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Any Changes Coming? Implications of the May 2 Canadian Federal Election for Canada and Canada-U.S. Relations

May 04, 2011 // 9:00am11:00am
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Paul Frazer, Principal of 3 Click Solutions and co-chair of the Canada Institute Advisory Board

Scotty Greenwood, Senior Advisor, Canadian American Business Council

Antonia Maioni, Associate Professor, McGill University

Herb Metcalfe, Co-Founder, The Capital Hill Group

Tim Powers, Vice-President, Summa Communications

The 2011 Canadian federal election on May 2 was labeled an "election of firsts" by Herb Metcalfe of the Capital Hill Group during an event hosted by the Canada Institute and the Canadian American Business Council. A panel of experts explored the political implications of the election on Canadian domestic and foreign policy, as well as the overall impact on Canada-U.S. relations. Paul Frazer, principal of 3 Click Solutions and co-chair of the Canada Institute Advisory Board, moderated the discussion.

Analyzing the Results

Prime Minister Stephen Harper achieved a substantial victory in the federal election when he secured a majority government for his Conservative Party. According to Tim Powers of Summa Communications, this outcome was a result of a natural progression in Canadian politics, with a majority government following two consecutive minority governments. Powers explained that the Conservative campaign was appropriately focused on regional issues, which allowed Harper to speak on specific subjects relevant to his constituents rather than appealing to Canadians nationwide. This strategy enabled the Conservatives to target their message and resulted in effective regional campaigns, which helped secure the party's eventual victory, and will bring stability and solid political leadership to Canada.

The rise of Jack Layton's New Democratic Party (NDP) should not have been as surprising as it was, Powers said, noting that this was not "your father's NDP." The party's carefully crafted and successful restructuring had been understated by the media and had garnered little public attention during the previous two years. The restructuring allowed Layton to assemble a key professional core that helped propel the NDP to win the status of official opposition party for the first time in its history.

Herb Metcalfe elaborated on the ineffective campaign of the Liberal Party, which resulted in its unexpected third-place standing in the Canadian Parliament. Metcalfe argued that Michael Ignatieff's leadership was misguided when his focus turned away from the Liberal "Value Chain platform" and was directed instead on abstract but unemotional issues of democracy and ethics. While important, Metcalfe argued, these issues are disconnected from the pragmatic, everyday problems facing Canadians and rarely change votes. Michael Ignatieff's inability to anticipate Jack Layton's criticism of his absenteeism from parliamentary debates contributed to the dismissal of the Liberal Party by many voters across Canada.

Nevertheless, Metcalfe believed that the Conservative majority would prove beneficial for the Liberal Party, since it will be given the opportunity to rebuild its brand and image. Moreover, the stability brought by the Conservatives will be advantageous for Canada as a whole, allowing Harper to move forward on key priorities in his agenda, including securing a perimeter deal with the United States, as well as increasing foreign investment in Canada. He also noted that Layton's success in Quebec was due to a left-leaning platform that appealed to many Quebeckers.

Antonia Maioni of McGill University analyzed the election results in Quebec. The unprecedented support for the NDP in the province, labeled the "Orange Tsunami," was a result of the party speaking to the "left" on issues important to Quebeckers, such as the environment and the war in Afghanistan. In fact, the party increased its overall vote by 31 percent from the previous Canadian election. In Quebec, this trend was magnified by the perceived weakness of Liberal Party leadership, growing fatigue of the Bloc Québécois, and the anti-Conservative vote, which created a political vacuum and a political opportunity for the NDP. Maioni noted that the NDP landslide win was an interesting political turnover; however she warned that the "Jack Mania" would not be permanent and that the "whatever" vote was significant. It will be challenging for the NDP to keep its caucus united, Maioni warned, and its newly elected political neophyte members must reach out to their respective communities. She suggested that the Liberal Party is dead in Quebec, and added that the sovereignty movement in Quebec is by no means defeated—the results of the election will only push more extremist factions within the province into action.

Implications for an Important Bilateral Relationship

On the question of Canada-U.S. relations after the election, Scotty Greenwood of the Canadian American Business Council argued that a majority government was better for the United States because it will prove more stable during negotiations on important issues facing Canada, such as border protection and harmonization of trade. She said that the United States will again push Canada for legislation to protect intellectual property rights, and that it will be important for Canada to push the United States on border and regulatory harmonization issues.

Populism was an essential theme, said Greenwood, noting that the election was a battle of personalities among the four candidates. She concluded that Layton's personable image helped him in his campaign. Though Harper lacked Layton's common touch, the prime minister was viewed by Canadians as an effective steward on major issues, particularly on economic issues, that ultimately allowed him to win a majority.

Greenwood suggested that opposition parties should have done more to portray Harper as an ineffective leader, particularly on the world stage. She highlighted Prime Minister Harper's press conference with U.S. President Barack Obama in February that occurred at the height of the uprising in Egypt as a noteworthy example of a missed opportunity to engage representatives of the U.S. media and present Canada as an international leader. As Greenwood explained, instead of using the press conference as an opportunity to show that Canada is an important ally to the United States, Harper spoke in French to an American audience and instantly lost the attention of the media.

In his concluding remarks, Frazer commented that Harper's experience will bring more stability and decisiveness to Canadian politics. He commented that the Conservatives often blamed the lack of governmental action on issues such as copyright reform on its status as a minority government in Parliament. The panelists concluded that important upcoming issues in the new Canadian Parliament will include perimeter security, energy, the war in Afghanistan and military spending, as well Quebec sovereignty.

Drafted by Lucia Kovacikova
David Biette, Director, Canada Institute

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