Friday, June 25, 2004

The True North, Strong and Divided

Yes, I haven't been posting again, which is not usually how things go when one's humble home becomes a focus of attention for someone like the always-enlightening Digby. So it goes. To be honest, I've been distracted from American politics recently (although I do intend on seeing Moore's new film tonight), due to the fascinating events going on up in Canada. To make up for the lack of updating, a somewhat longer-than-typical entry follows.

As most of you know, Canada's going through an election. If you didn't know, then you should perhaps pay attention, because it's going to be interesting. See, up until very recently, the Canadian political system had been pretty much a one-party system, with the Liberals absolutely dominating by taking political positions roughly analoguous with the population and facing a weak, divided, and ideologically suspect opposition on its right and a "not ready for prime time" party to its left. It was poised to assume power unparalleled in the western democratic world, as everybody was expecting the new (and popular) former finance minister, Paul Martin, to crush all opponents. He was seen as all things to all people.

Then the so-called "sponsorship scandal" issue came up, the Liberal's soft underbelly of corruption was exposed and everything changed. The "scandal", such as it is, isn't really that bad; Canada's Auditor General, Sheila Frasier, has repeatedly stated that it's not that money was stolen, but that insufficient information has been given as to what it was actually USED for. Compared to what the Bush administration has been up to, it's mild, but this doesn't matter. Canadians are ticked, especially in Quebec, and Canadians are entirely unlike Americans in their political predelictions- they have a tendency towards massive lurches from one party to another.

So, who's the alternative? Well, The right has united under a bland-but-extremist economist on the far right named Stephen Harper, after the western-based "Reform" party finally achieved its goal of absorbing the old "Conservatives" (after having gone through numerous faux-"alliances" to do it) and are if anything more united than the squabbling Liberals. Thanks to the weakness of the Liberals, they're actually in a position to win it all, even though their platform is weak and their political positions very much out of step with most of mainstream Canada.

Thing is, thanks to the Canadian system, neither is likely to actually be running the show. In the American experience, a close election doesn't mean that much, because somebody is still going to win. Canada, however, has four major political parties (one, a Quebec seperatist party named the "Bloc Quebecois", is poised to be the third-largest thanks to the Liberal collapse in Quebec) and no single party is going to win a majority of the seats. In the past, that has usually meant coalitions between two of the parties, like the Liberals and the NDP, and that particular possibility is actually quite popular among most small "l" liberals in Canada, who have seen the supposed "Liberal" party drift rightward over the years. The problem is the Bloc Quebecois, who is going to be so large that even the Liberals and NDP together couldn't form a coalition that forms a majority of the seats in the House of Commons. The logical solution would be for the Liberals or Conservatives to create a coalition with the Bloc, but the Bloc's agenda of seperatism and social democracy makes them anathema to both the Liberals (who built their identity on Canadian unity and compete with them in Quebec) and the Conservatives (who love social democrats about as much as Grover Norquist does). Whoever creates a coalition with the Bloc would get punished in a coming election.

Making this even more divisive is the fact that Canada is a Westminster-style democracy, which means that there are no fixed elections and a single failed "confidence vote" (vote on confidence in the government) will bring down the government. This wouldn't necessarily be an issue, but in Canada almost every vote is a confidence vote, because every vote that involves the budget is a question of confidence as a matter of course. So the government must win almost every vote, but it can't create a coalition in order to do it, because the only party that will be big enough is political anathema.

To top it all off, the party that wins the most seats won't necessarily form the government. The Governor General (the representative of the Queen in Canada) customarily asks the leader of the last governing party to try to form a government first. This is usually a simple formality, but the Liberals could seize the opportunity and try to create a government in the face of a larger Conservative presence in Parliament. Paul Martin has said he wouldn't, but times change, and we're looking at the prospect of a difference of only a few seats.

(As a bonus, this is going to be the first time in a LONG time that an election in Canada will live and die by the local efforts. They say that the local candidate's actions affect about 10% of his vote totals, but that 10% will be critical. Every smart politician in Canada should be gearing up for the biggest "Get out the Vote" drive in Canadian history, because that razor-thin margin WILL be decided by the turnout. Also, there's a question of vote-splitting between the NDP and Liberals, although the polls that discuss the likely seat totals will have taken that into account and the NDP has been REALLY focused on key winnable ridings this time around).

Two things are sure to happen after Monday, however, in the both the short and long term. In the short term, Canada's government is going to be a very strange beast, operating like the coalitions found in Proportional Representation-based systems without the underlying electoral system that provokes them. (The aforementioned Governor General's poorly-understood powers to bring the government together will be exercised for the first time in generations). In the long run, however, it's now inevitable that Canada will move to some sort of mixed PR system. The left isn't going to unite-- the NDP and Bloc are simply too different from the Liberals-- and they're going to have realized that Canada can't stick with its current system. The Liberals won't like that, but I can guarantee that they'll like the alternative less. After all, when the leader of your chief rival calls the leader of YOUR party a pedophile, you'll do whatever it takes to keep them out of power.

Yes, this really did happen.

You can see, then, why I've been watching Canada's election with such keen interest. Compared to that drama, the United States' election seems almost... serene. Yet, there's an important American aspect to this. The United States appears to be moving to the left; the neo-cons are discredited, and this week's Economist revealed that there's a growing religious left aiming to counter the influence of the religious right. Without those two groups, there's little bedrock left for American conservatism to build on. If the extremely pro-American Conservatives win in Canada, however, it's likely that Canada will be dragged to the right. The upshot is that in a possible Kerry/Harper future, the "Fire and Ice" differences will calm; the fire will cool and the ice melt. Considering how American liberals point north and Canadian conservatives point south, it's possible that the ultra-long term result would be an increased likelihood of some sort of union between the two countries. This is the wildest speculation, of course; most Canadians are quite proud of not being Americans, and most Americans probably don't really want them that badly. (This is fine; the countries work better as complements, rather than twins.) Still, it's a possibility.

Blogging will remain light, unfortunately. I'll probably post a reaction to Moore's movie when I can. One thing I can say right now, though; it may well end up being the most important movie of the year, and quite possibly the most popular. We may end the year with Moore being one of the most powerful people in Hollywood. I can already see Ann Coulter's head exploding.

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