Election Focus ’06

By RAY ARGYLE

The earth didn?t shift when Canadians elected their new government on Monday and given the thin win for the Conservatives, it?s not likely to do so anytime soon.

As Prime Minister-designate Stephen Harper sets out to name his cabinet and begin work on implementing his party?s program, he?s not likely to make the same mistake that another Albertan, Joe Clark, made with Canada?s last Conservative minority.

Clark set out to rule as if he had a majority, and you know how long he lasted. Harper sets out realizing that with 124 MPs in a 308-seat Parliament, he?ll need more than two dozen votes from Opposition members to get any legislation into law.

When Parliament is called into session, probably in March, Mr. Harper will face a still strong contingent of 103 Liberals, as well as 51 Bloc Quebecois and 29 NDP members. An outspoken radio ?shock talk? host, Andre Arthur took a Quebec seat to become the only independent elected.

Even reducing the GST, the crown jewel in the Harper platform, could be a challenge. All other parties opposed the cut during the campaign. The $1200 a year child care grant, longer sentences for gun crimes, and more spending on the military will be easier to get through Parliament.

?The West has wanted in,? Mr. Harper reminded his cheering supporters on election night. ?The West is in now.? Mr. Harper also promised that he will ?honor your trust and we will deliver on our commitments.?

He will certainly do that, but he will also have to shy away from an early vote on gay marriage, and avoid like the plague the right-wing policies cherished by many of his followers ? policies that he managed to keep out of the campaign.

Canadians have no stomach for right-wing government, something Mr. Harper has learned over the past few years. He now has the chance to build on his new image of moderation, which he?ll need to do if he?s to win a majority down the road.

The cabinet choices Mr. Harper makes will signal his direction. The fate of Stockwell Day, the former Alliance leader and foreign affairs critic known for his right-wing social views, will be a signal. His views on the Middle East are seen as too controversial to earn him the Foreign Affairs post.

Among the new Conservative MPs, the former Ontario finance minister, Jim Flaherty, would like the same job in Ottawa. Known for his hard right views, he left the Ontario government with a $5 billion deficit ? not a strong recommendation to take over the federal purse strings.

Monte Solberg, the Conservative finance critic, is the more logical choice. Peter McKay, easily re-elected in Nova Scotia, will have a senior job, perhaps in Health or Foreign Affairs.

The key post of Deputy Prime Minster could go to one of the nine Tory Quebec MPs, possibly Lawrence Cannon, a former provincial Liberal cabinet minister. Mr. Harper?s chief Quebec advisor, Josée Vernier is also a contender. She took a Quebec City area seat from the Bloc.

For outgoing Prime Minister Paul Martin, the close finish represents something of a comeback from the dismal depth to which the Liberal party fell during the campaign.

?There will be another chance and another time,? Mr. Martin told his supporters on election night.? But he made it clear he won?t lead the Liberals in another vote. We can expect a Liberal leadership convention by the fall.

The former premier of New Brunswick, Frank McKenna, is seen as the heir presumptive to Martin?s mantle. He?s now ambassador to Washington, a job he would have to give up to enter the leadership race.

Others in the running will be the former justice minister, Martin Cauchon, re-elected in Montreal, and Belinda Stronach, the auto parts heiress who easily held on to her seat in Ontario. Michael Ignatieff, the former Harvard professor who managed to win a rough contest in a Toronto riding, offers a bit of Trudeau-type glamour and will probably be a candidate.

The election split Canada?s biggest cities from the rest of the country, with the Liberals and NDP holding onto Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. B.C. was the biggest Tory disappointment. Instead of giving Mr. Harper a majority, B.C. took away five of his MPs.

While the NDP failed to win enough seats to hold the balance of power, its 29 seats are ten more than it won in the last election. The results give Jack Layton a lot of clout, and the opportunity to seize the reins as the ?real Opposition? while the Liberals get their house in order.

The sudden Conservative rise in Quebec is probably the best news to come out of the election. I wrote during the campaign that if the Tories won three seats there, it would be an earthquake. Barring recounts they?ve won ten, surely a tsunami.

The Bloc vote dropped to 42 per cent and the separatists lost three seats, a far cry from the outcome they expected. It means Quebeckers will support a federalist option and that the Parti Quebecois will have no easy time of it in the next provincial election.

Mr. Harper?s win will stand as another turning point in the restoration of responsible government in Canada. The near one-party rule of the 1990s, the result of Westerners having abandoned the Progressive Conservatives, is now history. Once again we?ve seen confirmation of the old adage ? the people are always right.

This is the last in our series of special election reports. Ray Argyle is the author of Turning Points: The Campaigns that Changed Canada. He can be reached at author@turningpoints.info.