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(06/26/07) -

A summer of doubts in Canada

The top two political parties face distinct challenges before lawmakers return to the House of Commons in mid-September.
Earlier this year, a spring federal election seemed inevitable in Canada. The governing Conservative party surpassed the 40 per cent mark in several voting intention surveys, and theories surfaced about the way the government headed by Stephen Harper would contrive its own defeat to meet the electorate and get a majority mandate.

Mario Canseco – Earlier this year, a spring federal election seemed inevitable in Canada. The governing Conservative party surpassed the 40 per cent mark in several voting intention surveys, and theories surfaced about the way the government headed by Stephen Harper would contrive its own defeat to meet the electorate and get a majority mandate.

Now, a snap ballot is out of the question for both the prime minister and Liberal leader Stéphane Dion. Harper’s approval numbers have fallen significantly, from a high of 40 per cent in March, to a low of 31 per cent earlier this month. Dion’s performance has not been satisfactory for more than 20 per cent of Canadians.

The displeasure with the country’s two main political leaders became evident in May and June, when “neither” emerged as the preferred candidate for 24 Sussex. Support for Harper stands at 33 per cent—virtually doubling Dion’s tally in this question—but markedly lower than at the start of the year.

In Australia and New Zealand, new opposition leaders have done much better than Dion, in roughly the same amount of time. Australian Labor Party (ALP) leader Kevin Rudd, who took over from Kim Beazley in December, holds a six-point edge over incumbent Australian prime minister John Howard as the preferred head of government. In New Zealand, National leader John Key has an 11-point advantage over Helen Clark, who has governed since December 1999.

In both of these cases, fresh figures have exploited the incumbent’s failings in a few months, and effectively re-energized the electorate. Both the ALP and National are way ahead in voting intention surveys.

It could be argued that the fact that Howard and Clark have been in power since the 1990s actually makes things easier for a new face. However, Harper’s tenure—aside from the glowing economic indicators—has been far from perfect. The Canadian government’s climate change strategy has been severely criticized, more than half of Canadians think Harper has not effectively explained the country’s military mission in Afghanistan, a large component of the electorate is actually wondering if there is a truly Conservative party in Canada, and public opinion even sided with Bono earlier this month on the topic of humanitarian aid.

So, supplied with all this ammunition, why is Dion failing to connect with voters? Part of his predicament comes from the negative perceptions he inherited last year. Only 28 per cent of respondents think the former governing party has done enough to re-gain the trust of Canadians after the embarrassing sponsorship scandal, and just 34 per cent would definitely or probably consider voting Liberal in the next election. In the “green” question—Dion’s purported strong point—only 22 per cent of respondents think the Grits care more about the environment than any other federal party.

The New Democratic Party (NDP), which would head into a third election under Jack Layton, could gain under the right circumstances. Three-in-ten Canadians would definitely or probably consider voting NDP in the next election, and 37 per cent think Layton would make a good prime minister. The party’s rating in the environmental question surpasses the Liberals, but trails the Greens.

In 1988, Canadians encountered a choice between the Tory dweller of 24 Sussex or an unpopular Liberal leader, and more than 20 per cent preferred a third option—the NDP led by Ed Broadbent. Two decades ago, in a three-party race, the key topic was free trade. If Layton can carefully position the NDP before the next federal ballot question is clearly defined, a breakthrough would certainly be attainable.

Support for the Bloc Québécois has been stable for most of the year, hovering around the 10-point mark for the past four months. After the third-place finish of the Parti Québécois in the provincial election, 73 per cent of Quebecers said Quebec’s separation from Canada was now less likely. The Tories have effectively established themselves as a federalist option, and Dion remains particularly unpopular in his home province. The brief flirtation of Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe with provincial politics lasted but a few hours, and did not significantly affect the party’s numbers.

The Greens, and their effect on a national race, remain a mystery. Canadians appear to send the message that it would be great to have an environmental party in Ottawa, yet seem reticent to actually cast a ballot for them. A quarter of Canadians say they would definitely or probably consider voting Green in the next election, but 58 per cent think it is important to have Green members of Parliament. In addition, 49 per cent do not have a clear idea of what the party stands for.

Perhaps the best way for the Greens to capitalize on the apparent mixed signals from Canadians is to target specific ridings, in the hopes of sending a handful of Greens to the House of Commons. Green leader Elizabeth May will not fight a Liberal in the Nova Scotia riding currently held by Conservative foreign affairs minister Peter MacKay, but the NDP is also keen on capturing the seat. Another national campaign with 307 candidates might lead to an increase in share of votes, and the funding that comes with it, but the party’s chances of actually earning a seat would not be boosted.

Each federal party faces distinct challenges during the summer period, before lawmakers return to the House of Commons in mid-September. The Tories cannot seek a majority with their current numbers, which are below their result in the January 2006 election. The questions about Ottawa’s ability to appease concerns about global warming continue, and a wide-ranging process to settle Aboriginal claims—which most Canadians want to deal with—will be established The next weeks will also feature trips that will take Harper to several countries, including Haiti, where he will undoubtedly seek to abolish the label of “humanitarian laggard” that global activists bestowed upon him at the G-8 summit.

The Grits did not get a lasting bounce after choosing Dion, and while the views of Canadians on the opposition leader have stabilized, they are certainly not splendid. Deputy leader Michael Ignatieff has managed to shed his scholastic image and has performed more adequately and smoothly inside the House than Dion. Unlike his counterparts in Australia and New Zealand, Dion has been unable to convince Canadians that he is ready for the job virtually all of his predecessors enjoyed. The summer will provide an opportunity to try in a different setting.