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The Canadian federal election of June 28, 2004 in context

By Mark Wegierski
web posted September 6, 2004

In the aftermath of the Canadian federal election of November 2000, in which the perennially-ruling Liberal Party comfortably retained its majority in the federal Parliament, the leader of the centre-right Canadian Alliance, Stockwell Day, was ousted as a result of a caucus revolt against his supposed incompetence and "extremism" that at one point attracted as many as thirteen (of 66) Canadian Alliance MPs. The Canadian Alliance had itself emerged in 1998-2000 out of the broadening of the Reform Party -- which had originally been founded in 1987 as a Western-Canadian-based centre-right protest party, disgruntled with the manifest lack of conservatism in the "official Right" -- the Progressive Conservative party.

In the ensuing contest for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance, Stephen Harper -- who defined himself as a "classical liberal" -- defeated Day decisively. Joe Clark (leader of the federal Progressive Conservative party in 1998-2003 -- and earlier in 1976-1983) finally left the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives, resulting in a leadership contest in May 2003, won by Peter MacKay. On October 16, 2003, a merger between the Canadian Alliance (led by Stephen Harper), and the federal Progressive Conservatives (led by Peter MacKay) was announced, proposing to form the Conservative Party of Canada, pending the vote of their respective memberships by December 12, 2003. The subsequent successful merger of the two parties led to the possibility of a significant challenge to the federal Liberal Party. Stephen Harper handily won the leadership of the reconstituted Conservative Party in March 2004.

In mid-November 2003, the enormously popular Paul Martin, Jr. (the former federal Liberal Finance Minister, credited with much of the recent deficit-fighting success of the Liberals) was acclaimed to the leadership of the federal Liberal Party and the Prime Ministership -- while Jean Chretien resigned ahead of his predicted retirement date of February 2004.

In the June 28, 2004, federal election in Canada, the reconstituted Conservative Party failed to unseat the Liberals, although during much of the campaign, it had been predicted -- especially in light of some especially egregious government financial scandals -- that the Conservatives would win the largest number of seats in the federal Parliament. In fact, the Liberals retained a minority government with 135 seats (with 37 per cent of the popular vote) in the 308 seat federal Parliament.

The Conservatives won 99 seats (with 30 per cent of the popular vote). The New Democratic Party -- NDP (Canada's social democrats) under their dynamic new leader, Jack Layton (selected in January 2003), may hold the balance of power, with 19 seats (16 per cent of the popular vote). Although the NDP held only fourteen seats in the federal Parliament before its dissolution, it has exercised a huge intellectual influence on Canada, especially on the Liberal Party. The comparatively small increase in NDP seats and popular vote totals has important repercussions. The Quebec nationalist/separatist Bloc Quebecois, under Gilles Duceppe, won 54 of 75 seats in Quebec (with 13 per cent of the Canada-wide popular vote). The Green Party won over 4 per cent of the popular vote, but not a single seat. There was also one independent candidate elected (from Surrey, British Columbia). (Canada has a first-past-the-post system.)

Historically, few minority governments in Canadian federal politics have lasted more than a year. Such a situation is inherently unstable, and Paul Martin will be looking for an opportune moment to call an election, or have his government fall over a winning issue.

It could be argued that the 2004 federal election has in fact confirmed the long-standing dominance of the federal Liberal Party in Canada. Many Canadians (especially in Ontario and Atlantic Canada) were unwilling to vote for the Conservatives mainly because of Liberal scaremongering about Harper's "social conservatism" -- although Harper himself had done his utmost to distance himself from that label -- going so far as to explicitly embrace during the national debate "a woman's right to choose" in regard to abortion. Indeed, it could be argued that the campaign centered on Harper doing his utmost to portray himself as a "moderate" -- with the Liberal election machine doing its best to trip him up and portray him as an "extremist." Near the end of the campaign, it was said that Harper's election effort was hurt when some of the social conservative MPs such as Randy White and Cheryl Gallant spoke out that they would be willing to invoke the notwithstanding clause of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, especially in regard to resisting "same-sex marriage." The notwithstanding clause, which allows the federal and provincial legislatures to pass laws "notwithstanding" the Charter has almost never been invoked outside of the province of Quebec. It was said these statements tended to tip some Ontario seats away from the Conservatives.

Harper did poorly in Atlantic Canada because of the enormous play given to his earlier statement about the Maritimes being pervaded by a "culture of defeat." Ironically, the Maritimes are comparatively socially conservative and one of the most homogenous areas of Canada, with interesting, distinct local cultures, but they have a long-ingrained attitude of reliance on the federal government and its regional subsidies.

Harper dared not propose any major reforms of the Canadian medical system, as that was one of the issues that had prominently hurt Stockwell Day's campaign in 2000. Harper was also unwilling to raise the issue of immigration, as even gently hinting at the issue had usually hurt the Reform Party and Canadian Alliance in Canada's climate of hyper-political-correctness. So the main focus of his campaign was the attack on Liberal "corruption" and the promise of a more publicly- and fiscally-accountable government, summed up by his campaign slogan, "Demand better." It could be argued that Harper's campaign missed many nuances of the "culture wars" around which more substantial conservatism today focuses. The phrase "culture wars" can embrace not only social conservative issues such as abortion and "same-sex marriage" but also the critique of multiculturalism and defense of Western civilization, as well as the questioning of the sense of entitlement, resentment, and rights without responsibilities, that characterizes most current-day Western societies.

Canada has certainly been marked by massive social transformation and upheaval since the 1960s, and it is likely that these trends will continue. For example, Canada was the third country in the world (after the Netherlands and Belgium) to recognize "same-sex marriage." At the same time, it has embraced multiculturalism; mass, dissimilar immigration; affirmative-action (called "employment equity" in Canada); and programmatic "diversity" with a great intensity. Indeed, the federal Liberal Party (assisted by the incredibly ideologically energetic New Democratic Party) has been practicing "activist", "transformational" politics in the last four decades, decisively transforming the social and cultural landscape to maintain itself perpetually in power.

During the Quebec referendum crisis of 1995, it was said that the failure of current-day Canada would tend to extinguish much hope in the world of creating successful multicultural societies. Canadian traditionalists and conservatives might well be looking to various forms of "provincialization" or regionalization to challenge the federal government behemoth.

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

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