In my previous post I spoke of the overall reasons why a federal election this fall was unlikely – a lack of a mandate issue and no compelling damage to the Harper government. Still the media continues to report the possibility of– to use the old Frank magazine lingo– “another running of the lizards.” Perhaps a deeper examination might find reasons why an election may (or may not) occur. A place to start is an impressionistic evaluation of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the parties.
First the standard observation that political parties are waning as vehicles for public participation. Robert Putnam in his well-received 2000 book, Bowling Alone, documented the loss of social capital as Americans, and though not mentioned specifically Canadians, have retreated from civic engagements in clubs, associations and particularly political parties. More Canadian specific analysis comes from an IRPP 2006 report including two fascinating articles, “The Shifting Place of Political Parties in Canadian Public Life” by R. Kenneth Carty and “Are Canadian Political Parties Empty Vessels? Membership, Engagement and Policy Capacity,” by William Cross and Lisa Young.
They elaborate a point made earlier by University of Moncton professor Donald Savoie, that the concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office has emasculated many of the regional and issue-based political power centres represented within parties. Parties, by this analysis, have largely foregone a policy role and simply become the machinery of electioneering. That’s a desirable outcome if the average Canadian is looking for some kind of government largesse, but less so if they actually want to have some influence upon policy decisions. If an election becomes under the radar of what H.L. Mencken described as “a futures market in theft,” then political policy is far less important than brute marketing.
Here is the Conservative advantage. Not only does the Conservative party have a vestigial policy base they also have the marketing capability of at least a mid-sized supermarket chain.
The Conservative party’s advantage, however, is limited by the very source of its success to date – rural Canada. It can put together a coalition, team and resources necessary to win a minority, but to get into majority territory requires something that has proven elusive for the Conservatives– the support of city voters. The Liberals, and to a lesser extent the NDP, hold sway with urban voters at least in English Canada (which includes l’Isle de Montreal).
The situation is complicated by the fact that rural Quebec with its surprising, and perhaps artificial, urban outlook is quite content to park its vote with the Bloc Quebecois. The Conservative formula works everywhere in Canada, except where the party really needs it–Quebec. The Liberals and NDP, in the face of a united Conservative Party, face slow attrition back to their urban – read Toronto and Vancouver lairs – with not much hope of gaining more than the other’s seats. As to the much ballyhooed coalition talks, the Liberals are simply too big to merge with the NDP and just won’t. In short, the situation seems uninteresting and static.
In such a state, what is the point of an election? For the Conservatives, they can possibly pick up a few seats in rural English Canada and lose some in Quebec. For the Liberals – as Liberals alone – they consolidate their base as the Toronto party but not much else. For the NDP, it is a risk to be pushed out entirely by vote splits. For the Bloc it is just another day at the office.
Not surprisingly, Canadians are unenthusiastic at the prospect of an attempt– it would be the fourth–to produce a different outcome.
It may be that Canada becomes the North American equivalent of Belgium, doomed by ethnic and regional politics to a perpetual deadlock. For everyone’s sake, our political leaders should just stay quiescent until a decisive moment arrives.
Time is the great innovator and the current stalemate may not last longer than it already feels to have – about two decades. Advantage rests with the Conservatives but not in perpetuity.