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Canada's Winter Election: What to Expect of Canada's government and Canadian foreign policy in 2006

January 27, 2006 // 8:00am10:00am
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Panelists addressed the significance of the Conservative Party victory and the prospects for Harper's minority government. The discussion centered on the implications of the election for the country's political agenda and Canada-U.S. relations. The program was co-hosted by the Canada Institute and the Canadian American Business Council.

Welcome
David Biette, Director, Canada Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Opening Remarks
Randolph Dove, President, Canadian American Business Council

Panel Remarks
Overview and Political Significance of the Election Outcome
John Wright, Senior Vice President, Public Affairs, Ipsos Reid Corporation

What to Expect of Canada's Conservative Minority Government
Jason Kenney, MP, Calgary Southeast (Conservative Party of Canada)
John Duffy, Principal, StrategyCorp Services

Implications for Canadian Foreign Policy and Canada-U.S. Relations
Andrew Cohen, Associate Professor, School of Journalism and Communication, Carleton University
The Hon. Gordon Giffin, Vice Chairman and Managing Partner, McKenna Long & Aldridge; Former U.S. Ambassador to Canada

The Election Campaign
The campaign unfolded in three major phases, according to John Wright. In the early weeks of the campaign, the Conservative Party pursued a "well organized and well executed media blitz," prominently featuring scandals associated with the Liberals. The focus was on the public relations kickback scandal over efforts by the Liberals to promote federalism in Quebec following the province'1995 referendum on sovereignty. The Conservative strategy also emphasized five specific policy priorities: promoting government accountability, reducing health care waiting times, cutting the GST rate, strengthening the fight against crime, and improving child care policy. Jason Kenney, who played an instrumental role in the Conservative Party "war room" throughout the campaign, explained that the party's message was crafted on the assumption that "the electorate was already sold" on the notion that the Liberals were "ethically corrupt." Instead, the objective was to prove to swing voters that Stephen Harper represented "responsible change." The Conservative campaign was therefore crafted with suburban voters in mind and was focused from the outset on "tangible, economic deliverables." Tactically, the systematic and disciplined media campaign helped Harper set the agenda (e.g., through daily, morning press conferences) and tell the electorate what he stood for.

Some in the Liberal Party dismissed this early messaging on the part of the Conservatives as a "phony war" and opted to hold back to see if Harper would "self-destruct" as had happened in the 2004 campaign. John Duffy disagreed with the assessment that the Liberals adopted a wait-and-see attitude; he argued that, on the contrary, the Liberal strategy was proactive. It entailed trying to "reconnect the Liberal government with economic success." That said, Duffy acknowledged that the Liberals didn't succeed in this, as did the Conservatives in building Harper's image as a "can-do," "policy guy." Moreover, the pre-Christmas Conservative media attack on Liberal corruption and "culture of entitlement" coincided with yet another leak that reflected poorly on the Liberal government. The fall-out from the leak—the announcement of a tax amendment on income trusts—put pressure on Finance Minister Ralph Goodale.

The campaign took a decisive turn after Christmas, following a broad-daylight shooting in downtown Toronto on Boxing Day. This single incident "galvanized the electorate around the issue of crime," according to John Wright. The Conservative party had long campaigned for tougher measures to fight crime and had also frequently criticized the Liberals for being "soft on crime"—Kenney noted that the Conservative party "had been beating the drum" on this issue for many years, but that it had not gained traction until this campaign following the Toronto shootings.

The final stretch of the campaign came to be dominated by Liberal attack ads against Harper and his agenda, to mixed results. Kenney remarked that the Conservatives were bracing themselves for the Liberal "fear campaign," but took note when some the Liberal attack ads began to backfire. Yet, as John Duffy noted, the Liberal campaign did succeed in holding onto key ridings in Ontario and salvaging a significant, if diminished presence in the House of Commons. It appears that swing voters in Ontario—especially in suburban areas—balked at voting for Harper at the last minute: their "fear of Harper" trumped their "loathing of the Liberals." John Wright explained that a 4% swing in the vote in Ontario can translate into a loss or a gain of up to 20 or 25 seats. In this sense, Paul Martin left the party much less debilitated than it could have been. In the words of one Edmonton journalist, the Liberals managed to "snatch defeat from the jaws of decimation." Andrew Cohen was less sanguine: "Canadians didn't punish the Liberals, but merely slapped them on the wrist." Duffy argued that the Liberal campaign ended "on a note of pride" and the way in which Martin bowed out was a "classy exit."

As for the Conservatives, there increase of seats from 99 to 124, though short of the number that many polls and pundits had predicted, represents a significant breakthrough. Noteworthy, too, are the ten seats the party picked up in Quebec, where Conservatives had been marginalized for the past 15 years, holding on to barely a handful of seats since the 1988 election (and none at all in the 2004 election). The Conservative inroads in Quebec have positioned the party as "the new alternative for federalists" among the province's voters. According to John Wright, poll numbers show that up to 17% of voters who switched from the Bloc Québécois (BQ) to the Conservatives were people who wanted to cast a vote against the Liberals but without supporting the separatists. The Conservative gains in Quebec are important too from a national perspective: Canada, as Andrew Cohen put it, "dodged the bullet of having a Western party come to power without seats in Quebec."

The New Conservative Government
Having won 124 of 308 seats in the House of Commons, Stephen Harper will form Canada's second consecutive minority government in 18 months. In his first press conference as prime minister-designate, Harper provided a glimpse of his leadership style. John Wright remarked that the conference was "brisk" and to-the-point, focusing on a clear message. Harper stressed the five priorities that had formed the basis of his campaign. The first challenge for Harper will be to form a new government. Having announced that he intends to reduce the size of the cabinet, Harper will have to reconcile the need to include MPs from Quebec and Ontario with the aspirations of the more numerous Conservative MPs from Western Canada, particularly Alberta. John Wright argued that Harper has the benefit of a relatively united party, which will help him in choosing his cabinet. Jason Kenney remarked that by this election the Conservative party had successfully "overcome its divisions" following the merger of the former Progressive Conservatives with the Canadian Alliance. Paul Martin on the other hand never succeeded in rallying the rival wings of the Liberal Party following the departure of Jean Chrétien. The resulting "civil war" between Martin and Chrétien supporters undermined the internal cohesion of the Liberals, compounding the strains and "fatigue" resulting from 12 years in power.

Although minority governments typically do not last more than 18 months, there was much debate on the prospects for Harper's government. John Duffy argued that this parliament was "the most unstable" and "unique" in Canadian history because the governing party is outnumbered three seats to two by the three opposition parties who are all to the left of it. The new government has "no natural allies" and the Conservatives are actually competing for votes with all three parties in various ridings across the country. John Wright, on the other hand, suggested that this minority government could last longer than a year and a half if the timetable of Quebec's next provincial election significantly influences federal politics. Quebec could in fact turn out to be "the next big opportunity for Harper," according to Wright. His offer of "un fédéralisme d'ouverture" resonated with many voters in the province, but also poses a challenge. The new Parti Québécois (PQ) leader, André Boisclair, has shifted his party's position on Harper's proposal to remedy fiscal imbalances from dismissal ("We don't believe the Conservatives are serious about this") to challenge ("Show us the money"). In other words, the PQ appears to be laying the groundwork for an "offer and rejection" strategy; by naming a price-tag that Ottawa cannot but refuse, the PQ could paint the federal government as disingenuous about seriously addressing Quebec's grievances. This has proved a potent political motivator for Quebec separatists in the past. Jason Kenney offered cautious optimism, noting that the notional support for sovereignty in Quebec (just over 50% in the polls) reflected in part French-speaking Quebecers' disdain for Liberal corruption. The change of government in Ottawa will therefore help "bring the temperature down."

The dynamics of the new parliament will reflect the uncertainty permeating the Liberal caucus and the leadership race that will occupy the remainder of the year. What is clear from the polls, according to Duffy, is the desire among Liberals for a wide-open race with many candidates. The Liberal party will have its convention by March and hopes to have a quick race, with a new leader in place perhaps by September. In the meantime, however, many former Liberal cabinet ministers retained their seats, and will no doubt prove aggressive in Question Period. New Conservative ministers may find their lack of executive experience challenging in the face of sustained criticism by old government hands.

Prospects for Canada-U.S. Relations
A consensus emerged that bilateral relations under the new Harper government are likely to improve in tone, if not in substance. Many expect a less adversarial discourse across the border, but few major breakthroughs on substantive issues are expected. Panelists agreed that the objective of the new government will be to achieve results and make a difference, not dwell on points of principle. Yet even in terms of rhetoric, Harper may take "counter-intuitive" stances, according to John Wright. Precisely in order to avoid being painted as "pro-Bush," Harper may stake out positions that come as unexpected. During his press conference, for instance, he made a point of talking about Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic. As past prime ministers, he will have to walk a fine line in his government's relations with the United States.

Andrew Cohen addressed the significance of the Conservative victory, but warned against simplistic depictions of Harper as a conservative in the U.S. mold. "The extremes of Canada are its weather not its politics." If anything, Harper's government will move to the center right, and moderately so. The electorate did not deliver a mandate for radical change. Gordon Giffin concurred, noting that a Republican president in the United States and a Conservative prime minister in Canada do not fundamentally alter the odds or prospects for substantive change in bilateral relations. Yet there are heightened expectations. Giffin cautioned against expecting too much from a Harper government, and fully expects the new prime minister to defend Canada's interests in earnest. That said, Cohen argued that "the tone at the top does matter"; a good relationship between the two leaders may help diffuse potential crises and avoid unnecessary escalation.

On foreign policy, Kenney explained that the new government would maintain much of the same course, though some Martin-era initiatives, such as Canadian support for the G20, would no longer be a priority. There will be a renewed focus on rebuilding Canada's military capabilities to meet the country's international obligations, and a new emphasis on foreign aid, with proposed budget increases.

 

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