With over a year left until America decides who its next president will be, I suggest taking some time out to look at its northern neighbor, the country probably not called Canadia, which had an election this Monday. While American elections stretch on to a year and a half, Canada’s lasted about 2½ months — and that was considered an unbearably long campaign season by Canadian standards. So it’s a comparatively pleasant break from the screaming and craziness of American politics and a good insight into the foibles and patterns of Canadian politics.
Unlike America, but like Britain, Canada has a Westminster-style parliamentary system, where Parliament (and really just the House of Commons) has all the power. The British queen is the head of state and she has a representative called the governor-general, but neither have much of a role in Canadian politics. Instead, political parties jostle for power, with their leaders designated the prime minister. They have true control.
On one side of the Canadian political spectrum are the Conservatives (often called “Tories”; it’s an old British/Irish term), who naturally are right-wing. Like their British counterparts, they have a long history; Canada’s Founding Father, John Macdonald, was Conservative, as were most prime ministers in Canada’s early decades. They tend to cling more tightly to Canada’s British heritage and favor smaller government and deregulation of business. Brian Mulroney, a prime minister of the 1980s, was basically a Canadian version of Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher (and therefore more moderate). The modern Conservative party is actually a fusion of two older ones, the Progressive Conservatives (Mulroney’s party) and the Canadian Alliance, a more populist, Christian, and libertarian party.
On the other side of the spectrum are the Liberals (or the “Grits”), who have an even older lineage than the Conservatives stretching all the way back to the colonial era. They traditionally were Canada’s dominant party and have molded its image as a particularly progressive, welcoming, big-government country. They tend to be more hostile towards America than the Conservatives and more accepting of the French Canadians — indeed, many of their leaders have been French Canadian. Their patriarch was Pierre Trudeau, prime minister from 1968 to 1984, who instituted big government programs to stimulate economic development and provide universal health care and negotiated a patriation of the Canadian constitution (which means he secured a Canadian constitution separate from the British government).
Then there’s the New Democrats (NDP), another left-wing party. They began as a Marxist league born from the economic wasteland of the Great Depression, but evolved into a European-style socialist party. They have since moderated even further, to the point where they’re only slightly left of the Liberals — they still support greater government intervention into society, for instance, which is something Liberals have mostly backed away from.
Finally, there is the Bloc Quebecois, a party active only in Quebec (the French-speaking province), whose main platform is ditching Canada altogether and creating an independent Quebec, and the Greens, a party focused narrowly on environmentalism and radical hippie politics like their counterparts in other Western countries. Their narrow focuses have won them only limited appeal in Canada, but they still have parliamentary representation.
Liberal dominance of Canadian politics continued in the ’90s and early ’00s with prime ministers Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, but a growing sense of entitlement and arrogance and numerous scandals across the party (money laundering, tax policy leaks) led to Liberal defeat in 2006. The party foundered afterward, first under Stephane Dion, an uninspiring professor who attempted to unseat the Conservatives through legally dubious methods, then under Michael Ignatieff, another uninspiring professor who came off as too American. Meanwhile, the New Democrats, under their enthusiastic and charismatic leader Jack Layton, campaigned heavily in Quebec, which is actually the most liberal part of Canada and proved highly receptive to his message. As a result, the Liberals were surpassed by the NDP in the previous election in 2011, allowing Layton and his party to be head of opposition for the first time. Sadly, he died a few months later, leaving the party to Thomas Mulcair.
Meanwhile, the last 9 years have been dominated by the Conservatives, and their leader, Stephen Harper, in particular. A bland, ordinary guy with generic speeches (he’s put people to sleep on camera), he’s nevertheless pragmatic and politically cunning. He cut government spending without gutting the social programs Canadians hold dear, mostly avoided contentious social issues, and guided Canada through the economic collapse of 2008 through sensible financial policies. But his public friendly-uncle persona concealed an aggressive, ruthless politician, who wasn’t above attack ads, swatting away independent watchdogs snooping into his government, cold-shouldering opponents, ramming legislation through Parliament, and dismissing (“proroguing”) Parliament for long intervals to avoid awkward discussions. Overseas, he adopted a more aggressive stance too, siding with America on foreign policy disputes, participating in the war against the Islamic State, beefing up the military in the Arctic regions, and negotiating trade deals with the EU, South Korea, and a bunch of Pacific rim nations (the epic Trans-Pacific Partnership).
Thus, the stage was set for an interesting election.
When the curtains rose on Canada’s election campaign in August, Mulcair was running even with Harper. However, Mulcair’s fortunes slipped gradually over the course of the campaign. He has a reputation for a fierce temper and fumbled a question about corporate taxes on a radio show. He also struggled to differentiate himself from the Liberals and came off as lackluster in public speeches and debates.
But Canadians showed increasing dissatisfaction and exhaustion with Harper’s long tenure in power. A Liberal ad played images of Harper standing up in Parliament and buttoning his suit jacket, over and over again, each one a year apart, to ram home the point. The Canadian left has always loathed Harper, seeing him as a cruel harpy bent on turning Canada into the worst, most conservative parts of America, as an Albertan politician dedicated to promoting oil over the environment, and as “[George] Bush’s lapdog,” a man who would somehow plunge Canada into poorly-thought-out wars like the much-hated American president.
Although many of these criticisms are overblown — Harper’s main concerns were more mundane economic and political matters — he did have a habit of picking petty fights over contentious issues, and he was reluctant at best to do anything on climate change. He showed concern about national security and terrorism that bordered on Islamophobia; during the campaign, he made wearing the niqab (Muslim veil) at citizenship ceremonies an issue, and he accepted a relatively meager 34,300 Syrian refugees this year (with only 10,000 more promised by 2019). He also referred to “old-stock Canadians” during a debate, which was seen as a coded racist comment, and incurred the wrath of Canada’s long-suffering Native community (“First Nations”) for infringing on their sovereignty and land rights. The overall effect is to make Conservatives seem narrow, backward-looking, and miserly — not unlike their counterparts south of the border.
Meanwhile, in the background, Canada’s economy has finally begun to corrode. Although it escaped the housing crisis that shook America in 2007 and 2008, it now has a housing bubble of its very own, as well as a manufacturing slowdown. Harper’s platform of economic strength and prosperity started looking pretty rickety.
This provided a great opening for the Liberals. After a long period of searching for a decent leader (at one point they even considered an astronaut), in 2013 they settled on Justin Trudeau, Pierre Trudeau’s son. He is glamorous, charismatic, handsome, a good public speaker, and the son of Pierre Trudeau (the patriarch of the Liberal Party and arguably of modern Canada, remember). At first he was hobbled and dismissed by Conservatives for his lack of experience (he was a snowboarding, French and math teacher before going into politics), but that didn’t prevent him from rising in the polls and passing Mulcair late in September.
Beneath the prime ministerial level, plenty of outrageous scandals provided fodder for political commentators and opposing parties. A Conservative candidate in Quebec was revealed to have blamed Native Canadians for not integrating into Canadian culture, claimed that French Canadians had “ancestral rights,” and spoke of men as having “authority over women.” A Conservative candidate from Toronto caused a sensation on Twitter for peeing in a coffee mug while filming a TV show about crooked plumbers. The NDP’s communications director had made some virulently anti-Catholic tweets. A Liberal candidate in Alberta apparently thought Harper was turning Canada into a war zone with the Royal Mounted Police as the Gestapo. An NDP candidate in Ontario made a Facebook post calling posts at the Auschwitz death camp “phallic,” and apparently didn’t even know what Auschwitz was. And so on.
Anyway, for the most part Harper was projected to win again, although with a minority government. The Liberals and National Democrats split the large left-wing camp, with no such divide on the Conservative side. Newspapers almost uniformly endorsed the Tories; the Globe and Mail, Canada’s most respected newspaper, supported them as well, although it also called on Harper to step down after the election.
But the Liberals pulled off an (sort of) upset victory on October 19. Liberals took 184 out of 338 seats (54%), enough to form a majority government. The Conservative share dropped to 99, while the NDP was left with only 44 — leaving them in much the same position as the Liberals had been in after their 2011 pummeling. (The Bloc came in 4th with 10 seats, in case you were wondering.)
In the end, the Conservatives came undone because of Harper’s personal unpopularity and unappealing blandness, because Canadians were in the mood for a more liberal government anyway, because their image had been tarnished through ethics scandals, and probably most fundamentally, because after 9 years in power they had grown bloated, corrupt and entitled. This is why the Liberals were thrown out 9 years ago in the first place, but that’s the cycle of democratic politics.
It remains to be seen, of course, how radical and transformative the new Trudeau will be. Canada’s relations with America, which had soured over the Keystone oil pipeline, are hoped to improve, but Trudeau has also vowed to withdraw Canadian forces from the fight against the Islamic State. He has also promised a more open immigration and refugee policy, $7 billion in deficit spending to boost the stagnant economy, and more investment in infrastructure. Whether he will actually be an inspiring leader like his father (if you haven’t noticed, exciting leaders are rare in Canadian politics) or just a good-looking figurehead manipulated by the Liberal elite might be the biggest unanswered question.
Let’s just hope his term in office doesn’t end like this video.
Many thanks to J.J. McCullough, who has done much to make Canadian politics entertaining, funny and well-drawn over the years.