Thursday, March 31, 2011

Meanwhile, Back At The Ranch...

For those of you who enjoy my stories of playing with currency, lapdances by drunk Russian strippers, treks through Thai jungles for mushrooms, redneck rampages and run-ins with corrupt police, you won't like this next entry.

My home and native land, Canada, is in the midst of a political crisis that runs much deeper than current media can display. The effect of this crisis is the fifth federal election in ten years, but the symptoms are seemingly terminal.

This political situation in Canada has come about because of widening polarization among the people in Canada, and this current election is turning out to be one of the ugliest in Canadian history. The election campaign is only in its fifth day, yet I have witnessed arguments break out at work and even while waiting in line at a Tim Horton's coffee shop! Even our hockey games have become politicized (candidates are declaring which hockey teams they support)!

Canada is a very regional country, encompassing vastly different outlooks on life. The maritimes and Newfoundland are predominantly social democrat in outlook, while Ontario is mainly centrist liberal. Manitoba and Saskatchewan tend to lean towards left-of-center while Alberta and British Columbia are hardcore conservative bastions. Quebec remains a primarily nationalist province with strong left-wing tendencies. Federal elections tend to be decided along these lines.

To understand it more, we need to look at how a British-style parliament works. Basically, the group of MPs (Members of Parliament) that enjoy the support of the House (the House of Commons) form the government, with the leader of that group chosen as Prime-Minister. In this case most groups of MPs are assembled into political parties, although there is nothing in the constitution that mentions political parties.

* It should be noted that Canada's constitution is not a clean one-page document like in America, but rather a large collection of legislation, treaties, orders-in-council, declarations by past monarchs and Supreme Court decisions all stuffed into the large Parliamentary Library...the sum total of all this is Canada's constitution.

Currently in Parliament there are 304 seats up for grabs and, under the parliamentary system, the "group", or party, that wins the most seats in an election forms the government (there is a seat for every 100,000 voters).

The problem is that there are also five political parties: the Conservative Party, the Liberal Party, the New Democratic Party (social-democrats), the Bloc Quebecois (Quebec nationalists) and the Green Party (environmentalists). The Conservatives and Liberals are by far the biggest parties, and the two historic parties of Canada.

For 75 years of the 20th Century, on and off, the Liberal Party governed Canada, and produced such political heroes as Mackenzie King, Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chretien. Like it or not, the Liberals have styled themselves "Canada's natural party". The Conservatives, on the other hand, have enjoyed temporary greatness followed by stunning defeats. Brian Mulroney lead the old Progressive Conservative Party from a sweep of Parliament in 1984 to a shattering implosion in 1993, and after that the Conservatives were hard-pressed to gain even 4 seats in Parliament.

In far-right leaning Alberta a party rose up to challenge the Liberals and even the Conservatives, who they thought were too left-leaning. The Reform Party began as a protest party but managed to gain quite a few seats in Parliament to offer significant political power. Our current Prime-Minister, Stephen Harper, was a member of the Reform Party in its birthing heyday.

The Reform Party attempted to run candidates across the country in 1996, but its stance on gay rights, abortion, privatized medicare and young offender justice terrified the rest of Canada (which is much more left-leaning) and Reform was utterly swept in the elections and Jean Chretien's Liberals won the biggest majority they have ever enjoyed (Jean Chretien even quipped "Thanks, Reform!"). The Reform Party fell apart, but not completely.

Under the careful guidance of an elite circle of hardcore conservatives, including Stockwell Day and Stephen Harper, the party renamed itself and changed its image, and appeared again in the 2000 elections as the Canadian Alliance Party. It did a little bit better in those elections but the fact of the matter was that the right-wing votes were split between the old Progressive Conservative party and the Canadian Alliance party, thus handing the Liberals a third-straight majority in Parliament.

The Progressive Conservative party was in dire straights, not winning any more than 4 or 5 seats since the days of Brian Mulroney. Membership was down and the party was going bankrupt. Luckily for them, the Canadian Alliance Party was looking for one more image change to give itself more legitimacy in otherwise Liberal Canada. Stephen Harper, who had helped birth the Reform Party and morphed it into the Alliance Party, stepped in and, in a historic deal, merged the Canadian Alliance with the Progressive Conservatives, renaming it the "Conservative" Party.

Around this time, in 2002, Jean Chretien's 10-year reign as the most popular Prime-Minister in Canada was coming to an end. The "little scrapper from Shawinigan" (a reference to his hometown in Quebec and his fiesty, combative political style and, ultimately, to his habit of grabbing hippy protesters by the throat and/or punching them in the face) was nearing 70 years in age, and his right-hand man, Finance Minister Paul Martin (who had made Time magazine's "Man of the Year" in 1999 for engineering Canada's economy so that it became the first G8 country to balance its books and declare a fiscal surplus) made a play for the top spot. In a Liberal convention Paul Martin attempted to get himself nominated leader of the Liberal Party and oust his mentor and friend (and boss). Martin managed to get 52% of the Liberal delegates' votes, enough to topple Jean Chretien but also enough to drive a deep rift in the ranks of the Liberal Party.

In 2004 Canada went to the polls, and Paul Martin and his Liberals won a minority government; that is, they were the party that held the most seats but the other three opposition parties combined held more seats. The Liberals would be forced to compromise on every issue in order to gain the support of the opposition. The largest of the opposition parties was none other than Stephen Harper's Conservatives.

In Canada, when a governing party loses the confidence of the House the government falls and a new election is declared. All fiscal issues put forward by the governing party are considered confidence issues, so the annual budget must pass the House of Commons or the party is considered to not have the confidence of the House and a new election is called.

In 2006 this is precisely what happened. After 2 years of ineptitude and a paralyzed Parliament Stephen Harper and his Conservatives (still called "Tories", the old British name for conservatives) got the socialist NDP and separatist Bloc Quebecois on board and defeated the budget. Paul Martin and his broken Liberal Party fell and the country went to the polls.

Stephen Harper won the election, but, like Paul Martin, only with a minority government. Unlike Paul Martin who could have counted on the support of two other left-leaning parties in Parliament, the Conservatives were now facing an opposition united by ideology, the Liberals, NDP and Bloc. For the next two years they found themselves making compromise after compromise on every issue in order to stay in power. In 2008 the Liberals and NDP joined together and threatened to form a coalition, which would have made them combined the largest group of MPs to enjoy the confidence of the House and power would have shifted back to the Liberals. The country went to the polls again.

The 2008 election returned Parliament back to almost exactly the same state: Stephen Harper's Conservatives hanging on to a minority government while the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Quebecois opposed them from across the aisle.

From 2008 until now, 2011, the Conservatives hung on to power not because of increased support from the electorate (Tory support has never risen much beyond 38%) but because of dissatisfaction from the voters with the Liberals. After the Paul Martin affair the Liberals chose as their leader Stephan Dion, a life-long Quebecois bureaucrat who could barely speak English and whose mere presence on television annoyed the hell out of the average Canadian. The Liberals ditched Stephan and, in a quick convention, chose Micheal Ignatieff to lead them.

Micheal Ignatieff is the son of Russian immigrants who fled to Canada following the 1917 Revolution in Russia. He has been a professor of politics and economic theory at Oxford and Cambridge and more recently at Harvard University. He returned to Canada in 2007 to teach at University of Toronto when he was approached by the Liberal Party to potentially lead them. He has written 14 non-fiction books and was a personal friend of US Senator Ted Kennedy.

Unfortunately for Ignatieff, the Liberal Party he took over was a shambles after Paul Martin and two consecutive electoral defeats, and "Iggy", as the press calls him, has had to work hard to not only get Canadians to know him and take him seriously, but also to unify the party and turn it back into the "mean red machine" it once was. Harper and the Conservatives have wasted no time attacking him as being unpatriotic for living outside of the country for so long (as a distinguished academic who has taught at the world's greatest schools and given lectures at the UN). In fact, the Conservatives have been using age-old Canadian self-confidence issues to potray Ignatieff as an evil American-lover, while Ignatieff has publicly said "Yes, I do love America, and I love Canada, and I love the unique relationship our two countries share."

It was Micheal Ignatieff who, in 2008, attempted to form a coalition with the NDP to topple the minority Conservatives, and the Conservative response has been an attack campaign calling a coalition an "undermining" of democracy and "reckless". However, what Conservative supporters are not looking at is the fact that coalitions are perfectly legal means of government in a parliament, so long as they enjoy the support of the House of Commons. If a coalition between parties produces a majority that, then, is the confidence of the House.

Another thing that the Conservatives have kept quiet is the fact that in the bad old days of the Reform Party Stephen Harper wrote a paper explaining why coalition governments are needed and how the Reform Party should go about leading one to take on Jean Chretien's Liberals. In a 1998 interview with TV Ontario Harper said he endorses coalitions as being the most democratic means of governance in Canada. In 2004 he attempted to form a coalition with the NDP and Bloc Quebecois to topple Paul Martin's minority Liberal government. Now, when the Liberals are doing just the same to him, Stephen Harper is suddenly attacking coalition government as "undemocratic".

The fact of the matter is that minority government is, by definition, undemocratic. The Conservatives enjoyed the support of 38% of the people in the last parliament, while the Liberals and NDP combined had the support of over 52%, making a coalition between the two the actual voice of the majority of voters. Thus, a coalition government is the most democratic form of government possible in Canada.

The most recent election came about after a stunning confidence vote in Parliament. The Conservatives were found to be in contempt of Parliament by the House for refusing to give financial details over plans to purchase 130 F-35 Stealth fighters from the USA. The allegation is that there was no competition and that General Electric, who produces the aircraft, padded Conservative Party coffers to get the contract with no questions asked. The deal will cost the Canadian taxpayers over $30 billion over the next 10 years. This finding of contempt of parliament triggered a non-confidence vote and last Friday Stephen Harper and his Conservatives were toppled by a united opposition. The election was on. The fifth in 10 years.

Oh yes, finally, being politicians, I'm sure they've all had lap dances from Russian strippers.

1 comment:

  1. it sounds like you're still going through reverse culture shock. i don't think i ever got over reverse culture shock after i lived in Russia.