A Nation of Four Solitudes
By Gord Gekko
Canadians have had a lot to think about, and occasionally vote on, during
the last two decades. Since the first Quebec referendum in 1980, Canadians
have been subjected to elections which have been promoted to 'finally'
put to rest one issue or another. The Canada-U.S. free trade agreement,
unity and Quebec separation (several times over), and what our vision
of Canada in the 21st century will be, have been just some of the dominant
The governing Liberal Party managed, barely, to hold on to majority status in the Parliament. Coming in with 177 seats, the Liberals called an election 18 months before their mandate was up. Neither Prime Minister Jean Chrétien or Liberal supporters could adequately explain exactly why he needed to call an election, but perhaps it seemed a good idea at the time. The Liberals had enjoyed wide popular support for aggressively fighting an enormous deficit that they, and the Progressive Conservatives, were responsible for, and had managed to escape a number of controversial issues (gun control, gay rights, potential Quebec separation) without a serious loss in the opinion polls.
After what was a poor performance by Chrétien, both in the debates and the campaign trial, the Liberals barely escaped minority government status with a 155 seat win, a tiny four more than needed.
The New Democrats managed somewhat of a comeback in this election. Based on a strong performance in Atlantic Canada, the party moved from obscurity to some prominence by winning 21 seats. In Canada 12 seats are needed to be considered an official party allowing one to collect the perks that come with that distinction. They even won a territory, the Yukon, although it is a territory with a lone seat.
The Progressive Conservatives managed perhaps one of the finer performances, moving from two seats to 20. While not completely able to escape the ghost of one of the most unpopular men in Canadian history, Brian Mulroney, the party did succeed in presenting itself as a credible choice in Quebec, where they and the Liberals managed to knock about the Bloc Québécois a bit.
And speaking of the separatist Bloc, led rather ineptly by Gilles Duccepe, they managed to lose 10 seats to a combined assault by the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives. The hodge-podge of socialist and separatist elements in the party seemed to be confused every day of the campaign.
The party that ESR supported did at once well and poorly. On the positive side, the party captured three provinces, eight new seats for a total of 60, and Official Opposition status away from the Bloc. The party's agenda was basically the election's agenda. Preston Manning and his party managed to hold the election in their hands, with their agenda being the one most reacted to and discussed by Canadians and the other parties.
The Reform Party can make a credible claim that Finance Minister Paul Martin's work on the deficit is reminiscent of their own plans. When the Reform Party spoke on national unity, it was the other parties that had to react. On crime, when the party released election lists that showed the names of mass murderers (child killer Clifford Olson and rapist-murderer Paul Bernardo), it was they who gained credibility on the issue of crime.
But for their successes, the Reform Party also suffered a failure that it cannot easily brush under the carpet. The party managed to not win one seat east of the Manitoba border, losing the only one they had managed to win in October 1993. The economic reforms of Ontario premier Mike Harris may have contributed to Reform's poor showing, or they may have helped Reform out. One must not ignore the fact that in many of the province's ridings the party polled second or third. Their failure was not to shore up the soft right wing vote in voter rich Ontario, which went to the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives. Out of 103 seats, the Liberals won 101.
Each region of Canada can now argue that their voice will be heard in Parliament. That will either give all Canadians a real voice in Parliament, or it will simply mean that the voices of all will cause too much noise for anyone to be heard. What happens will remain to be seen.
The election answered no questions. The West, although it is responsible single-handedly for the Official Opposition, has no voice in government apart from a few Liberal MPs led by Lloyd Axworthy. Quebec voters may have moved towards other parties, but the sovereigntists still won the province. Atlantic Canada voted for the New Democrats and the Progressive Conservatives, two parties still very much in the political wilderness.
What can Conservatives take from this election?
You might be surprised that a lot of people walking around who voted for the other parties will reply in the affirmative to nearly all these questions. People of all political stripes have been affected by Reform's presence on the national scene. A national breakthrough in the next election is not out of the question. The platform is accepted by many of those who actually read it.
While its popular support only grew by 1.2 per cent, it grew. For the second straight election we polled more votes than two of the other traditional parties, and we've only been around for ten years! The Reform Party solidified its base of support in the West and it can build on that. Although Reform did not win one seat outside of the West, it placed itself in contention in a large number of Ontario seats, often finishing second or third.
Look at it this way. In ten years the Reform Party moved from being a small party with few members, to attracting millions of voters and gaining Official Opposition status. Not bad at all!
What the Reform Party must remember
It was Samuel Clemens who said history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
I can remember racing home in January 1995 to listen to Rush Limbaugh's broadcasts about the first 100 days of the first Republican Congress. Heady times it was back then...until the Republicans, taking wave after wave of assaults from all corners, became gun shy.
The defining moment of the Republicans moving towards the center, and away from their beliefs, was the shut down of the government because of the budget impasse several years ago. Polls showed that Americans blamed the Republicans for the shutdown and feared their "extremism".
So what happened? Newt Gingrich plays the role of Clinton's right-hand man pretty well today, well enough that he and Gore should think about running on a ticket together for 2000. Though some Republicans publicly talk ill of the party of 1997, they are not powerful enough to move the party back to conservatism.
The same may occur here. The attacks on the Reform Party during the election are similar to those that the Republicans heard. Pro-wealthy, racist, anti-women, Pro-White, Pro-English...well, you've heard them all already. Even a few days after the election, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien called on his government, the New Democrats and the Progressive Conservatives to band together against "extremism", the most used pejorative when describing the Reform Party.
Manning and his Opposition must stand tough the coming years. While Reform can't stop pieces of legislation, unlike the Republicans, they can influence the debate. They have already influenced the platforms of two of the parties (the Liberal's attack on the deficit and several parts of the Tory platform were originally Reform policies) so just think what they can do now.
The victory Reform won at the polls is not a given. Any movement away from their base will cost them seats in the next election.
The battle is yours as well. Join the party. Get involved. Help make policy. Keep the party to the right.
Oh yeah, and enjoy the next couple of years!
Want to read more about what the election meant? Visit Quackgrass Press for an interesting piece called What the heck happened? for Michael Miller's interpretation of the election.
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