Not in a long time has an election so confounded, and embarrassed, the pundits and the pollsters. It was supposed to be close. It was no such thing. Outside of Quebec, where circumstances were special, the Liberals did almost as well as four years earlier; in British Columbia and the Atlantic provinces they actually gained votes. (The one polling company with no apologies to make " not that any of the others apologized " was SES: Four days before voting day its daily tracking poll for CPAC put the Liberals ahead by four percentage points, near enough to their final margin). The Conservatives, far from being close to winning, let alone by a majority as Stephen Harper once unwisely speculated, lost votes " a lot of them " when compared to the combined performances of their two predecessor parties.
The commonest, near-universal, interpretation of what happened was that a combination of last-minute Liberal fear-mongering and negative ads coupled with some Conservative bloopers sent New Democrats scut- tling back to the Liberals for fear that Harper’s hordes were at the gates of government. There is obviously some- thing to this other than New Democrat self-exculpation. But why then did the Greens, equally vulnerable to the vagaries of strategic voting, win more than 4 percent, eas- ily their best-ever? Why, in BC, where voters had the greatest possible leverage for strategic voting because the three national parties were so evenly matched there, did the NDP gain votes?
Certitude is impossible, and would be foolish, and not least because I was among the commentators who called the result too close to call. As a substitute, let me offer a pure guess.
Perhaps the best way to read the entrails of so surprising and way- ward an election is to concoct an interpretation that is surprising and wayward. It may be that two elec- tions occurred and that observers got lost in between them. (Three elections, actually, since any federal election campaign in Quebec is always entirely separate from that in the rest of Canada).
The first election, in the nine provinces and the three territories, was effectively a huge by-election. The sec- ond, attached to it almost seamlessly at about the middle of the campaign, was a conventional election in which voters did their best to elect the best- possible government as they saw it.
During Election A, voters had fun, essentially by scaring the hell out of the Liberals. (Not all: Maritimers were clearly determined from the start to remain tied to the Liberals). In Election B, voters turned to doing their duty. They did this, whether by intuition or luck, with extraordinary skill. The humbled Liberals won the gold, but received their minority (even if a sizeable one), only in the form of a recallable loan. The Conservatives won silver. From mid-campaign on they, and most par- ticularly Harper himself, had come to expect doing a lot better. Nevertheless, they still won a lot: elevation to the status of a genuine national alterna- tive and so to within reaching dis- tance of an eventual victory, as compared with the condition a year earlier of the two right of centre par- ties when both seemed headed toward near-extinction. Canada, therefore, is once again a two-party democracy if, as will be discussed later, in the uniquely Canadian form of a parlia- mentary democracy dependent upon the sporadic alternation of two almost identical parties.
As well, the NDP ended up as moderately happy, the Greens as delighted and the Bloc Québécois as ecstatic. There were of course disap- pointments, in the West most obvi- ously, or, more exactly, in Alberta. But it’s an open question whether Albertans voted Conservative because they actually wanted a Conservative government or whether they voted against the Liberals in order to attract attention and respect, while knowing full well that the Liberals would end up as the government. But that so many were more or less satisfied by the results and so relatively few really crushed suggests strongly that the pre-election pooh-poohing by pun- dits about voter cynicism and apathy as well as the post-election hand- wringing about the reduced turn-out were grossly overdone. (The lowered turn-out, it must be stated, was caused both by actual non-voting and by the non-appearance of would-be voters on the often erratic permanent voters’ list).
Rather, Canadians may care a lot more about their governance and pay a good deal more attention to the substance as opposed to the details of electoral contests, than is generally recognized. Which, to deal here with the future, may mean that proportion- al representation is a bright idea whose time isn’t yet needed.
One handy way to convey the nature of Election A is to label it a post-modern election, a term that has the great benefit of being able to be made to mean anything a user wants it to mean. The Liberals fast fall to even pegging " appar- ently " with the Conservatives from a start- ing condition that most observers saw as a minority Liberal win for sure, and a Liberal majority as entirely likely, does take some expla- nation. Paul Martin did campaign ineptly. As he often does, Martin had far too many priorities, so voters received no impression of vision or policy direction. For his part, Harper was cool, confident, quiet, and so doing, did exactly what he should have been doing, that is, got get out of the way while his opponent tripped over his own shoelaces.
But there were countervailing fac- tors that in a conventional election ought to have cancelled out most of this self-inflicted damage. The coun- try was in great shape, almost certain- ly its best shape in the 40 years since the heady, mid-1960s years of Expo ’67 and the Centennial of Confederation. The economy was booming. Our finances were brim- ming over, in Ottawa anyway. National disunity was in recession. We had, by not going to Iraq, gone further than ever in our history toward defining Canada as quite dif- ferent from the US. For all of this the Liberals had to have merited some credit, if only for allowing success to happen by itself.
The offsetting factor to all these countervailing factors was of course the sponsorship scandal. It actually wasn’t " can it now be said? " that bad. The ”œ$100 million miss- ing” was the result of media hyping of some exaggerated writing by Auditor General Sheila Fraser. The scandal was grubby and tacky. But nobody died. No money is yet known to have gone, in the manner of John A. Macdonald and the CPR, first from government to contractor and then back to the politician. (The specific campaign contributions to the Liberals of the Liberal ad agencies were all quite chintzy.) And it was about the sacred cause of national unity.
So maybe the ”œrage” of voters during the first few weeks that all commentators noted wasn’t so much caused by the sponsorship scandal as by voters using this scan- dal to stoke up a passion they felt for other causes. A sense the Liberals were taking them for granted. A sense that they weren’t being respected. A sense " if so, so much for voter cynicism and apathy " that Canadian democracy was being under-minded, even imperiled, by the way we had ceased to be a two- party democracy so that the Liberals could do just about anything they wanted. So, scare the hell out of the Liberals, an accomplishment with- out risk precisely because the coun- try was in such great shape.
This analysis sounds unconven- tional. But what could be more unconventional " or more post- modern " than an election in which people not taking part in it exercised critical influence upon it? Ontario’s Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty lost the federal Liberals a lot of votes by a budget which broke his promise not to raise provincial taxes. Alberta’s Conservative Premier Ralph Klein lost the federal Conservatives a lot of votes by musing about how his province might breach the Canada Health Act. In the ”œthird” election in Quebec, provincial sovereignist leader Bernard Landry lost the feder- al, Bloc Québécois, sovereignists quite a few votes by forecasting that their success could open the way to another referendum.
Then everything changed. But scarcely an observer realized it. Harper, it was overwhelmingly reported (a judgement reinforced by polls) had won the leadership television debate by not losing it. Thereafter, all the fore- casts were for a virtual Liberal- Conservative tie.
It wasn’t so much, as an internal Liberal poll discovered, that Martin had in fact won the debate, probably because people for the first time got a glimpse of his basic decency and well-intentioned earnestness until then half-concealed by Martin’s image as a big businessman and by his record as a sober-sided finance minister. Nor was it, although this also made a difference, that Harper let down his guard to talk about possibly winning a majority and then mishandled the indiscretions of some of his MPs and of the press release issued by his own campaign headquarters accusing Martin of being soft on pedophilia. It was that Election B had started.
This was a conventional election. The job of the voter, within their regional and socio-economic contexts, became that of electing the best possible government. The Conservatives had no policies " or not really. (Their first policy con- vention has since been postponed to 2005). They were still getting to know each other, let alone to know about governing, of which none of their MPs had any federal experience. The Liberals were the Natural Govern- ing Party. Martin was as well-quali- fied as any newcomer to 24 Sussex has ever been. Best of all, he, and all his party, were now properly hum- bled. These were the key forces at work. Others, like the negative ads, surely had some influence. But as for- mer Preston Manning policy guru Rick Anderson noted shrewdly in a post-election column for The Toronto Star, negative ads can only be effec- tive " and, so much for Canadian political niceness, these date back to the very nasty ones deployed by Pierre Trudeau against Joe Clark in the 1980 election " if and when vot- ers already half-believe their negative message, in this instance, that Harper and the Conservatives had a ”œhidden agenda.”
What happened in the end thus was pretty simple. Canadians elected the government that most of them are most comfortable with. That’s a centre-left government with a reasonable national balance. Absent Quebecers, very possibly tem- porarily it’s essentially the old Trudeau coalition of city-dwellers, women, immigrants and liberal- minded professionals. Call it cen- trism with a caring face. Rather than fleeing the Conservatives near the end, many voters were probably just strolling back home where they felt most at ease.
One observer who understood this noted in a post-election column in the National Post that, ”œThe two- thirds of Canadians to the Left of centre on taxes and social programs really believe these are the core of Canada’s distinctiveness vis-à-vis the U.S.” He then ended with this fore- cast: ”œStephen Harper did well in this election, but circumstances will make it difficult for his party do bet- ter next time. Paul Martin did not do especially well, but circumstances make it difficult for the Liberals to do much worse.”
That commentator was Conrad Black, taking time out from some rather press- ing financial matters. He was damnably astute. Except for one possibili- ty. Harper could make the Conservatives electable by making them like the Liberals and so restoring our distinctively Canadian two- party system of occasionally alter- nating two virtually identical parties, the Liberals a millimeter to the centre left and the Conserva- tives a quarter-inch to the centre right, as Brian Mulroney and Joe Clark once did. These days, Harper sort of talks this way. But whether, as a true-believing ideological con- servative, he really wants to, and whether the ex-Reformers, who are now the majority among the Con- servatives, will ever allow him to, is a subject for another commentator.