To many outside our country, Canada has been characterized as a stable, durable democracy with a consistently enlightened approach to matters of public policy. The political parties that have governed the country since its inception in 1867 have usually struck a balance between ideological pursuits and the general values Canadian hold dear. Canada’s Supreme Court, meanwhile, has been devoid of the ideological splits that have characterized different periods in U.S. history.
Last week best illustrates how Canada can come to grips with some crucial and potentially divisive issues. On February 2, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper tabled new anti-terrorism legislation that went further than some (including myself), who cherish basic freedoms and favor restraints on police authority in the exercise of these freedoms, would have liked. The proposed legislation, however, does strike a chord with a majority of Canadians who are willing to give some leeway to authorities in combating the scourge of terrorism and in remembering the risks of homegrown terrorist assaults (this following two such acts last autumn on Canadian soil).
The opposition parties—the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Liberals— immediately expressed serious reservations about the new police-type powers handed to Canada’s intelligence agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, or CSIS (Canada’s version of the CIA).
The NDP has chosen to use parliamentary debate to extract amendments before indicating its decision to vote for or against the proposed bill. The Liberals decided to support the bill, but proposed stronger oversight measures for the elected representatives. This being an election year, we can expect more fireworks, with the ultimate assessment of the law being made some time after the upcoming Canadian election. But the debate in itself is healthy.
It is often stated as conventional wisdom that the United States is a right-of-center country and Canada, with its state-supported healthcare system and greater state-run operations, is left-of-center. In real life, it is far more complex—as we saw when U.S. President Barack Obama handily won reelection last November while the right-wing Conservative Party of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has won the last three general elections in Canada.
Occasionally, a book surfaces about a new political paradigm, leading many to question existing conventional wisdom. One such book has just hit the newsstands in Canada. It is called The Big Shift, co-authored by the CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, Darrell Bricker, and the respected Globe and Mail newspaper columnist John Ibbitson. I happen to personally know both authors and can attest to their impeccable professional credentials. Their book covers new ground, challenges existing conventions and offers a highly provocative treatise about the new politics in Canada.
The book’s basic thesis deals with an emerging new coalition of voters—anchored in resource-rich western Canada and in suburban Toronto—who share more conservative values and views about the role of government, the economy and law and order. Using recent census data, they point to a fluid demography where many new immigrants are arriving in Ontario and western Canada from East Asia and South Asia. Ibbitson and Bricker speak of an immigration inflow that is equivalent to the size of Canada’s largest city, Toronto, every ten years. The result is a new, more Pacific-oriented Canada that is more polarized along the conservative-progressive divide than ever in its recent history.
The prevailing narrative since Barack Obama’s decisive re-election victory last November is that America is changing. His most reliable voting blocs included progressives, minorities, single women, and youths, and his campaign was supported by an impressive, technologically-inspired ground game. Even many Republican talking heads acknowledged America’s changing demographics in their post-election ruminations.
Canada may be on the verge of experiencing something similar in the coming months and years.
Back in the 1960s, and not long after John F. Kennedy’s presidential victory at the outset of the decade, the Canadian political class was transformed with the rise of a brilliant intellectual from Québec called Pierre Elliot Trudeau, then-leader of Canada’s Liberal Party. Fluent in both French and English, coupled with an impressive life story, Trudeau brought Canadian politics into the new media age. Justin Trudeau, the late Pierre’s son and a current member of parliament representing a district in Québec, is a serious contender for the leadership of the federal Liberals and already seems to be bringing Obama’s style to his leadership campaign. Are we about to have a transformation in how we conduct our politics in Canada?
In recent years, Liberals have fallen on hard times. Once called Canada’s “natural governing party,” Liberals now have a third-party status behind the ruling Conservatives and the official opposition New Democratic Party (NDP). The federal Liberal party will choose its new leader in April in the hopes of reviving its fortunes and once again become the leading progressive voice in Canadian politics.
In the meantime, both the Ontario and Québec Liberal parties will also be welcoming a new leader at the provincial level in the first quarter of this year. Each of these parties has a different reality; the Ontario Liberals are in power in a minority parliament and the Québec Liberals are the opposition party in a minority parliament. Can change in existing Liberal parties translate into change in the country as a whole?
A look at Canadian history shows that Canada has benefited from an orderly transfer of power between moderate conservative parties and moderate progressive parties, the latter usually under a Liberal label. In the past four decades, however, Canada’s political landscape has seen the emergence of more ideologically bent parties. To illustrate, the separatist Parti Québécois has been in office for 18 out of the last 36 years in Québec, and a more populist conservative movement—the incumbent Conservatives under Prime Minister Stephen Harper—has been a dominant force in federal politics since 1993. Liberals in the meantime have become instruments of power rather than advocates of progressive policy initiatives, leaving a greater left-right split in Canadian public discourse.
Canada’s parliament is dominated today by the Conservatives and the NDP, but new leadership among the Liberals could represent change in the political landscape. But it will not be without risks if the electorate across Canada responds better to the clarity of the current left-right continuum.
The Liberals generally tend to be more centrist in their approach. They believe in progressive social programs, which reduce the economic disparities in society and provide a safety net; they are not allergic to government-generated solutions; yet they have argued for fiscal restraint. It is fair to add that Liberals have never been closed to innovation and reforms to the status quo.
With the emerging debate regarding Canada’s First Nations peoples and their demands for reform, a sluggish economy with increasing pressures on the middle class, rising government debt, and the continuing presence of a separatist movement in Québec, Liberals under new leadership across the country could become a part of a changing Canada—and possibly lead the nation. But will there be a strong enough constituency in Canada to support it?
Released this week, an Ipsos-Reid poll reports that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative party now commands approximately 40 percent of the Canadian public’s support, with the Liberal party’s popularity dropping 4 percentage points since the beginning of the month. Liberal support is now at 25 percent. This means that if elections were held today the Conservatives, a minority party, could gain a majority of the seats in the House of Commons.
The results come as no surprise to the polling firm’s head, Darrell Bricker: “the Liberals, these days, just have no traction at all.” Under Ignatieff’s leadership, the Liberals have been losing steam and are at one of their lowest levels of support since September 2008.
The Conservatives, while performing better nationally, have not gained ground in Quebec province despite falling popularity there for the Liberals. Instead, the Bloc Québecois has gained momentum, increasing support to 42 percent.
At the same time, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s strategy has changed from trying to bring down the current government to accusing the Conservatives of a partisan-bias when allocating economic stimulus funds.
Canadian voters have grown weary of repeated elections in recent years, with 54 percent of respondents indicating they would blame the Liberals and Ignatieff if a fall election is held. Fifty-one percent of respondents would be motivated to vote against the party solely for that reason.