Understanding the Canadian Election 2004…

First Published: 2004-09-18

Two weeks after a federal election changed the fundamental Canadian political structure, the man with the balance of power in Parliament said the ‘weaponisation of space’ was one of his top priorities.

Not that Canada, with an armed force of only 60,000 and not a whole lot better equipped than that of The Bahamas, has any plans to play Star Wars. It was just politically correct for him to protest any American missile-defence system.

It was the same day that another jump in the jobless rate was announced. But Jack Layton, leader of the left-leaning New Democratic Party, didn’t give that a passing mention.

A former professor of political science, Mr. Layton now has the biggest clout in setting government policy. That clout far outstrips his party’s fourth-place standing at the polls. He had been predicting it could take 50 of 308 seats, but the NDP didn’t even get 20.

However, a general disillusionment with the mainstream parties meant none got a majority and so Mr. Layton acts as kingmaker, trading parliamentary support of the minority Liberals for expansion of an enormous social safety net and fewer ties to the United States. Where are the additional billions involved coming from? Not his concern, he says.

Canadians don’t like the idea of losing a social programme that includes healthcare for all; pay for the jobless; welfare for the shiftless; universal pensions for the aged; rent, food and entertainment for the stateless (or those who claim to be); and state-paid lawyers for those who can’t stay out of trouble. But, as taxes continue to suck more than 60 per cent out of many middle-class incomes, the return on this investment is increasingly queried.

Within days of the election, some investors (the biggest are Americans and Chinese) had announced plans to leave the booming Canadian oil and gas sector citing ‘the Jack Layton effect’. For a man whose previous runs at federal and provincial politics went nowhere, he’s amazingly confident that stints as a Toronto city councillor prepared him to decide the nation’s destiny.

But that smug certainty failed to strike a chord with a population that is one of the most heavily taxed in the world and which faces record prices for fuel in a climate and a vast geography where transportation and heat are basic necessities.

The gulf between what matters to politicians and to the majority of Canadians explains what happened at the ballot box on the last Monday in June, when voters showed how balkanized Canada has become.

Political party members are turning on each other, regional factions grow ever more insular, separatism is a continuing undercurrent in both Quebec and the four western provinces, and there is a widening gap between the urban and mostly immigrant majority and the rural few who’ve been around six, seven or more generations.

Voters said gay marriage and abortion rights proffered by politicians as election issues were non-starters, and they were disappointed that no platform seemed to include such basic issues as mortgage rates and record-low farm incomes.

This is a situation not totally unfamiliar to Bahamians, who quite sensibly spend a lot more brain and mouth energy on the price of conch and how to fix the Montagu ramp mess than on the FTAA and Caricom issues favoured by the Elected few.

For both countries it might also be a syndrome related to living next door to the global Godzilla.

Like a small group of connected and educated Bahamians, a slightly larger but still exclusive and influential leftist group of Canadians continually questions ‘the national identity’, looking for characteristics that define the country and its citizens, while the rank and file gets on with living and making a living.

Similarly, Canadian books, music, magazines, film, and newspapers are either directly subsidized or protected through mandated domestic use and foreign-ownership regulations.

But, as in The Bahamas, most Canadians opt with their wallets for American brands, even though their tax dollars prop up the domestic product.

There is a group that says if there is anything essentially and distinctively Canadian, it will survive totally open trade, travel and economic borders between the countries. But that doesn’t sit well with the nationalists.

Maybe the national lack of self confidence is related to being former colonies peopled and factionalised by distinct and disparate groups: Anglos, French, Indians and everybody else (the fastest-growing group) in Canada; blacks, whites and aliens in The Bahamas. (Toronto, at 44 per cent, has the second-largest foreign-born population of any major city in the world. Vancouver, at 37 per cent, is number four. Miami, at 59 per cent, is number one).

In any case, these groups, in large part, define themselves by what they are not, and topping that list is ‘American’. This is despite the fact that in both countries the US is the favoured vacation/shopping destination, that Canadians and Bahamians scramble for Yankee dollars, and US sports, entertainment, products and marketing all dominate.

Were a shooting war to break out, both countries would meet under Uncle Sam’s umbrella, but an anti-American backlash cast as pro-nationalist sentiment was the 11th-hour deciding factor in voting patterns during June’s Canadian election.

Paul Martin, in a desperate attempt to deflect attention from scandals surrounding the government he inherited when he became prime minister, claimed as the main issue of the campaign a Canadian character defined by social policy, central to which is the national health scheme.

His predecessor’s reign had produced a mandatory gun registry that became a costly and colossal bureaucratic cock-up, and is still years from completion; a shadowy anti-separatism campaign that funneled hundreds of millions to party-friendly ad agencies with no supporting paperwork; pork-barreling for Quebecers and friends of the prime minister on an unprecedented scale; and a civil service that grew and grew, with preference given to French-speakers…to the growing annoyance of the other 80 per cent of the population.

On Canada Day, July 1, three days after the election, police on Canada’s east coast announced that a ship named after Mr. Martin’s wife, and owned by a company he recently handed over to his sons, was found carrying hundreds of pounds of cocaine worth millions of dollars.

Maybe not a huge deal to citizens of the first country on this continent to propose legalising cannabis (41.3 per cent of the population over 15 admit using it), but certainly enough to spur a flurry of explanations, denials and panic. After all, surely the poor man had more than enough to deal with trying to put the best face on celebrations to mark the country’s 137th birthday while barely hanging on to power.

In just over a month, he had called an election and turned a third massive Liberal majority into a minority, lost to French-Canadian separatists federal control of his home province of Quebec, and been left hanging by many veterans MPs. Not an overwhelming performance only months into a job for which he had campaigned for years.

Mr. Martin, whose family owns CSL, the world’s biggest line of container ships (many of them registered in The Bahamas), made the mistake months ago of promising a national election. That was just before the web of scandals and corruption started to unravel.

And it was just months after fellow Liberal Dalton McGuinty swept to power as premier of Ontario, by far the biggest province in the country, on a tide of promises including no tax increases, lower car insurance rates, improved education, and an end to a perceived slide in national healthcare.

Nine months after McGuinty came to power (maybe an auspicious period of time), he had broken every major promise. Inevitably catching the fallout for his performance and that of former prime minister Jean Chretien was Mr. Martin.

Canada’s political landscape has evolved over the past decade from one of three parties (left, centre and right) with a stable membership and support based on principle and platform, to one in which regional and ethnic self-interest is paramount, and 40 per cent at least of the electorate didn’t give a damn. In fact, Canada now has one of the lowest voting rates in the western world.

But perhaps one could forgive voters their confusion when long-time Conservative, former party leader and one-time prime minister Joe Clark was telling people to vote Liberal and constituency officials of former Liberal deputy prime minister Sheila Copps defected en masse to the NDP rather than support her successor.

And there was Mr. Layton claiming the election was all about integrity, yet refusing to satisfactorily explain why his party used thousands of taxpayer dollars to send to a European conference on public ethics and corruption an MP forced to resign over his theft of a $64,000 ring to proclaim his engagement to a man.

It would appear the Canadian national character might best be defined as apathetic compromise.

The biggest question among those few who give a damn is not what happened and why, but how long the government will last in the cat-and-mouse game of a minority, in which the first slip is usually fatal. The pundits give six to 18 months after Parliament resumes in October. That could mean the fourth election in eight years.

David Docherty, a political scientist at Wilfrid Laurier University, says Canada should brace itself for “a dysfunctional Parliament” with the chameleon-like Liberals conceding to NDP demands to shift further left in order to maintain power.

One likely long-term benefit could be a long-discussed plan to change the electoral system to one of proportional representation as in many European countries. Such a scheme, which has also been discussed in The Bahamas, would replace that in which the most votes takes all the marbles, and might be a better match for the new fragmentation of Canadian society.

This guest column was written specially for the Tough Call by Simon Wickens, a journalist and media consultant based in Canada, who has also worked and lived in The Bahamas, the United States and Britain. He and his wife breed Appaloosa show horses and Standardbred race horses on a 100-acre farm between Toronto and Ottawa.

August 12, 2004.

The column ‘Tough Call’ by Larry Smith is published in The Tribune every Thursday and is reprinted here as a courtesy. Mr. Smith founded and successfully grew an advertising agency over 20 years. Under his direction Media Enterprises diversified into short-run commercial printing and publishing, and is now the largest non-fiction book wholesaler in the Bahamas. He has 30 years experience as a journalist and publicist and has contributed numerous articles and columns to the Bahamian press. A former reporter at the Nassau Guardian, local correspondent for Reuters and editor at the Bahamas News Bureau, he conceived and edited the Bahama Almanac (published 2000 by Media Enterprises), wrote the commentary for Mike Toogood’s Portrait of an Archipelago (published 2004 by Macmillan Caribbean), and edited the Bahamas Environmental Handbook (published 2002 by the government). In 2003 he took a year’s leave of absence from Media Enterprises to lead a transition management team at the Nassau Guardian after the paper was acquired by local investors. After leaving the Guardian he was contracted by the Tribune as online manager/editor and columnist. He has a degree in political science and journalism from the University of Miami.

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