You may remember that a couple of the earliest posts on this site referred to an article I was asked to write by the Irish Times. Well, that article is in today’s Irish Times and also online here. It’s the first time I have been published in what I would consider to be a mass-selling newspaper or a paper “of record”. Given that it is now two-and-a-half months since submission, I am pleasantly surprised that this article saw light of day. They even used a snazzy photo of downtown Montreal taken from what I think is the south-facing slope of the mountain. Enjoy!
When Jack and Gilles (Layton and Duceppe, respectively) lined up to support Stéphane Dion for Prime Minister in 2008, Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament. Until now, it was seemingly the closest that Canada has come to forming a coalition government. In the first week of the current campaign, Harper has been focusing much attention on the idea of coalition and how awful it might be for the country, most recently at a stop in Halifax, NS. (A recent post discusses why Ignatieff might regret scoffing at the coalition option so early in the campaign.) Harper has every right to do this, but he also has the obligation to be truthful, which he has not.
As a CBS news report last Tuesday succinctly explained, the Bloc would not have been in government had Dion become Prime Minister. There would have been a cabinet of 24 members, 18 from the Liberals and six from the ranks of the NDP. Of course, the image presented to the public in a show of opposition unity was the three leaders (Dion, Layton and Duceppe) signing an agreement, but this was not an agreement for government. The only item signed by the three, including Duceppe, was a program for an economic stimulus package. A different draft agreement for government was signed by Dion and Layton, and not by Duceppe. Let’s be clear: Duceppe or any other Bloquiste would not have had a seat at cabinet and had only agreed to bring down the Harper government, not to become part of a new one. As I mentioned before, it makes no sense for the Bloc to formally become a part of the state from which it is trying to detach itself.
But Harper is presenting the 2008 tri-party agreement as one through which the Bloc would have become part of government. In doing so, he is attempting to justify the prorogation of Parliament that year by saying that he could not let separatists get into power in Ottawa. That might be a legitimate argument if it was ever true, but it never was and most likely never will be.
The sooner this historical revisionism is shown up for what it is, the sooner the country can have a good debate on possible coalitions, past, present and future.
Are Liberals the new Conservatives? Now that Michael Ignatieff has ruled out coalition as a means of forming a government, it seems that the Liberals are getting used to the opposition benches. Macdonald and Harper aside, Canada’s political history has generally been a case of Conservatives being too comfortable with losing, and now it seems that Iggy is catching that same disease. On the other hand, leaving policy aside for a moment and concentrating solely on political tact, Harper has clearly been reading the Liberal playbook.
“Whoever leads the party that wins the most seats on election day should be called on to form the government,” said Ignatieff this week. If the party that won the most seats formed the government in Ireland, for example, Fianna Fáil would have been in power without a single break from 1932 to 2011. “That is our Constitution. It is the law of the land,” he went on to say. Not so. Those are the conventions of politics in Canada, not the laws. If that was constitutionally the case, he would not have had to answer questions about coalition. It would seem as though Ignatieff has failed to take into account some fundamental shifts that have taken place in Canadian politics over the last couple of decades:
Firstly, Canada looks bound to minority government for the foreseeable future. One of the underlying aims of the Bloc Québécois on its creation twenty years ago was to prove that the Canadian Confederation was ungovernable by making minority government a permanent fact of life in Ottawa. This was delayed by the Conservatives’ stupefying defeat in 1993 that led to a Liberal majority, but minority government now appears to be a permanent fixture. With a first past the post electoral system, the Bloc can take around 50 of the 76 Québec seats with only 40% of the vote in the province, about 9% nationally. This requires any other party to take close to two thirds of the remaining seats in order to form a majority government which, this time around, is just not going to happen. And it won’t happen any time soon. There is no Trudeaumania or Mulroney sweep about to happen, nor a Kim Campbell around for any party to capitulate.
Secondly, and with the above point in mind, federal politicians need to see the permanency of minority government not as a hindrance but as a challenge to be accepted, perhaps even enjoyed. Minority government and coalition (and remember that with such a large, diverse country any successful parties must be coaltions in themselves) ought to be seen as utterly Canadian. This country is a compromise, not a monolithic state where one faction dominates. Rather than presenting traditional conventions as consitutional “laws of the land”, Ignatieff and the Liberals need to embrace the idea that the country, founded largely on principles of compromise, is greater than their party or any other party.
If Ignatieff goes through the motions and does not begin to think more radically or progressively, he will lose and a third Harper-led government will ensue.
Some thoughts on the imminent Canadian federal election.
Stephen Harper is a highly intelligent man whose detractors often make the error of thinking that he is not. Like John A. Macdonald, Harper’s goal is to build a national coalition within one party and then stay in power for as long as possible, but Harper has managed to do this by balancing the wishes of former Reform Party supporters and Easterners while attracting the odd independent or Liberal by throwing a centrist curveball into the policy mix. His aim is to keep his party’s poll number somewhere north of 30%, knowing that this is likely to keep him in office. That is his overarching policy to which everything else is secondary. As I have mentioned in previous posts, however, the Conservatives are sometimes given to small outbursts of emotion, and this week it is Harper himself who may have put his foot in it with his very own Jocasta moment.
That Globe and Mail article says this: ‘Harper said Wednesday that while the Bloc Québécois remains popular, it no longer has a real mission. He predicted that Quebec will soon understand that the Bloc has given up hope on achieving sovereignty and voters will begin looking for an alternative.’
Remove ‘achieving sovereignty’ and you have a pretty good summary of Harper’s own position. As I see it, however, voters will not look for an alternative just yet. If there is a change in government, it will not be as a result of a significant change in the number of seats won by the four parties but rather by the NDP and Liberals agreeing to some sort of coalition with support from the Bloc. I don’t think the Bloc will formally enter a coalition; its whole raison d’être is to be a caretaker opposition party until its own success makes its entire existence unnecessary. To form part of the government of the state from which it is trying to detach itself would then appear absurd. Hence, my money is on a third consecutive Harper-led Conservative minority government.
On CBC News tonight I saw Michael Ignatieff respond to a question about the possibility of a coalition. He said that there’s a blue door and a red door and those are your only real choices. This tried and, for some reason, trusted method of presenting a false choice to the electorate will probably not work precisely because it is a false choice. Of course, the red door (the Liberals) is meant to represent peace and fairness, but, be that as it may, those ideas have not been communicated as well as they could have been by Ignatieff. By presenting the choice in this way, Ignatieff does not represent change in any meaningful sense of the word.
For change, voters might look at the NDP and Jack Layton, who would do his prospects of an increase in seats no problem at all if he answered questions on his health (Layton has been diagnosed with prostate cancer). Like Charles Kennedy, Brian Cowen and John McCain before him, Layton is at some stage going to have to deal with this issue so that he can start dealing with questions relating to policy.
I’m looking forward to this campaign and will be writing about it quite often. Keep stopping by!
In the past 24 hours, two curious little events have brought the issue of the French language and the Conservative Party of Canada right back into the media radar.
First, there was Prime Minister Stephen Harper giving a joint press conference with President Barack Obama in Washington. The usual pleasantries were exchanged, beginning with Obama saying that their relationship was not only strategic, but also based on friendship. Harper replied in English, agreeing with that sentiment. For American viewers, this is what they heard before American news networks cut their coverage of the press conference: “Well, first of all, thank you, Barack. Both — thank you for your friendship both personal and national. And thank you for all the work you’ve done and all of your people have done to bring us to our announcement today.”
So why would the news networks, and I mean not some of them but all of them, panic and cut to studio discussion of what is going on in Egypt? It’s because Harper suddenly began a lengthy monologue in French. Uh-oh. Harper is perfectly cabable of speaking English; in fact English is his mother tongue, with his fluency in French being a more recent acquisition following more cumbersome efforts two decades ago as a Reform Party MP. So why did he give the lion’s share of his speech in Washington in French, in doing so forcing Obama into making bad jokes and leaving a bunch of journalists twiddling their thumbs?
The answer can be given in a simple way or a more complex way. First, the simple way. Harper is Prime Minister of a minority government that currently holds only 10 of 75 seats in Québec, the only province with a predominantly French-speaking population. These are facts. Another fact is that the last federal election was in 2008, so every day that passes is one day closer to another round of voting. Harper knows that grabbing, say, a dozen or 15 Québec seats at the next election could be the difference between remaining as Prime Minister or not. That’s the simple explanation, but it’s not as straightforward as that.
The major federal parties in Canada have come to realise that it is not clever politics to have a unilingual leader. Rightly or wrongly, leaders need to be not just bilingual, but conspicuously so. They need to slip some French in while in Saskatoon and slide a bit of English in there while in Québec City. The Conservatives, Brian Mulroney aside, have traditionally been inept – sorry, suicidal – when it comes to the sensitive politics of language. What would you think if I told you that George Drew, Conservative leader in 1950s, actually called French Canadians “a defeated race” and labelled the Quebecois “French Canadian bastards”? Does that sound like good politics to you? Since the 1980s, Harper has moved from the Drew school of thinking to a far more pragmatic style of leadership. That’s why he gave his speech in Washington in French. Sure, the vast majority of viewers and people in the room had no idea what he was saying and probably thought ‘oh look, here’s some Canadian again with his fancy French that I cannot understand,’ in doing so reinforcing the widely-held view in the USA that Canada simply does not matter. But Harper had only one constituency in mind during that press conference, and it wasn’t Obama or CNN viewers, but rather Canadian voters. More specifically, Quebecois voters. That’s what makes him such a formidable politician – he is simply magnificent at knowing who he wants to speak to and staying in power.
That same weekend, however, Harper’s Québec lieutenant, MP Maxime Bernier, told a Nova Scotia radio station that there is no need for Bill 101 in Québec. This Bill is the one that, among other things, legally established French as the predominant language in business, economics and politics in the province in the 1970s. It is the main reason why I have always thought of the Parti Québécois as ‘un parti conservateur de la gauche’ – a left-wing conservative party. The Bill works in a zero-sum sort of way, with the tipping of the scales in favour of French being at the expense of English, and can be seen as reactionary. Many Quebecois embrace this reaction. So was it good politics for Bernier to publicly oppose the now-entrenched Bill 101 on the same weekend that Harper forewent the opportunity to butter-up an American audience so that he could appeal to Québec voters? Indeed, did Harper and his team decide to go French in Washington so as to limit the damage that Bernier might have done? Do the two cancel each other out? Are the Conservatives going to mess up on Quebec forever? Whatever the case, conservative commentator Tasha Kheiriddin credits Bill 101 for saving Canada even though she doesn’t actually like it. So there you go.
As mentioned in my previous post, I made three pitches in one to the features editor of The Irish Times. It turns out that while fighting for crumbs off the table I managed to find an entire cookie; the editor liked one of my ideas and wants 800 words by Thursday morning Irish time. There’s not much point in me going through the other two, but the one that stuck is this: at Concordia University, one of the two large English-speaking universities in Montréal, there is a department of Canadian Irish Studies where, among other pursuits, a load of Quebecois and other nationalities are learning Irish. Some of these fine people have never been to Ireland.
Last night at one of those generic Irish pubs that are so popular everywhere save Ireland itself there was a ‘Networking and Integration evening’ for recently arrived Irish immigrants. I made it my business to find someone from Concordia as soon as I got there. I struck gold, finding not only the director of the Centre for Canadian Irish Studies but also an Irish teacher from Spiddal, Co. Galway. I’m meeting the director, Michael Kenneally, at his office in about three hours. I asked for his number but he said I should just show up; “It’s on the ninth floor and you turn left,” he said. Aoife, the teacher, was more forthcoming with her digits. She’s also allowing me to sit in on a class this Tuesday where I will get a chance to interview some students.
Unfortunately, my Olympus voice recorder gave up the ghost this week. Some moisture seems to have infiltrated it on the journey from Dublin to Montréal via London. I’ve looked up a replacement on craigslist – the online hub of many a transaction in North America – but can only meet the seller over the weekend. Hence, when I meet Mr. Kenneally today I will be recording him using a Blackberry that I got last week. Let’s hope I don’t mess up the recording. As a back up, I think I’ll use the traditional pen and paper format too.