OP-ED: It will be Harper again in Canada

By Sir Ronald Sanders
OP-ED: It will be Harper again in Canada

On May 2, Canada will hold its fifth general election in 11 years.  In most countries, only two general elections (approximately every five years) would have been held during that time.

The reason for so many general elections is that no political party has won a majority in Parliament since the year 2000.  At that time, the Liberals managed to command a majority over the Conservatives.  Four years later, in 2004, the Liberals were forced to form a minority government while the Conservatives, who had split into two factions, reconciled their differences to present a united front in 2003.

The combined opposition parties, which then included the Conservatives, the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Bloc Québécois, forced a general election two years later in 2006 that led to a minority Conservative government.  Two years later, in 2008, the NDP and the Bloc Québécois joined the Liberals to bring down the Conservatives and force yet another general election which again saw an enlarged minority Conservative government being formed.  Then, earlier this year, the combined opposition forced a no-confidence motion in the elected chamber of parliament against the Conservative government on the basis of “contempt of parliament”.  The Liberal Speaker of the House ruled in favour of the motion and Stephen Harper, the Conservative Prime Minister, was constrained to call fresh elections.

Not surprisingly, the Canadian people are somewhat fed-up of so many general elections over so short a period of time.  And, this may be Stephen Harper’s strongest suit in the poker game of frequent general elections being forced in Canada.  This time around, the electorate might just decide to vote for a majority government, and, if that happens, the Conservatives could be the party that the larger number of Canadian voters chooses.

The Conservative party has much in its favour.  The principal point is the state of the Canadian economy. On April 5, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) declared that “Canada is enjoying unexpectedly spectacular growth, ahead of every other major industrial economy”.  The OECDestimates that Canada “topped the charts in the first three months of 2011 with 5.2% annual economic growth and will hit 3.8% between April and June - still first, and at least a full percentage point ahead of everyone but the U.S”.

Additionally, Canada was least hurt by the global financial recession that started in late 2008 largely because of the high prudential standards imposed by its financial regulatory authorities and the traditional caution of Canadian banks.  According to a Bloomberg market report issued in February, Canada regained all the jobs it lost in the recession, and the IMF confirms that the economy grew by 3.1% in 2010.

This situation allows Harper to insist that Canada must remain a low tax jurisdiction to grow the economy still further and make it highly competitive for attracting investment which, in turn, will create more employment.  This has been his consistent message in the run-up to the May 2 general election.

Meantime, the Liberal party, led by Michael Ignatieff, has been insisting that taxes must be raised particularly from corporate businesses, though he does say his party will not increase taxes for “ordinary families”. 

The NDP, led by Jack Layton, has said that it doesn’t matter what the Liberals promise because “Ignatieff's party had no credibility”.  Layton’s focus is on improving Canada’s health care system and bringing about social reform that would help the poor and vulnerable. 

Layton’s harsh criticism of the Liberal party shows the deep divide between the opposition parties although they got together to bring down the Conservative minority government and force the May 2 general election.   Ignatieff has made it abundantly clear that the Liberal party will form no coalition with any other party after the elections whatever the result.  That decision sets-up the NDP for a life in opposition for some time to come, although it has to be said that in two nationally-televised leadership debates on April 12 and 13, one in English and the other in French – the two official national languages of Canada – Layton has won some sympathy for his platform of social reform.  Not enough, however, to make the NDP a serious contender and it is more than likely that, apart from their hard-core supporters, the NDP and the Liberals will be fighting for the same votes.

The televised leadership debates between Harper, Ignatieff and Layton also included the leader of theBloc Québécois, Gilles Duceppe.  While the Bloc Québécois is a federal political party, it is devoted to the protection of Quebec and the promotion of Quebec sovereignty.  But, it does control 49 of the 308 seats in the elected lower house of parliament and, is therefore, the third largest party in parliament after the Conservatives and Liberals.  It is a curiosity of the Canadian federal constitution that more regard is accorded to Quebec, because of its secessionist tendencies, than is given to other provinces in Canada. 

It is interesting that the only time that the Caribbean was mentioned in the televised debates was when Duceppe made a swipe at the Harper government for signing a tax agreement with the Bahamas which he wrongly described as “a tax haven”, suggesting that this was an indication of the Conservative government’s attitude to tax breaks for corporate businesses. 

Foreign affairs have played little part in the Canadian election campaign except for an effort by Ignatieff to paint Harper as “undemocratic” – a view that is promoted by sections of the Canadian media and Harper’s obvious  distrust of them.  Ignatieff said the Conservative government could not promote democratic values abroad when its leader was not democratic.  The instances he cited were brushed aside by Harper as personal attacks unrelated to the strong democratic machinery in Canada.

As Canadians look to the future beyond the May 2 election, they are concerned about the continued success of the economy and the improvement of the quality of their lives.   In the televised debates, Harper pointed to Canada’s economic achievements under his government – even though a minority one for five years.  It is that success, together with Canadians being fed-up with general elections every two years, that might give him a majority government.

In any event, either as a majority or a minority, the Conservative party looks set to be re-elected.

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Sanders is a Consultant and former Caribbean diplomat; Responses and previous commentaries at: www.sirronaldsanders.com

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