With the Canadian election approaching, incumbent Prime Minister Stephen Harper appears destined to remain in power, with the only question remaining being: How much power will he attain? Senior Editor Paul Jay sat down with Barry Kay, who’s own seat distribution forecast at www.wlu.ca/lispop shows Harper’s Conservative Party just two seats away from forming a majority government. This despite the fact that the vast majority of Canadians support parties that campaign to the political left of Harper’s policies. Barry explains both the reasons for this phenomenon in Canadian politics, and the sort of strategy which would be required to ensure an electoral outcome more reflective of the Canadian populace.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Welcome to the next segment of our discussion with Barry Kay about the upcoming Canadian election. Dr. Kay is a professor of political science at Wilfred Laurier University, where he specializes in public opinion and electoral systems. Welcome again.
BARRY KAY, PROF. POLITICAL SCIENCE, WILFRID LAURIER UNIV.: Hello.
JAY: So for Americans in our audience and people from around the world, ’cause a lot of our viewers are from around the world, and maybe for some Canadians who haven’t been paying attention, what are the real policy differences that are being fought out in this Canadian election?
KAY: I guess to simplify it we might sort of liken, because some people do liken, the Liberal Party in Canada to be a little bit more like the Democratic Party, generally speaking, being more supportive of more government intervention, whereas the Conservative Party in Canada more like the Republican Party. Frankly, there are probably a few degrees—the whole system is a few degrees to the left of the American system in Canada.
JAY: Yeah, as we said in another segment, a single-payer government health care plan in Canada is a religious doctrine everyone buys into. In the US, you have to say you’re against a government health care plan, even if you’re a Democrat.
KAY: In general, though, I think you’ll tend to find the Conservatives more for tax cuts, the Liberals more for providing spending programs. One difference from the States, though, is that foreign policy is not nearly as big a deal for Canadians generally. While there may be different issue positions on the part of the different parties, very few Canadians, something on the order of one percent or so, will actually vote primarily because of foreign policy issues, whereas in the States it’s a much more high-priority concern.
JAY: So what are the two or three really critical issues being fought about?
KAY: In this year, the issue that’s been injected into the campaign on the part of the Liberals has been Stéphane Dion’s concern with the environment, the introduction of a carbon tax, which is promoted under the rubric of the Green Shift. This is the issue that the Liberals have tried to run on and, frankly, I don’t think have been very successful on. The Conservatives have been more of the same, really, but particularly going after the ineffectiveness of the Liberal government and particularly Stéphane Dion.
JAY: And the Conservative campaign seems to be mostly that Dion can’t lead. And for people that, again, outside Canada, haven’t seen Dion, he’s from Quebec, he has a bit of trouble with his English, he’s not necessarily the most populist of speakers. So their campaign’s mostly been on personal qualities of leadership.
KAY: Professorial, sometimes thought of as geeky. These are the kind of characteristics that are sometimes applied. It hasn’t really worked, and I think it particularly hasn’t worked in English Canada.
JAY: And did Dion’s green campaign get overtaken by the recession/Wall Street economic crisis?
KAY: Whether it was that or something else, it never really resonated with Canadians, at least swing voters.
JAY: ‘Cause there was a point a few months ago where climate change crisis was everyone’s number one, and then it started to wane.
KAY: To the extent there’s been a dynamic in the campaign, though, in English Canada it’s been away from the Liberals to the Conservatives, a little bit toward the NDP as a more left-wing alternative, ’cause we have more than just those two parties in Canada. There’s the New Democratic Party, which could be loosely compared to the Labor Party or the Social Democratic Party in Europe, and there’s a brand new Green Party, an environmentalist-concerning party, which in fact attracts Canadians for different reasons, but presents itself as being primarily concerned about the environment. But there, again, we have the NDP, the Liberals, and the Bloc Québécois, which is ostensibly a Quebec nationalist party, also competing, sharing the same attitudes on the environment, and basically sharing the same values on social spending and government priorities.
JAY: And there’s always been this sort of split between the Conservatives, who are for less social safety net, less government involvement, and so on, and it’s, as you were saying, somewhat the classic conservative-liberal debate that takes place in the United States. Now, how’s that showing up on specific issues in this election?
KAY: I’m not sure that it’s creating a dramatic difference. I think the inability—’cause it’s really been a campaign more about leadership than issues in the minds of many Canadians, and the Conservative ads which have focused on the inability of Dion, the Liberal leader, to be in charge of the country and to govern responsibly. I think that’s what’s really created the dynamic more than any other specific issues. It’s really been about leadership. Yes, there are differences between left and right, and there are some other issues that we haven’t talked about, including support for the cultural community, which the Liberals are generally associated with and the Conservatives have said they’re going to cut back. The Conservatives are also more inclined to change the rules regarding youth criminals and have harsher standards. Those are differences. They do apply to certain groups of people. But, frankly, I don’t see that issues have been dominating in this campaign other than the inability of Dion to sell that Green Shift.
JAY: Well, the NDP tries to make issues dominant election after election. In terms of personal qualities, Layton I think’s polling a little further ahead of Dion in terms of who people think is a good leader. Why do you think the NDP isn’t able to make more headway at a time when the Liberals in theory are so weak?
KAY: The NDP seems to hit a wall. And, again, the NDP, unfortunately, the parts of the country where, when there have been strong NDP years like 1988, the party did especially well in Saskatchewan and swept many seats in that province and in British Columbia. And those aren’t the areas that, in fact, the people are moving away from the Conservative Party. Those are the alternatives. Where the NDP’s probably making some gains now are in urban centers, particularly where the Liberals do well, and some seats in northern Ontario. The NDP is going to pick up some seats, but they aren’t anywhere near the point where they’re going to probably challenge the Liberals for second, or at the moment I don’t think they’re going to even challenge the Bloc Québécois for third in terms of the number of seats. But it is true that Layton is resonating to some degree. This gets us back to that concern of strategic voting. And, frankly, for people who truly want to be concerned about stopping a Conservative majority, they should be mindful of who the most opportune challenger is to the Conservative Party in their riding. There are some places, many places, where it’s the Liberals, some places where it’s the NDP; the Greens probably aren’t positioned to win seats, maybe, anywhere other than where Elizabeth May, their party leader, might be running herself. And, of course, in Quebec among nationalists it’s a different kind of concern. And it’s really, if the Conservatives are stopped—and it’s not clear yet, but if the Conservatives are stopped from forming a majority, it will probably be the fact that the Bloc Québécois has picked up momentum during the campaign in that province. In English Canada, in fact, the Conservatives had a very good campaign; in Quebec, not so.
JAY: What do you make of the argument that come from many NDP-ers that when it comes to ruling, there really isn’t any significant difference between the Liberals and the Conservatives, so you really should just focus on an NDP opposition, making the NDP’s voice as strong as one possibly can in Parliament, ’cause even though, as we all say, the Liberals campaign from the left, they rule from the right, so just focus on strengthening the NDP? How do you counter that?
KAY: If one feels that there’s no difference between the Liberals and the Conservatives, that’s a very astute way of thinking. My own argument would be—and as somebody who votes NDP more often than not, but not this time, that in fact the NDP is actually stronger with fewer seats in a minority government than with more seats in a majority government. And if, in fact, the Liberals are the vehicle to stop the Conservatives from forming a majority—and it depends on the riding, it depends on the constituency and the voting history, and people have to get a little bit informed to find out who’s in the best position to block the Conservatives. But Jack Layton and the NDP is thinking in terms of the long-term goal of the NDP. He would like to see the Liberal Party replaced as the natural alternative for government. I think that’s a pipe dream right now, and I say that as somebody who’s frequently voted for the party, but that indeed the concerns for national policy, to me, trump the long-term partisan considerations of any of NDP strategists.
JAY: In terms of the Conservatives’ minority government, we haven’t seen anything that radically conservative or radically different than what the Liberals did. What concerns you about a majority Conservative government?
KAY: With less than a majority in Parliament, the Conservatives can only go so far. So, yes, they cut taxes, because that’s something that can win support from other parties. But I would think there would be less support for social spending, there will be more tax cuts. I think the cultural institutions like the CBC are threatened. I just think that in general the Conservatives with a majority situation, not dependent on winning support from somewhere in the opposition, have a much freer hand to introduce a much more conservative domestic agenda.
JAY: Well, we’ll see how it plays out. Apparently, today the Conservatives are slightly down, but as we all know, that could change in a day or two. Thanks very much for joining us. And thank you very much for joining us, and stay tuned for the next segment of our interview with Barry Kay.
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