This Monday, May 2, Canada had its 41st federal election, resulting in a Conservative majority government led by Stephen Harper. The results are somewhat surprising: though a Conservative government was likely, a majority was by no means a certainty. Perhaps the most interesting result of this election, however, is the effect it had on our other political parties. The NDP are now, for the first time ever, the Official Opposition Party in the House of Commons. They pretty much dominated Quebec, and they won 102 seats in the House. The Liberals were decimated, dropping from 77 seats to 34 (close to the same number the NDP had in the previous Parliament). Similarly, the Bloc Québécois went from 47 seats to 4. And for the first time ever, a Green Party candidate was elected—none other than the leader, Elizabeth May herself.
So our election is filled with many historical firsts for Canadian politics, and our political landscape has changed dramatically. For a graphical idea of how much changed in this election, just take a look at these two maps of Canada depicting the results by riding: 2008 election and 2011 election. (These are from the respective Wikipedia articles on the election.) CBC also has a great interactive map up on their Canada Votes 2011 site. Stephen Harper finally has a majority government after five years, which means he no longer has to court votes from across the floor to pass all that fun legislation he’s been drafting. However, the NDP are going to bring a whole new dynamic to the Official Opposition: not only are they quite strong in terms of number of seats as an opposition party, but they have all these new members from ridings in Quebec that have traditionally voted Bloc. In that sense, not only has the party risen in power, but it is not the same NDP any more. Similarly, with the Liberals devastated and Ignatieff’s resignation, we will see new potential leaders emerge and watch the Liberal party attempt, once again, to recover and regroup.
We’re in for interesting times ahead.
This post, incidentally, is not so much political analysis as it is political reaction. It’s a letter to my future self, a way of recording my thoughts following this election so, in five years or a decade, I will know how I felt and what I said. If you are looking for political analysis, there are much better places to find it.
Democracy in Shambles
I am disappointed that we elected a Conservative majority government. I am extremely disappointed that Stephen Harper remains Prime Minister. I am saddened and dismayed that we re-elected the man whose previous government was found in contempt of Parliament for the first time in the history of the Commonwealth.
“Contempt of Parliament” sounds very fancy, and it might be tempting to dismiss it as political brinksmanship on the part of the opposition parties. Who cares that the Conservative government was found in contempt? This was Harper’s line throughout the election; he consistently repeated that “Canadians don’t want an election.” Elections are apparently too expensive (that money would be better spent on fighter jets!). And after all, why should we bother Canadians with the expense and effort of an election? Democracy would work fine without them, right?
Look, I‘m willing to admit that elections are expensive and that plenty of Canadians will tell you they didn’t want one. (And I know plenty did. These kinds of binaries are tiresome.) It does not matter, because elections are essential to the functioning of our democracy. It is ironic yet egregious that Harper is condemning elections in our country while congratulating those countries attempting to hold their own for the first times in decades, or ever. We are not special. We do not get a “get out of elections free” card because we are older or smarter or better than those countries. If we want to stay a democracy, we have to vote.
The past decade has been somewhat atypical, as I understand, when it comes to elections and governments, and this has led to a somewhat skewed view of our parliamentary system. I won’t touch on the issues of proroguing Parliament or forming a coalition government (both of which are completely legitimate, incidentally). We’ve had three minority governments (one Liberal, two Conservative) in succession. The first minority government emerged after the 2004 federal election, which the Governor General called at the request of Prime Minister Paul Martin. It fell in late 2005 to a motion of no confidence and caused a winter election, which the Conservatives won. In 2008, Stephen Harper bypassed his own fixed-date election law and asked the Governor General to dissolve Parliament, resulting in another federal election and another Conservative minority. Finally, in March of this year, the government fell to another motion of no confidence.
So in the past ten years, we have had four elections, which might seem excessive. Two of them were triggered by motions of no confidence. Yet in Canadian Parliamentary history, the government has only fallen to a motion of no confidence only six times (including this most recent incident). Hence, these elections are not just a product of opposition parties attempting to get into power by repeatedly triggering elections. When the government falls owing to a motion of no confidence, we should pay attention, and we should not balk at the resulting election.
Furthermore, this recent motion of no confidence was the first of its kind ever passed. Stephen Harper has the dubious distinction of entering the history books as the first Prime Minister of Canada whose government was found in contempt of Parliament. What does that mean? In this case, it means the government did not disclose documents requested by Parliament and did not, in the opinion of the committee that investigated, provide a satisfactory reason for that failure. It is a dramatic example of why I dislike Harper and why I dislike the Harper government: they do not respect our Parlimentary system; they do not respect democracy; and therefore, they do not respect Canada or Canadians.
If you‘re wondering why I am getting so technical here, I will confide a secret: I am not a political junkie, I’m a Parliamentary junkie. I love the technical, constitutional nitty-gritty of what makes our democracy tick, and I find our Parliamentary system fascinating and far more interesting than other democratic systems, such as the congressional one in the United States. I don’t expect everyone to share my love for learning more about how Parliament functions, but I do think it’s important for everyone to know a little bit about it. What I’m trying to say is this: we should not make light of what happened in March, and we should not regard this recent election as unnecessary, regardless of the fact that it resulted in an even stronger government for Harper.
So What’s With that Majority Anyway?
Despite being found in contempt of Parliament, the Conservatives managed to gain enough seats to form a majority. Go figure. We could blame those who didn’t vote, or those who voted NDP instead of Liberal (or vice versa) and thus “split the vote” among the opposition parties, but those avenues are both red herrings.
Voting is important, as it is one of the strongest forms of participation in our democracy, and I am saddened if you were eligible to vote but did not. You still have a right to complain (though perhaps not quite so loud), but I hope next time you consider exercising your right, a right most people in the world do not have.
Nor do I blame those who “split the vote.” Both Ignatieff and Layton enjoyed claiming that the choice in the election was a binary one: Conservatives or their own respective party. I dislike that rhetoric, and I refuse to embrace it, though I am not surprised by it. The sudden and surprising surge in NDP support only demonstrates that it is possible to campaign as “third option” and suddenly become the option. Even if every Liberal seat suddenly became NDP orange, it still would not be enough—such are the mathematics of majority.
So no, I do not blame those who abstained or those who voted red instead of orange or orange instead of red. I blame those who voted blue. I realize some of you have your reasons—maybe all your other candidates sucked, maybe you truly believe the Conservatives are our One True Hope for the economy or jobs or the state of our national bubblegum reserve. Ultimately, however, you who voted Conservatives are accountable for what the Conservative government does over the next four years. I hope they do you proud.
Let’s Just Fix the System, Shall We?
Twitter was full of sage advice on election night, and a great many people were shouting for electoral reform. It’s probably not surprising that the people in the losing camps want to blame the system and call it broken. And when the governing party garners only 40 per cent of the popular vote, the hue and cry gets even louder. Yet I am not going to jump on the bandwagon of proportional representation or any other electoral reform just yet.
After all, the Conservatives did not gain a majority of the popular vote, but they did gain a plurality, and under proportional representation, we would likely just get another Conservative minority government. I am intrigued by proportional representation, but I do not know enough about it yet to promulgate an informed opinion. And that’s really a topic for a separate post.
Electoral reform is definitely worth the discussion, even if I don’t think it’s likely to happen any time soon. However, it is not a magical panacea for our Parliamentary woes. What would really help is if we got some new leaders. I am not sorry to see Ignatieff go, and I will be happy the day Harper steps down (except, perhaps, if he gets replaced by someone like Jason Kenney or, heaven forfend, John Baird!).
But What Do I Really Think?
On Monday night, I was tweeting about the election results, and one of my tweets read, “We are. So screwed. That is all.” This was hyperbole, a product of election-night fervour, and while my feelings about the newer, stronger Harper government are not optimistic, I don’t think we’ve quite entered “apocalyptic hellscape mode” yet.
It is good to have a majority government again. I actually rather like minorities, because they force parties to work together—except when they don’t. And our parties have all been rather dysfunctional of late, both within and with each other. Minority governments might be cool products of parliamentary politics, but they can also be frustrating when it comes to passing legislation, which is, at the end of the day, what our government has to do to govern our country.
So it is good to have a majority government after five years and three minority ones. It sucks that it is a Conservative majority; I would have much preferred and NDP or Liberal government, to be sure, though I do not particularly favour either of those parties. We have to work with what we’ve got, though.
Copyright is one of my interests, and our existing legislation is old and obsolete. Two copyright bills have died as a result of the last two elections. The most recent, Bill C-32, was actually not that bad. It had some worrying attitudes toward digital locks, but it was a big improvement over Bill C-61, and I was hopeful it could be improved further. We need to update our copyright legislation; entire formats have risen and fallen in the time since we last did so!
So any government passing copyright law might be a good thing, even a Conservative one. Both Michael Geist and Peter Nowak have written good, thoughtful posts on what the future might hold for Canadian tech and telecommunications now that the Conservatives have a majority. It’s a pretty mixed bag.
Still, that is just the tip of the majority iceberg. Even if Harper magically mirrors all my positions on copyright, I can’t forgive him for:
- being found in contempt;
- trashing the long-form census (which still bewilders me);
- failing not only to reform the Senate (a goal I support, though I understand the difficulty he faces) but going ahead and appointing more than 30 senators, which is not cheap;
- being anti-science;
- claiming an “abortion debate” is “not a priority of the people” but not disavowing a rabidly anti-choice Conservative candidate, Brad Trost (who won his seat), when Trost told some of his supporters that abortion was the reason the government had cut funding to Planned Parenthood;
- and, in fact, treating women and women’s advocacy groups rather poorly in general;
- not to mention his neglect of First Nations people and communitites (because, you know, access to clean water is a privilege!),
- his abandonment of Africa;
- did I mention his government was found in contempt of Parliament?
I do not respect Stephen Harper. I will not vote for the Conservative party while he is its leader. And I am worried about our country as long as he is Prime Minister. I am glad he chose to rebrand the “government of Canada” to the “Harper government.” It just emphasizes his association with the mis-steps and mis-deeds of his governments and his MPs. It attests to his ego and his preference for power and privilege over the goals he professes, like the economy and “working” Canadians.
I do not know if I will look back at this in five or ten years with pride or with haughty derision and regret. (If it is the latter, then you are a jerk, future-me.) That’s why I wrote this, so that even if my attitudes and ideology may change over time, I will know where I stood in May 2011. Somehow, I doubt I will be much changed when it comes to these topics. For the next four years, the government of Canada—sorry, the Harper government—will only continue to alienate me and those like me, those who find that none of the current mainstream parties particularly suit them. All I can hope is that, by 2015, Canada’s shifting political landscape will produce a niche for me.
The next election is, by Harper’s law, four years away. Yet those of us unhappy with Monday night’s results must not be silent. We cannot afford to lapse into apathy or defeat now, of all times, even with a Conservative majority strong and secure. Now, more than ever, we must be watchful. We must write, and speak, and protest when necessary. We must make our voices heard, so that the media, the opposition parties, and the rest of the country remembers that a majority might rule in Parliament, but the rights of minorities are still important, and democracy is something that must be preserved and practised, not taken for granted.