In October 2019, in Washington, DC, several U.S. diplomats, defying Trump Administration instructions, testified before the committees of the House of Representatives that were conducting an inquiry into whether or not impeachment proceedings should be launched against President Trump. Their testimony corroborated previous allegations that Trump had made U.S. military aid to Ukraine conditional on the Ukrainian government digging up dirt on his political rivals. In October the case for impeachment was strengthened materially, perhaps decisively.
In London, Prime Minister Boris Johnson concluded a Brexit deal with the European Union and the deal was approved by Parliament. However, Parliament also insisted on subjecting the deal to detailed examination, a task that could not be completed before the October 31 Brexit deadline then in effect. Johnson had no choice but to request yet another extension of the deadline, an action he had previously placed lower on his scale of preferences than being “dead in a ditch.” At the end of the month, the opposition Labour Party agreed to Johnson’s request for a December 12 election.
October events in northern Syria included the withdrawal of American troops, a Turkish invasion and the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the most prominent leader of the Islamic State.
In Hong Kong, massive street protests against the Beijing-backed local administration continued. Street protests to advance various economic and political demands also took place in Santiago de Chile, Quito, Barcelona, Beirut, Addis Ababa and other places. Demonstrations by mostly young people against the lack of adequate measures by the major industrial powers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions continued into October, following the global climate strike of late September.
In California, which has a larger population than Canada, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency as wildfires raged from Sonoma County north of San Francisco to the suburbs of Los Angeles. Thousands of people were evacuated and millions were without electricity as power companies shut down their equipment to reduce the risk of additional fires. The conditions contributing to the unusual severity of the fires, including extreme winds, were widely attributed to climate change.
All of this is to say that when the political events of October 2019 are remembered, the Canadian general election that took place on the 21st of the month is unlikely to play a prominent role. Canadian news junkies may fixate on American or, less often, British politics, but a federal election campaign will generally direct their attention back to the home front. This time the redirection was only partial.
And yet, the election was not without consequence. Perhaps most significantly, it brought us back, after successive Conservative and Liberal majorities, to the situation of minority government that had prevailed before 2011. Given the political configuration, this is likely to be a relatively stable minority government, but in any minority situation questions of who is entitled to hold power are never far from the surface. Calling on historical analogies, Gareth Morley analyzes those questions here.
Click to read Who’s On First by Gareth Morley.
While political parties generally strive for a majority, there is a strong case to be made that, for the electorate, minority government is a preferable outcome. Writing in Le Devoir on October 26, Guillaume Bourgault-Côté noted the achievements of previous minority governments, especially Liberal minority governments supported by the NDP, such as Lester Pearson’s two mandates (1963–68) and Pierre Trudeau’s precarious minority between 1972 and 1974.1 These governments gave us public health insurance, the Canada Pension Plan, an agency to review foreign investment, improvements to social insurance and other significant legislation.
Bourgault-Côté quotes University of Ottawa political scientist Geneviève Tellier as saying that the Liberals and the NDP are “two parties that have worked together in the past – and should be able to do it again.” However, in a post to the Inroads listserv, Simon Rosenblum questions whether the analogy holds. In the current situation, the Liberals only need the support of any one of three parties – the NDP, the Bloc Québécois or the Conservatives – to pass legislation. This means the Liberals can play the other parties off against one another, reducing their leverage. In the end, the government will be able to do essentially what it wants.
Good or bad, minority government can in some ways be seen as the country’s normal state, as even in the majority elections of 2011 and 2015 no party represented as much as 40 per cent of the electorate. In the recent election the party that received the most votes, the Conservatives, captured only 34.4 per cent. Nearly a third of the electorate voted for smaller parties – primarily the NDP, the Bloc and the Greens, who collectively received 29 per cent of the vote – despite the incentive created by our first-past-the-post electoral system for supporters of such parties to vote strategically for the least bad alternative that has a chance of winning their district.2
The 2019 result also highlighted Canada’s regional divisions, as is evident from the regional reports in this section. Regional differences manifested themselves not only in the increased support for the Bloc in Quebec but, even more dramatically, in the total rejection of the winning Liberals and the overwhelming support for the Conservatives in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Even the previously unsinkable Ralph Goodale, the only Liberal elected in Saskatchewan in the previous three elections, went down to defeat.
The Conservatives won 69 per cent of the vote in Alberta and 64 per cent in Saskatchewan. By contrast, their share in neighbouring Manitoba was only 46 per cent, and in no other province did they win as much as 35 per cent of the vote. Here too the impact of our electoral system, long apparent to political observers, is worth noting. While Canada’s regional differences are real, the electoral system dangerously exacerbates them. One third of voters in Alberta and Saskatchewan voted for parties other than the Conservatives, and they are represented only by a lone New Democratic MP from Edmonton. In a proportional system the Liberals, with 14 per cent of the votes in Alberta and 12 per cent in Saskatchewan, would have MPs from those provinces from among whom they could choose cabinet representatives.
The 2019 election was conducted under first-past-the-post despite Justin Trudeau’s promise four years ago that it would not be. So the Liberals have only themselves to blame for finding themselves in the awkward position of having to impose a climate-change plan on two reluctant petroleum-producing provinces without a single Liberal MP from those provinces. Will the glaring deficiencies of the electoral system brought to light by the 2019 election rekindle the flame of electoral reform? It does not seem likely.
Regional cleavages and overwhelming Conservative dominance of Alberta are not in themselves new (Conservative dominance of Saskatchewan is a more recent phenomenon). The Progressive Conservatives, as they were then, won more than 60 per cent of the vote in Alberta in four successive elections between 1974 and 1984. Two of those elections resulted in Liberal majority governments based almost entirely in the east – in 1980, the Liberals won a majority despite winning only two seats in Manitoba and none farther west. After the 1980 election, the Liberals introduced the National Energy Program that brought tensions between Alberta and the federal government to a peak.
Still, there is a dimension to the current division that was lacking in these earlier ones. If climate scientists are to be believed, we are entering a crucial decade for the effort to mitigate the effects of climate change. Emissions cutbacks on a much larger scale than anything previously achieved will be needed, and soon. This will be the most challenging item on the Liberal minority government’s agenda. The political configuration will not make its task easier. On one hand, the government is dependent for its survival largely on parties to its left. On the other hand, it is shut out of Canada’s major petroleum-producing region, which expressed its strong support for the major party with the closest ties to the fossil fuel industry and the weakest approach to climate change – although, as John Richards points out in this section, the differences in the actual impact of the parties’ climate change plans if they were implemented would be much less than their rhetoric would lead us to believe. On climate change, the government is in a tight spot, and there is no easy way out.
Click to read Canada Fiddles While California Burns by John Richards
The New Yorker’s resident Canadian, Adam Gopnik (though born in Philadelphia, he was raised in Montreal), characterized the election as a “worthwhile Canadian initiative,” citing the winning entry in a competition for the world’s most boring headline. And yet, from his vantage point in the United States in its current political situation, a worthwhile Canadian initiative looked pretty good: “This was what an election ought to be – a spectrum of parties, running from the socialist left to the free-market right, fighting for specific ideas and regional interests and arriving at a result that, more or less aptly, and however imperfectly, reflects the mood and interests of the country.”3
One can appreciate Gopnik’s prespective. If the election, because of our first-past-the-post system, failed the democratic test, at least it passed the Hippocratic test: unlike some elections elsewhere in the last few years, it did no harm. But did it do any good? To answer that question we will have to wait and see if the government can find a way out of the climate change conundrum.
Continue reading “The Worthwhile Canadian Election”