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May 5, 2011

Reading into Election 2011

Scott Stockdale

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It's often said that people get the leaders they deserve and, for better or worse, Canadians have given Stephen Harper a strong mandate to implement his policies.

What has become abundantly clear is that Canadians don't place a priority on the more arcane issues such as proroguing parliament, contempt of parliament, losing a UN seat for the first time in the country's history, or even complicity in the torture of prisoners in a far-off land called Afghanistan, which most Canadians have only seen on television.

In fairness to Canadians, many showed they do care about these issues, but the First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system, favoured the Conservatives and the NDP at the expense of the other parties. According to Fair Vote, the actual seats won Conservative 167, NDP 102, Liberal 34, BQ 4, and Green 1, would have looked like this if calculated in terms of proportion of votes received: Conservative 122, NDP 95, Liberal 59, BQ 19, Green 13.

So while the CBC, free healthcare and the gun registry may be casualties of the Conservative Party victory, Canadians were, for the most part, focused on the bread and butter issues: jobs, the economy, taxes and health care - which of course means affordable health care, and thus another economic issue.

  1. But the politics of fear worked for both leaders.

Mr. Layton promised a number of benefits to the voters such as creating 25,000 child-care spaces annually for the next four years, reducing the cost of prescriptions and training 1,200 new doctors and 6,000 new nurses, helping provide healthy meals to school children and increasing the Annual Guaranteed Income supplement -at a cost of $700 million annually - to lift seniors out of poverty. However, despite his proposal to increase corporate taxes as the principal means to pay for these services, his critics were able to convince voters that, although his proposals sounded good, they were fiscally irresponsible and he was only making them because he realized that he would never be in a position to implement them.

In many ways Mr. Ignatieff's economic policies were not that different from Mr. Layton's. The Liberals proposed increasing the Guaranteed Income Supplement by $700 million, investing $1 billion annually in Family Care Planning, and introducing a $1 billion Canada Learning Passport to help all young Canadians get post-secondary education. Like Mr. Layton, Mr. Ignatieff planned to pay for these programs mainly by increasing, not decreasing corporate taxes, as Mr. Harper proposed.

While policy – or more specifically economic policy – is important to voters, personality is the wildcard in analyzing the election results. Liberal organizers said they were constantly hearing at the door, “We don't like Stephen Harper,” and then in the next breath, “We don't like Ignatieff either,” as he continued to languish far behind the other two leaders in the opinion polls.

People who have to work eight hours a day and take care of families simply don't have time to follow the minutiae of government policy, so they vote for the leader they like the best. Although even Conservative commentators will admit that Stephen Harper is not very personable, the voters obviously found him more likeable than Michael Ignatieff, while Jack Layton was the one Canadians would most prefer to have a beer with.  And like him or not, Harper is decisive and thus provides leadership.

Brian Mulroney once said politics isn't all about polls; it’s about leadership. “Offer it to citizens and they'll vote for you every time.”

Without a strong Liberal Party, Canadian voters are faced with the rather grim prospect of a right-wing, reactionary party as the new “natural governing party of Canada,” a party the majority of Canadians don't want.

The Liberals now face talk of their party disappearing from the political landscape, as the Conservatives did when their party was reduced to two seats under the leadership of  Kim Campbell, who came to power on a wave of Campbell mania and then became less popular the more Canadians saw of her. While 34 seats is quite a setback, Michael Ignatieff has resigned and leadership will be the key to whether or not the Liberals can rebuild and provide an alternative to the Conservatives – a party that 60 per cent of Canadians didn't vote for. Joining the NDP is fraught with all kinds of conflicts because the two parties have some fundamental differences.

If the Liberals make the mistake of making Bob Rae their leader, they will have yet another highly accomplished, unelectable leader, who will probably oversee the demise of the party. Aside from Ontario where he is widely disliked, is there a place in Canada where Bob Rae is popular? Justin Trudeau is another disaster in waiting. Aside from being the son of a famous Liberal leader, there is little substance too him, but then why would there be. What is his life experience? It remains to be seen whether some new talent can emerge from within the ranks, where it needs to come from, because parachuting in star candidates is not going to work. Canadians may not be overly astute at the minutiae of government policy, but their wisdom allows them to all too easily spot an imposter to the throne.

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