Outflanking the Liberals on the left

Par George Jonas le 30 octobre 2008

There’s no confusion about the election results in Canada, only about who won. Some say, well, the winner is whoever forms the government, and that’s Stephen Harper. Not so, others counter. Mr. Harper called an election to get a majority; he was denied one, so he lost. Even worse, look at his opponent. Anyone who can’t knock out Stéphane Dion has no business claiming the belt.

True, beating a one-armed contender on points won’t make you a boxing legend. Mr. Dion wasn’t very competitive. His main hope had to be that his English might mask his platform, because he could hardly expect support from people who understood him. Making a tree-hugging tax his centrepiece at a time when voters were worrying about their jobs was hardly the yellow brick road to victory.

But Mr. Harper had his own handicap. An economic crisis invariably hurts the incumbent. The captain’s chair is the wrong place to be when the ship of state crashes into an iceberg.

Regardless of fault, the middle of a collision isn’t the recommended time to seek a renewal of one’s contract as a skipper.

I doubt if Mr. Harper would have called an election had he known that an economic iceberg was about to hit Canada. A calamity that can be associated with ideas the governing party espouses — as in the case of conservatism and capitalism — usually has dire electoral results. Going to the polls during bad times would be inadvisable for any government, but a market meltdown would definitely stand out on a Conservative prime minister’s top ten list of when not to call elections.

Considering that there could hardly have been a more inauspicious time for an incumbent Tory government to seek an enlarged mandate, just to retain the number of seats Conservatives had going into the election should be considered a win for Mr. Harper. Gaining 17 seats is nothing short of a bloody triumph, I think, whether he achieved the majority he originally set out to achieve or not.

Under the circumstances, the Tory-initiated election became the Grits’ election to lose -- and lose it they did, most obligingly. It wasn’t all their fault. The kind of vote splintering that used to plague the Right -- or what passes for the Right in Canada -- is now plaguing the Left. If the Right found it difficult to sustain two parties, the Left is having trouble sustaining three -- or four, if we include the Bloc Québécois.

Mr. Dion’s English may have played a tiny role in the Liberal debacle -- call it a “speaking part” -- but not nearly as big as his carbon tax. Other things mattered more.

While nearly two out of three Canadians (of the roughly two out of three who bother to vote) are left-of-centre on most issues, the emphasis isn’t so much on “left of” as it is on “centre.” Canadians are so centrist they’re almost inert. They’ve an aversion to people who foam at the mouth, even when they’ve sympathy for what they’re foaming about. At the same time they’ve a soft spot for anyone who can pass for a slab of frozen fish.

Nobody passes more convincingly than Mr. Harper. There’s more to him than that, but there is that. Some think it’s a minus. I think it’s a plus.

The mistake Mr. Dion & Co. made was trying to outflank Mr. Harper on the left. In doing so, they let him lure them further and further away from the centre where the votes are. During the five-way French and English-language debates the Tory leader’s opponents, smelling blood, ganged up on him, modeling themselves on a pack of howling, circling coyotes. Mr. Harper, smelling votes, huddled like a porcupine, casting sideways glances at them. It was Canadian nature art, something to be framed and hung on the wall. I went out on a limb and called for a Harper-majority despite the polls.

Close, but no cigar.

In the end it was Gilles Duceppe’s Bloc that denied the Tories a majority -- some say in response to the Tories’ doctrinaire insistence on funding too many measures against young offenders and not enough in support of the arts. I doubt it. Arts-tails rarely wag electoral dogs in Canada. Some Quebec friends say it was reflexive insularity. When times are tough, Quebec pulls into its shell. This sounds more likely.

If Mr. Harper could have foreseen on Sept. 7th that sub-prime mortgages were about to bring down leading financial institutions on Wall Street precipitating a global crisis, presumably he wouldn’t have called an election. In that case he wouldn’t have been Stephen Harper, though, but Harry Potter. And where would that have got him? Not having called an election, he would now be governing Canada with 127 seats in Parliament instead of 143. It’s wiser not to be a wizard.

The world works more or less as described in Ecclesiastes 9:11. “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise. Time and chance happens to them all.”


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