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The Blue Wave

16 May

This month’s federal election results seemed to herald many dramatic changes in Canadian politics. Some of the obvious ones: Canadians elected a majority Conservative government for the first time in a generation; The NDP became the Official Opposition for the first time ever; The Bloc Quebecois was reduced to four seats; and voters handed the Liberal Party its worst drubbing in history, and an existential crisis to Liberal loyalists.

As is often the case, the full extent of the change did not become apparent until the votes were actually counted. Opinion polls certainly picked up on the NDP surge in Quebec, but few predicted that the party – which had only ever elected two Quebec MPs in its 50-year history – would win all but a small handful of seats in that province.

Even more surprising was the so-called “Blue Wave” that hit both the suburbs and the city of Toronto. There was a strong expectation the Conservative Party would make gains in a number of previously Liberal-held ridings in the Greater Toronto Area:  In places such as Mississauga, Brampton, and Pickering. In the end, the Conservatives won almost all of those suburban seats, plus a number of urban Toronto seats that had not elected federal Conservative MPs since the days of Brian Mulroney.

Toronto-area voters gave the Conservative Party its majority, and crushed the Liberal Party. There was no other region of the country where Conservatives made such dramatic inroads in comparison to the 2008 election.

As dramatic and relatively unexpected as it was, the Conservative breakthrough in the Greater Toronto Area was a long time coming, and characterized by slow-and-steady growth from election to election since conservative factions reunited into one party in 2003.

Much has been written – including by me – about the Conservatives’ successful courting over time of the votes of ethnic minority groups that traditionally voted Liberal, including the votes of the Jewish community. With so many of those groups concentrated in the GTA, this was an obvious factor in the party’s majority win.

Of course, voting is anonymous, so it’s impossible to know with any great degree of certainty how much of the “ethnic” vote – Jewish or otherwise – swung to the Conservatives this time around. But matching demographic statistics with vote counts paints a compelling picture.

There are nine ridings in Toronto that have Jewish populations greater than the Ontario average (although we shouldn’t exaggerate the Jewish vote: Thornhill, the riding with the most Jews, is only 36 per cent Jewish. Toronto Centre, which has the ninth-largest Jewish community, is only about 3 per cent Jewish. Ontario as a whole is about 1.7 per cent Jewish).

All those ridings were represented by Liberal MPs a decade ago, when the party held a near-electoral monopoly in Ontario. Even in 2004, when the Liberals were reduced to a minority, they easily held onto all those seats. In 2006, the Liberal Party lost Trinity-Spadina riding to the NDP and in 2008, it lost Thornhill to the Conservatives, but still held seven out of nine of the seats going into this month’s election.

Today, the Liberals only hold two of those nine seats. The Conservatives have six and the NDP still holds Trinity-Spadina. If you include three Ottawa-area ridings and one Hamilton-area riding, the Conservatives now represent nine of the 13 Ontario ridings with higher-than-average Jewish populations. The NDP and the Liberals represent two ridings each in that category.

If you look at the vote in individual ridings over time, the pattern becomes even clearer. The Toronto riding of York Centre, which is about 24 per cent Jewish, used to be one of the safest Liberal seats in Canada. Former Liberal MP Art Eggleton won it with 71.1 per cent of the vote in the 2000 election. In the following election, Liberal Ken Dryden won it easily with almost 55 per cent of the vote, but his vote dropped over each subsequent election. In 2008, he hung onto the seat with only 43.46 per cent of the vote.

In 2011, Dryden didn’t even come close, losing the seat to Conservative Mark Adler, who won with 48.5 per cent of the vote compared to Dryden’s 33.3 per cent. The story of election-to-election decline is the same in all of the ridings with higher-than-average Jewish populations, even the few in which the Liberals salvaged wins.  It’s also the same in other “ethnic” ridings.

If this voting pattern continues, the country could have a Conservative majority government for many more years to come.

Election Matters… Elections Matter

4 May

Do you remember, just before the recent federal election, when I predicted – on this very blog – the following scenarios?:

* I predicted that Prime Minister Stephen Harper would run a plodding, repetitive, bubble-like campaign, highlighted by an almost daily parade of negative news headlines and mini-scandals, in which he would answer almost every question posed to him with a rote warning that the country faced dire consequences unless voters elected a stable, secure, national, majority Conservative government. I wrote that on Election Day, Canadians would give his party exactly what he asked for, thanks mostly to voters in the Greater Toronto area.

* I predicted that NDP Leader Jack Layton, fresh from hip surgery and a bout with cancer, would fire up the imaginations of voters with the sheer force of his personality and with campaign speeches that spoke of the “winds of change”. I foretold that those winds would carry him right into the Office of the Leader of the Opposition, thanks mostly to the province of Quebec, which would elect almost 60 neophyte NDP MPs to the next Parliament – more than half of the NDP’s new caucus, and more seats than they had ever won before.

* I predicted that Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff would run a high-energy but ultimately fruitless campaign that would lead his party to its worst-ever electoral result, that it would be reduced to third party status in the House of Commons for the first time in Canadian history, and that Ignatieff would lose his own Toronto-area seat and resign as leader the morning after the election. In fact, I predicted that the Liberal Party would lose most of the Toronto-area ridings that it held for six election campaigns and almost two decades.

* I predicted that after two decades dominating federal politics in Quebec, Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe would run an increasingly desperate campaign that would lead his party into political oblivion, that the Bloc would be reduced to a rump of four seats, lose official party status in the House of Commons and that Duceppe would also lose his own seat and announce the end of his political career on election night. I also noted that the Bloc’s historic defeat would likely come at the hands of a New Democratic Party that had never had more than a single Quebec MP in the House of Commons at any one time, and whose successful candidates would include a 19-year-old university student and an anglophone Ottawa bartender who spent more of the campaign in Las Vegas than in her rural francophone riding.

* Finally, I predicted that – although her party would earn a smaller percentage of the popular vote than it did in the last election, and she would be excluded from the televised leader debates – Green Party Leader Elizabeth May would make history by becoming the first-ever member of that party to win a seat in the House of Commons, that she would unseat a veteran cabinet minister, and that she would be returning to Ottawa as the MP for Saanich – Gulf Islands, British Columbia.

I predicted all of these things. I really did.

You saw that old blog post of mine, didn’t you? I must have lost the link…

If not, you’ll just have to take my word that I saw everything coming all along.

Or maybe you should take note of the short sentence that opened up John Duffy’s 2002 book, “Fights of Our Lives: Elections, Leadership and the Making of Canada”.

“Elections matter,” Duffy wrote.

When the 2011 federal election began, nobody could have foreseen what the results would be, even though many people – myself included – figured the most likely outcome would be roughly the status quo: A Conservative minority government, a Liberal official opposition, a few dozen NDP MPs, the Bloc continuing its hold on most Quebec ridings, and the resumption of what had been almost seven years of volatile minority political wrangling, machinations, and brinkmanship.

What happened instead was the biggest sea change in Canadian federal politics in recent memory. In one night, for better or worse, Canadian voters put Stephen Harper into the history books as one of the most successful and longest-serving Conservative Prime Ministers in history (assuming he serves out his full mandate), gave the NDP an unprecedented influence, probably destroyed the Bloc Quebecois entirely, and put in grave doubt the future of the Liberal Party of Canada – the most successful 20th Century political party in the Western democratic world.

Elections matter indeed.

Programming Note: Election Specials

30 Apr

CPAC sent me on the road for a few days during the current election campaign to produce a couple of election specials hosted by Catherine Clark. Here is what we came up with:

War Rooms

The Other Voice: Women and Canadian Politics

Political Barricades to Political Welcome Mats

11 Apr

I’ve recently written in this corner that the outcome of the upcoming federal election could come down to the choices of voters in a couple of dozen ridings with large ethnic minority populations.

The political parties have devoted a disproportionate amount of their leaders’ time – and of their campaigns’ resources – to wooing the so-called “ethnic vote”.

The Conservative Party in particular has spent a number of years trying to engage with immigrant and minority communities in an attempt to reverse the Liberal Party’s generations-long hold on their votes. Conservatives argue that their values most closely match those of members of those communities. Liberals disagree and accuse the Conservatives of pandering for votes.

In the end, the relative success of the parties in winning the support of such voters could very well be the critical factor that determines the shape of the next government.

If members of Canada’s political class today demonstrate common cause with minority communities, recruit minority candidates, and make strong public pitches for the support of minority voters, it’s important to note that this wasn’t always the case in this country.

It wasn’t too many years ago – in the lifetimes of many Canadians – that overt racism and anti-Semitism were not only part of the culture, but also a reality of political life.

An episode of a recent critically acclaimed documentary series by Ottawa journalist Holly Doan shines a spotlight on the discrimination faced by Canadian minority groups, particularly Jews, in the decade following the Second World War. Of particular note is the way that discrimination extended into the corridors of power.

Doan’s work, called “The Fifties”, is a sweeping nine-part series covering many different stories about a decade that transformed Canada. The series debuted last month on CPAC – the Cable Public Access Channel – and is now viewable in its entirety on the cpac.ca website. (Full disclosure: I produce a program for CPAC, although I was not involved in any way with the documentary in question).

In an episode of the series called “One Canada”, Doan introduces us to dubious characters such as Solon Low, the MP from Peace River Alberta, who led the Social Credit Party in the House of Commons from 1944 until 1958. Low believed that Jews were not only behind Communism, but also that they funded Adolf Hitler. One Social Credit MP of the era spoke of world dictatorship and “Zionist control of the press and radio” in a House of Commons debate. The party was charged with using Parliamentary mail to distribute anti-Semitic literature.

Although the Socreds were never a major force in national politics, the documentary shows how the attitudes of the era – a time when many properties and jobs were limited to white Christians – were reflected in the way governments operated.

A former journalist recalls how Jewish members of the Ontario legislature sat as independents because “parties didn’t want them.” On Parliament Hill, Jewish MPs had been elected to the House of Commons since 1871, but eight decades later, no Canadian Prime Minister had ever appointed a Jew into cabinet or to the Senate.

Liberal PM Louis St-Laurent finally made longtime Toronto MP David Croll the first Jewish senator in 1955. But the documentary makes clear that appointment only came about because St-Laurent – a man who publicly condemned bigotry – did not have the political courage to face down anti-Semites in his party and bring the talented and popular Croll into his cabinet. On top of a decade of experience as a backbench MP, Croll also had been a successful mayor in Windsor and a provincial cabinet minister. It was only his Jewish heritage that kept him out of federal cabinet.

Canada wouldn’t have its first Jewish cabinet minister until 1969, when Pierre Trudeau made Herb Gray a minister without portfolio. Interviewed in the documentary, Gray puts his accomplishment into historical perspective:

“I’m not saying there weren’t others like Dave Croll who were worthy of that, but it fell to me to have that distinction (as the first Jewish cabinet minister).”

The hero of the “One Canada” episode of “The Fifties” is John Diefenbaker, the longtime civil liberties advocate who became Prime Minister in 1957, and introduced the first Canadian Bill of Rights three years later. Historian Desmond Morton says Diefenbaker’s bill helped make “all those hatreds that this country had in its belly… unreal, meaningless, stupid, embarrassing.”

Only a few decades down the road, political barricades have turned into political welcome mats. It’s a history worth contemplating this election season.

This Election’s Battlegrounds

30 Mar

Earlier this month, with a possible election imminent, opposition MPs pounced on an embarrassing internal  memo that seemed to reveal the Conservative party’s strategy for winning over votes in “very ethnic” ridings.

With the election now on, that strategy seems very much be in play.

When it comes to wooing voters, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives don’t tend to pitch broad sweeping visions designed to win broad sweeping mandates.

Instead, they tend to reach out to select groups of Canadians in incremental ways.

In the three elections the Conservative Party has fought since its creation in 2003, it went from narrowly losing a minority in 2004, to narrowly winning a minority in 2006, to winning a slightly less narrow minority in 2008.

In its quest for a majority, the party’s strategy is to focus intently on handfuls of specific ridings and on handfuls of specific groups of voters who may put them over the top in those ridings. A targeted tax cut here, a symbolic recognition of a historic wrong there, and soon enough a narrow majority builds voter-by-voter, group-by-group, riding-by-riding.

Or so the thinking goes.

That’s where the “very ethnic” ridings come into play. For the Conservatives, traditionally Liberal ridings with significant populations of ethnic minority groups are seen as ripe for the picking. The party made some promising gains in many of those ridings in 2008, and is hoping to make a number of breakthroughs this time around.

The internal memo that fell into the hands of the Conservative Party’s opponents revealed the party had identified a number of ridings across the country with substantial populations of voters from particular ethnic groups. Conservatives were formulating a plan to win these ridings.

As embarrassed as Conservatives may have been by the revelation of the memo, the ethnic strategy has been much in evidence since the campaign began.

In the first five days of his campaign tour, Harper chose to visit Brampton, outside of Toronto, twice. He also made a stop in Burnaby, B.C. Both of those areas have large communities of new Canadians.

In his speeches at these stops, Harper has not been subtle about the “very ethnic” pitch, tying his audience’s immigrant status into his other major campaign message: That his opponents are plotting a coalition:

“People like you,” he said in Burnaby,  “people who have come to this country from all over the world, all the different origins in the world, they’ve all come here because they believe in Canada. And they don’t want Members of Parliament who are going to sign on to Mr. Ignatieff’s reckless idea that he can lose an election and then run Canada backed by the NDP and the Bloc Québécois.”

Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff told a multicultural audience of supporters that his opponent had crossed a line.

“(Harper) said ‘You people, you people who come from other lands.’ ” Ignatieff said.  “The last time I heard somebody talk about the ethnic vote, it was out of the mouth of Jacques Parizeau… I don’t want to be the prime minister of you people, I want to be the prime minister of the Canadian people.”

Among the ten “very ethnic” ridings mentioned in the Conservative memo is one riding – Mount Royal, in Montreal – with a large Jewish population. In 2008, Conservative candidate Peter Kent took the Toronto-area riding of Thornhill, the only riding in Canada with a similarly large population of Jewish voters (about 35 per cent of the riding).

Could the Conservative Party win over enough Jewish voters to take Mount Royal riding this time around?

It would be a notable victory, because Mount Royal has voted Liberal since the 1930s, long before it had a significant Jewish population. It was the riding of former Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. This is in contrast to Thornhill, which is a very suburban, more small-c conservative swing riding.

Although Harper’s policies and public statements on Israel may have won over some portion of the Jewish community, is it a big enough portion to make a difference in ridings like Mount Royal? When it comes to a final decision at the ballot box, voters tend to focus on domestic issues and leadership, so it’s not even certain if the Canadian government’s relationship with Israel will be a factor in the final vote.

But with the Conservatives only a few “ethnic” ridings away from a majority, expect the furious wooing to continue until election day.

Election drumbeats and flag waves

24 Jan

This past weekend, inside an Ottawa convention centre, the Prime Minister of Canada stood in front of the biggest Canadian flag this side of Canada Day, at a podium bearing a placard with a single word in large white letters:

“Canada”.

To a crowd of hundreds of supporters waving smaller Canadian flags, there to celebrate the fifth anniversary of his government’s first election victory, Stephen Harper spoke of the people “who are the foundations of Canada”:

“The truck driver. The bank teller. The pensioner. The salesperson. The farmer, the fisherman. The entrepreneur, the autoworker. The tradesperson and the soldier… Whoever has the honor to lead them must care about them and must love Canada as much as they do.”

No mention of Canada-loving college professors or patriotic performance artists. But never mind…

The same weekend as Harper was giving his anniversary speech, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff was wrapping up an 11-day tour of 20 ridings across Canada that his party thinks it can win from other parties.

“Canadians are entitled to ask, ‘are you better off than you were five years ago,’ “ Ignatieff said at the outset of his tour. “Is the economy stronger and is Canada more respected in the world? And I think the answers to all of those questions is no.”

NDP leader Jack Layton was on a cross-country tour of his own.

“If an election comes, New Democrats will be ready to go,” Layton said in Vancouver. “But until then, we’re asking Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff to work with us to get some results for Canadians right now.”

To underline the election-readiness half of that double-barreled message, the NDP offered reporters a “sneak peak at their new cutting-edge election headquarters” in Ottawa. A few days earlier, a reporter obtained and published an internal NDP memo declaring the party “prepared to wage an aggressive federal election campaign at any time”.

Meanwhile, the Conservative and Liberal parties released campaign-style attack ads.

The two Liberal ads were both aimed at the Prime Minister, painting him as more interested in fighter jets and corporate tax cuts than in the concerns of ordinary Canadians, and asking “Is this your Canada? Or Harper’s?”

The Conservatives had several different ads attacking each of the other major party leaders, although Ignatieff was targeted more than others.

“Ignatieff. He didn’t come back for you,” declared the Conservative ads, which described the Leader of the Official Opposition as a tax-and-spend liberal with a dubious commitment to his home country, similar to earlier attack ads that claimed Ignatieff was “just visiting” Canada after many years abroad.

So… are you ready for an election campaign? Or maybe you kinda feel we’re already into one.

Or maybe you’d rather not even think about it even a little bit. If that’s the case, you’re probably in the majority.

And maybe you won’t really have to think about it at all. Because it all could be a bluff.

In a minority Parliament, parties are always in election mode, ready to hit the campaign trail at any moment. And we’ve now had minority Parliaments in this country for more than 6.5 straight years. That’s a Canadian record, if you’re keeping score.

Over that time we’ve had a number of near-elections. Remember Belinda Stronach crossing the floor to help save Paul Martin’s minority government? Remember Stéphane Dion repeating over and over again how he had the power to pull the plug on Harper’s government… until finally Harper decided to pull it himself? Remember when Ignatieff announced, “Mr. Harper, your time is up?”

Ignatieff’s announcement came more than 17 months ago. No, there hasn’t been an election since then.

If there is an election this year, it likely will be triggered by a defeat of the federal budget sometime before the end of March. Any later than that and a federal election will come up against a number of already scheduled provincial elections, including Ontario’s.

Of course, all it will take to avoid an election will be a single opposition party deciding it is in its interest to prop up the government for another while longer.

But if this latest not-quite-an-election period is any indication, we already have a sense of how the next real campaign will unfold:

It will get personal. There will be flag waving. And if poll numbers (which have remained relatively consistent in the five years since Harper’s first election victory) don’t move much during the campaign, then we’re looking at many more record months of minority Parliament.

Anything can happen in Canadian politics… who’da thunk it?

3 Dec

So how’s it going to end?

Will the Conservative government fall and be replaced by a Liberal/NDP coalition propped up by the Bloc Québecois?

Will Stephen Harper manage to prorogue Parliament and live to be Prime Minister for a little while longer?

Will we end up with our fourth election in 4.5 years and our second in three months? Or will a best-of-five coin flip decide on who gets to govern?

Or maybe Governor-General Michaëlle Jean will declare “off with their heads” and end up ruling by decree…

Here’s something to contemplate:

Anything can happen in Canadian politics.

That’s not a sentiment you hear too often from too many quarters. But after five days of things happening in Canadian politics that no one would have ever predicted, and with the prospect of another five days or five weeks or five months or so of unpredictable things happening in Canadian politics… well… that’s something to contemplate…

Here’s another interesting thing. Yesterday was exactly two years to the day that Stéphane Dion became leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. 

And those two years may go down in history as some of the worst two years ever experienced by a leader of a major federal party in Canada.

They seemed to have culminated in a disastrous campaign and election loss this past October, which seemed to have sealed Dion’s fate as leader.

Here’s how I described it last month:

“Sadly for Dion, he will not get a second chance. The political promise that won the hearts of Liberal delegates on Dec. 2, 2006 got trumped by a deficit of political skills…”

Shows how much I know.

Well, I was probably right on the political skills part. But I may have been wrong on the second chance.

My crystal ball is as bad as anyone’s who claims to have one, but it looks as if Dion has about a 50-50 chance of shedding his likely epitaph of “Only the second Liberal leader in history never to become Prime Minister” and gaining one that reads “23rd Prime Minister of Canada”.

With an asterisk, of course, because he will be gone as Liberal leader next May whether or not he is also PM.

And then there is the matter of the 22nd Prime Minister of Canada.

As I write, Stephen Harper remains Prime Minister, and is using “every legal means at his disposal” to keep from losing the job. Will he succeed? People have lost money underestimating the man.

But no matter what happens to Harper going forward, this entire incident may have critically wounded his political career, the success of which depended on a reputation for competent management and serious purpose.

The wound was self-inflicted.

When Harper won a second minority mandate following an election this fall that many thought was unnecessary, his marching orders seemed clear:

Drop the extreme partisan shtick and get down to the serious work of governing this country through a looming economic crisis.

That’s what he said he was prepared to do on election night. And his statesmanlike tone continued into the opening of Parliament.

But on the major challenge of the day, the international economic crisis, he dropped the ball in what could be a history-changing way.

An economic update to set the agenda for dealing with the crisis instead became an opportunity for partisan political gamesmanship, which only succeeded in uniting opposition parties against the government.

And so an economic crisis begat a political crisis, which begat a constitutional crisis, which may have begat a national unity crisis in both Quebec and the West.

Harper may survive in the short term. But he will come out of this one way or another as a weakened leader, his political future uncertain in a way that was unimaginable just a few days ago.

***

Programming note: If you are looking for a more in-depth look at all of the twists and turns of the ongoing Canadian political crisis, you could do worse that have a look or listen to an hour-long televised discussion I co-produced on Monday night. But you should tune in soon. At the pace that developments are developing, what gets discussed one night may be out of date by the next morning.