BY Jim Harding
Canada felt lighter on waking up the morning after the federal election. Layers of polarization and manipulation, the destructive fear-exploiting wedge politics that had built up over Harper’s decade, were already lifting. I still lived in one of the few regions still covered by Conservative blue, but the fact that Canadians from sea to sea to sea elected a new government and Harper had stepped down was deeply reassuring.
A RED WAVE
It went from a tight race to a Liberal rout. You could tell it was going to be a red wave as the results came in from the Atlantic region, which went completely Liberal. Then, unexpectedly, the NDP lost multiple seats to the Liberals in Quebec and the Conservatives lost major ground in Ontario. Greater Toronto went completely Liberal. The rural west which launched the Reform Party remained the bastion of Harper support, still with 39 Conservative MPs in Alberta. However coastal and Vancouver-urban B.C. also turned against Harper. Prairie cities and northern areas also returned some Liberals and NDP.
In the end the Liberals had 184, the Conservatives 99, the NDP 44, the Bloc 10 and the Greens only one.
The large turnout of 3.6 million at the advance polls was a sign of what was to come; voter turnout went up from 61% in 2011 to nearly 69%. In some places it was in the 80 %’s. Four million more voted and they largely voted for change; this sealed Harper’s fate. If political participation continues to grow, especially among youth and indigenous Canadians, we should see a much healthier politics and country.
Thankfully we will no longer have to stomach Harper smiling, standing with a “Canada” sweatshirt and “Canada” signs and flags and human props behind him, while he decimates the best things about our country. He was a threat to parliamentary democracy, the rule of law and vital Canadian public services. Hopefully we will now see a renewed role for evidence-based policy and collegial federal-provincial negotiations to enhance the quality of life and the sustainability of our country.
But the first-past-the-post system still produced an unrepresentative parliament. The Liberals got a large majority with 39% of the vote.We can only hope that this majority doesn’t inhibit broad political participation over the next four years. Harper’s negative and divisive politics awakened civil society; let’s hope it doesn’t go back to sleep.
Electoral reform is essential. If proportional representation existed the Liberals would have 135 seats, not a majority. The Conservatives would have 105 and the NDP 67, 23 more than they got under our flawed system. The Bloc would have 17 and the Greens a deserved ten seats.
There’s no doubt that the quality of forward-looking legislation produced by a more representative parliament would be superior. With their history of entitlement and facing an official opposition from the far right, the Liberals could slip back into some bad old habits. Popular movements must help with the role of watchdog.
A few key things will quickly tell what kind of government will come under Justin. How quickly do the Liberals launch the inquiry on murdered and missing indigenous women? What commitments will the Liberals make at the upcoming Paris conference on climate change? Will Trudeau act on his promise to reform the electoral-voting system?Will the Trudeau government repeal Harper’s demeaning and “racializing” legislation? Will we see some serious nation-to-nation negotiations to tackle the inequality and poverty facing indigenous communities? This is very concrete; will we finally see safe drinking water on Saskatchewan First Nations? Will Trudeau’s government truly tackle the healthcare-aging crisis gathering storm!
If the Liberals main priority becomes deficit funding for infrastructural upgrade as a prime for economic growth, then many pressing problems may just be kicked further down the road. Let’s not let this happen!
NOT STRATEGIC VOTING
This wasn’t so much about riding-by-riding strategic voting as a large sector of the initial NDP support shifting to the Liberals. Canada would probably have done better on a whole series of fronts, from energy to healthcare, if the Liberals needed NDP support to govern, but Canadians weren’t taking any chances of a return of Harper and his ways. So it was a bitter sweet victory for the country.
We should never forget what we’ve been through; how Harper started to dismantle Canada as a progressive liberal democracy. We should never forget what he has done to foreign as well as domestic policy or his distain for science and environmental protection. And we still need to figure out how this happened; where did all the rage and mean-spirited intolerance and simplistic, reactionary populism and corporatism came from? It felt like a tyranny of the minority.
Thankfully the 78-day campaign backfired. Harper’s huge pro-corporate war-chest didn’t save him. As he slipped in the polls he had to change his simplistic, authoritarian messaging from “leadership” to “protecting the economy”. He was clearly trying to link tax relief and security issues. Harper showed his worst side ever, responding to the heart-wrenching Syrian refugee crisis with his hateful niqab wedge. He returned to his far-right base by associating with so-called Ford Nation, but this didn’t work either. He became a caricature of himself, by the end looking more like a game show host. He became more of an embarrassment to our country.
But the vast majority of Canadians wanted him out and they weren’t going to slip up. Polling showed that only 10% of Canadians actually ranked the combination of “tax relief and security” as their top issues. Meanwhile Trudeau’s message of multiculturalism and diversity was resonating widely. The NDP, ahead at the start, chose to campaign from the centre. Once Mulcair had locked the party into a balanced budget, Trudeau could campaign from the left, regularly mentioning his commitment to tax the “one percent”.The NDP may have been damned if they did and damned if they didn’t: had they promoted deficit funding for their proposed social programs they would surely have become a bigger target. Harper’s niqab wedge clearly hurt Mulcair, not Trudeau. Even with its large “base” in Quebec the NDP apparently wasn’t prepared for Harper’s predictable incendiary identity politics.
Meanwhile the Liberals competed with Harper’s messaging about “putting money back into people’s pockets”. To counter this required much more than sound bites from the NDP. A family presently paying $900 a month for each of two children would have a lot of money left in their pockets if there were a national daycare program. This would also be true with Pharmacare or Homecare. But the Harper era reframed how we see government: narrow self-interest trumps the greater public interest; narcissistic politics. We can only hope that things change with Trudeau being elected on a progressive liberal program.
Some important political space has opened up across Canada. The exception may be in the rural west. We need to figure out what lies beneath the reluctance of these areas to recognize the destructiveness of the Harper era. Is this just crude fossil-fuel, boom-and-bust resource politics? Is it about hinterland individualism which has lost the sense of the larger community? And what role did vote splitting play: in my riding of Regina-Qu’Appelle the combined NDP (11,000) and Liberal (8,000) vote was greater than that going to the reelected Conservative Scheer (16,000). Unfortunately, no strategic voting here.
Just why has the anti-government and naïve “free-market” sentiment rooted in the Reagen and Thatcher era taken such root in these western rural areas? Is this similar to what is happening to the U.S. Republicans; where inland rural sentiment resists the diversity and internationalism that is growing in coastal and urban areas? While celebrating that Ralph Goodale and three NDPers were elected here in Saskatchewan, we should start asking some serious soul-searching questions about what kind of country we want to live in.