Canada Goes More Conservative

Canadians hand Prime Minister Stephen Harper a decisive majority in Parliament.

While America was busy celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden, more good news came from America's northern neighbor, Canada. Not only did Prime Minister Stephen Harper win his third election since first taking office in 2006, but his Conservative Party won a majority of seats in the Parliament, garnering 167 of the 308 electoral districts, earning 40% of the vote, according to Elections Canada. The New Democratic Party (NDP) finished second with 102 seats, while in a shocking upset, the Liberals took only 34. How shocking? This is first time in Canadian history that the Liberals haven't finished first or second, as a result of their all-time worst showing in any election. Mr. Harper will now get four years of uninterrupted government.

Another big loser in the election was the Bloc Quebecois, the Canadian separatist movement whose principle aim is to create an independent state in the Quebec province.  The dreams of secession in the predominantly French-speaking region are effectively dead after the party retained just four of the 47 seats they had held prior to the election. Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe lost his own seat and resigned.

The impetus behind Mr. Harper's decisive victory was apparently his ability to get the public to embrace decidedly conservative values. These included the lowering of sales and corporate taxes, increasing military spending, and rejecting climate change legislation that would have harmed Alberta's oil sands region. Mr. Harper was also a strong proponent of Arctic sovereignty, announcing plans in August 2007 to spend $7.5 billion to build and operate up to eight Arctic patrol ships to protect it. This was a counter to Russian explorers who planted a flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole in an attempt to claim the resource-rich area. The issue will be adjudicated by the U.N. which will make a final decision in 2013.

The 24-seat gain by Conservatives in the current government was greeted with a big smile by Mr. Harper. "We are grateful, deeply honored, in fact humbled by the decisive endorsement of so many Canadians," he told supporters on Monday in Calgary, adding that Canadians "can now turn the page from uncertainties" as a result of his party's new majority status.

Jack Layton, leader of the NDP party, was just as jubilant as Stephen Harper after his party's 65-seat pickup. "Spring is here, my friends, and a new chapter begins," Layton told cheering supporters in Toronto, thrilled that their party was now the official opposition. Much of the left-of-center NDP's success hinged on demolishing the Bloc Quebecois, which had dominated the French-speaking province for two decades. Ottawa Citizen political journalist Susan Riley explained that Mr. Layton's political style resonated with left-leaning Quebecers eager for a change. "He was the most optimistic, least negative and the friendliest. A down-home easy-going guy. It may be a trivial way to choose a leader, but it's been a very dark campaign," she said.

In stark contrast to both of his opponents' elation, downbeat Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff offered his thoughts on his party's 43-seat loss, its most stinging one to date. "It's tough to lose like this. Defeat is a teacher and now we have to learn the lesson of defeat and look at ourselves in the mirror," he said. Like Bloc Quebecois leader  Gilles Duceppe, Mr. Ignatieff also lost his own seat in a Toronto suburb, and on Tuesday, he also announced he was stepping down as party leader. "I went through some difficult years, he said. "My attachment to the country, my patriotism were questioned, my motivations were questioned and that had a political effect, there's no doubt about that, but I have to also take my responsibilities."

The election ends seven years of minority governments and puts Conservatives in charge for the first time since the early '90s when the current party's precursor, the Progressive Conservatives, controlled both chambers of Parliament. Harper's Conservative majority is the first since Brian Mulroney's in 1988. Former colleagues of Harper contend that part of his intention is to re-write the political narrative in Canada, in which Liberals have been seen as the "natural" ruling party of that nation, hopefully redefining what it means to be a Canadian in the process. Political science professor Stephen Clarkson of the University of Toronto apparently likes his propects, characterizing Harper's win as "a sea change" for Canada.

Mr. Harper may be a sea change for Canada, but his driving principles are familiarly conservative. His ideas for engendering a Canadian economy recovery center around giving the electorate additional tax cuts and erasing the country's deficit by curbing government spending. His 2011 budget proposal, faced with defeat from by a coalition of opposition parties prior to the election, is now likely to pass, and it includes a five-year plan to cut the corporate tax rate from 21 percent to 15 percent. He has announced plans to balance the country's budget by 2014, despite running record deficits during the recession, part of which he attributed to needing help from opposition parties in order to implement his agenda.

During the election campaign, Harper pleaded with Canadians to give him a majority government in order to end a string of elections that were hampering the country's ability to emerge from recession. It should be noted that Canada outperformed all the other major industrialized democracies through the financial crisis, and the country has also recovered almost all the jobs lost during the recession. Far more importantly, its banking sector remains intact, having largely avoided the sub-prime crisis that brought that sector to it knees worldwide in 2008.

Another factor in Harper's victory has a decidedly familiar ring. The province of Alberta is home to one of the largest pools of oil reserves outside the Middle East. Much like the Democrats in America, both the Liberals and the NDP, animated by their own environmentalist factions, were more than willing to thwart development there. Mr. Harper, who has touted Canada as an "energy superpower," is not.

Mr. Harper's success is also attributable to his ability to connect with working class Canadians, dubbed "Tim Hortons crowd" in reference to a chain of doughnut shops popular with that demographic, as well as his success at making inroads into Canada's immigrant communities, especially Chinese and South Asians. Ezra Levant, conservative commentator for the Sun News Network, offered a partial explanation as to why the election results were surprising "There's this whole other media in Canada, ethnic newspapers, TV and radio stations in other languages that our parliamentary media is just not plugged into. In those media battlefields, the conservative brand is dominant," he said.

NDP leader Jack Layton has promised to hold Mr. Harper accountable, and there is speculation that his party and the Liberals will merge in order to unite the non-conservative vote. Perhaps anticipating such a development, Mr. Harper has promised that he will not move his government to the hard right. "One thing I've learned in this business is that surprises are generally not well-received by the public, so we intend to move forward with what Canadians understand about us and I think what they're more and more comfortable with," he said. "We got that mandate because of the way we have governed, because of our record, and Canadians expect us to continue to move forward in the same way, to be true to the platform we've run on, to be true to the kind of values and policies that we've laid out before them. That's what we will do," he added. He also promised not to open debate on socially contentious issues like abortion.

Are there any implications with respect to America's election in 2012? It is too soon to tell, but it is rather interesting that the Washington Post, a decidedly left-of-center American newspaper contended that, as a result of Mr. Harper's victory, "Canadians will face an unusually polarized political landscape for at least the next four years," even as they characterized the thoroughly defeated Liberals as the country's "natural governing party." One suspects that such characterizations say more about the sensibilities of the Washington Post than the Canadian electorate.

Yet given the remarkable similarity of issues that animated this election and those currently being debated in America, it is not inconceivable to imagine a similar outcome. The 2010 election was a referendum largely about Obamacare and runaway federal spending, and Democrats were "shellacked" last November. Both issues remain unresolved. Mr. Obama will undoubtedly benefit for a while from the killing of Osama bin Laden, but soon the attention will return to the economy, which remains the number one issue for the overwhelming majority of Americans. Canadians opted to let Conservatives deal with theirs. That can't be reassuring for Democrats. Osama bin Laden may be dead--but gas at four dollars-plus per gallon, $14 trillion of national debt and an unemployment rate hovering near nine percent remain very much alive.

Arnold Ahlert is a contributor to the conservative website