this year, and has been my personal party of choice since I became old enough to vote, so I’m glad to see them gaining so much ground across the nation). While the prospect of Stephen Harper’s policies going unchecked is quite scary to me (as a non-heterosexual, twenty-something female working in an arts field and living below the povery line, there’s nothing about the Conservative party that supports my life or interests), I’m hoping that Layton’s NDP will manage to be a strong, balancing voice, keeping the most vehemently right-wing of Harper’s policies from gaining enough support to make it into law and reality. While I would have been happier to see more red instead of blue on that political map, I can’t help but acknowledge the fact that the Liberals have been no help whatsoever in their role as Official Opposition during the last parliament, and I couldn’t have hoped for them to be any more effective during this one. Until their internal struggles get sorted out, the Grits are pretty much impotent, and the need for a strong Opposition party has been a factor in many of the Tory follies of the past couple of years. And, of course, I’m even more hopeful that four years from now (or sooner, should Harper truly fuck up and cause a non-confidence vote to occur) the NDP will gain even more strength, now that they’ve proven themselves to be a viable alternative to voting red or blue.
Expect to see some “stupid Harper!” rants in the coming months, though — I fully anticipate that this majority government will be a major barrier to finding stable, paid work in the arts, and will probably result in some steps backwards for womans equality, gay rights, and environmental policy in this country. Sigh. Guess I’ll be doing shitty contract work for a while longer, now.