Election results: Canadians put Harper on a short leash

  • October 14, 2008
{mosimage}The Canadian people woke up Oct. 15 to a new government that looks remarkably like the old government. They could be forgiven for scratching their heads and wondering what all the fuss was for.

As final polls were still being counted, it appeared that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives would once again form a minority government with 143 seats in the House of Commons — 12 short of a majority. They face a Liberal party with 76 seats, the Bloc Quebecois with 50, the New Democrats with 37 and two independents.

In the last Parliament, dissolved when Harper called the election in early September, the Conservatives had 127 seats, the Liberals with 95, the Bloc 48, NDP 30, there were four independents and four vacant.

Though Harper returns to power with about 16 extra members of Parliament, he still faces the prospect of losing power if the opposition parties combine to vote against the Conservatives. Thus the "dysfunctional House" — a situation of his own making — that Harper insisted he needed an election to renew will continue to dog the prime minister in the months ahead. He failed to achieve his sole objective in calling the election.

This was an election that should leave not just the prime minister but all the party leaders humbled. Harper returns to power strengthened by extra MPs. But his own personal reputation, once above that of all his rivals, was dealt a serious blow. It received its first hit when he called an election and ignored his own legislation which had set a fixed election date in October 2010. It continued to erode throughout the campaign, courtesy of his own penchant for wallowing in low blows toward his opponents. And his slow and halting reaction to the international economic meltdown left many voters wondering about his political judgment.

Fortunately for Harper, his main political opponent failed to take advantage of the Conservative weaknesses. Liberal Leader Stephane Dion struck many as a decent, intelligent and sincere man, but not someone ready to lead the country in perilous economic times. His GreenShift proposal to tackle greenhouses gases was bold and creative, but fell victim to Conservative portrayals of it as a tax hike (which it wasn't). In the face of such attacks, Dion was unable to sell the GreenShift to voters in a way they understood. Both the party and the country paid the price.

Meanwhile, the Green Party failed to elect a single candidate, despite oodles of press coverage and a privileged place at the debates for party leader Elizabeth May. She was smart, articulate and feisty, but her party's platform didn't get the same rave reviews.

In the end, the panic on the markets worked as a deus ex machina on this desultory campaign, forcing the political leaders to deal with an issue that actually engaged voters. But the final days of debate didn't ignite enough enthusiasm, with less than 60 per cent of voters — a historic low — taking part in the election.

It was unfortunate that the issues that should resonate with Catholics — and were taken up by Catholic activists along with the Canadian bishops in their own election statement — showed up in the campaign only as sideshows. Montreal Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte put abortion on the election radar screen for a day when he returned his Order of Canada to protest the award to abortion doctor Henry Morgentaler. And Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe created a few waves when he complained about an Opus Dei member who ran for the Conservative party in the Montreal area. But both stories died after a single day. Other issues that should be of great concern to Catholics — the war in Afghanistan, the health-care system, poverty and economic fairness — had little impact on the overall campaign. Only the environment played a key role in public debate, but even it faded in the scare over economic uncertainty.

It would appear Canadians have declared — for a second time — that they are willing to let Harper's Conservatives lead, but they want them on a short leash. This means the prime minister will have to get past his funk over opposition parties that oppose his government (what else does he expect them to do?) and start to work with them to handle the business of government. For their part, the opposition (particularly the weakened Liberals) have good reason to co-operate with the government, knowing that voters aren't ready to trust them with the reigns of power.

The 40th Parliament should be a more humble and co-operative place. The voters have spoken.

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