Retrospective Focus on Elections in Canada: Issues and Attitudes

As a result of the national elections on October 14th, the Conservative Party and its often-stumbling leader, Stephen Harper, continue to hold office after a 37-day presidential campaign. Harper’s re-election was accompanied by a somewhat stronger and more broad-based, if still minority delegation, having captured 38 percent of the popular vote. Just days before the elections were staged, Prime Minister Harper claimed that Canada needs a strong mandate to handle the current economic crisis. The victorious Harper promised to govern in the name of all Canadians; moreover, he said that he would work to eliminate existing differences between his party and the opposition in Parliament, and that he would strive to adhere to his modest campaign promises. Canadians chose the Conservative Party once again, and as a result the party is in a somewhat stronger position.

Some say that Harper, in fact, obtained only a “half victory.” His party gained seats in Ontario, but lost ground in the equally important region of Quebec, as well as Newfoundland. Nevertheless, federal election returns were unambiguously disappointing for the opposing Liberal party headed by Stephane Dion, which suffered historic lows at the polls. Political analysts have explained that Dion’s policies failed to connect with voters and that his campaign was weak and uninspiring in its execution. Indeed, Dion chose to go forward with an ineffective election strategy that merely stressed a carbon tax platform, just as voters began to worry about a falling dollar and an economic meltdown. On October 20th, Dion decided to resign as the Liberal leader. “I fully accept my share of the responsibility. We must learn quickly from this experience and move on,” he concluded after the Liberals’ electoral disappointment.

Although media coverage invariably emphasized voter support for a stronger minority Conservative party, Harper fell short of winning a majority of seats largely as a result of strategic mistakes that cost him votes in Quebec. There, the Bloc Québécois won 50 seats in Parliament, which translated into 10 percent of the popular vote. Undeniably, Harper did not help his cause by alienating the French-speaking Quebeckers (for whom preserving their culture is essential), from English-speaking Canada. Harper also appeared insensitive to public anxiety concerning the magnitude of the global financial crisis, suggesting that it offered “good buying opportunities.” Because he failed to win anything close to majority support, Harper must continue to rely on the Conservative bloc to pass vital legislation, as he has done since first winning minority leadership status in 2006.

“Tonight Canadians voted to move our country forward, and they have done so with confidence,” Harper confidently told supporters at his headquarters in Calgary.” As the result of our campaign, our party is bigger, our support base is broader and more Canadians are finding a home in the Conservative Party of Canada,” he continued. While true enough, the Conservatives nevertheless did not come out of the elections notably “broader” as a party.

Many analysts said Harper wanted the election to be held before the economy further worsened which could put a Democrat in the White House and subtly encourage Canadians to choose a more compatible Liberal government.

The Economy
The economy took center stage in Canada’s 2008 election campaign. Canada had experienced strong economic growth from the late 1990s until 2006. Beginning in 2007, the country’s economic performance slowed mainly due to a decline in the U.S. economy. Because of this increasing stagnancy, the campaign’s main focus was the economic turmoil. The impact of voters adverse to economic change was particularly evident in Ontario and Quebec, which house Canada’s principal manufacturing centers.

In this context, public opinion polls indicated that Canadian voters viewed the economy as the highest-priority issue in the 2008 election. A September 2008 poll showed that 20 percent of Canadians regarded the economy as the most important issue, up from a modest 7 percent in the 2006 election. By contrast, health care, which was the number one issue in that election, dropped from 20 percent to 14 percent.

The Role of Canada in NAFTA
Canada, the world’s leading net exporter to the United States, has experienced significant economic growth since NAFTA’s advent. As compared to the other members of NAFTA, Canada’s GDP has grown faster than either Mexico’s or the United States’ since 1994. Between 1994 and 2003, the economy showed an average annual growth rate of 3.6 percent, compared to 3.3 percent in the United States and 2.7 percent in Mexico.

One of NAFTA’s most compelling impacts on U.S.-Canada economic relations has been in the growth of bilateral agricultural trade. Canada is the leading importer of U.S. agricultural products, with such produce imports doubling between 1994 and 2003. The future shape of NAFTA has become an important topic in Canada after then-Senator Obama broached the idea of revisiting the trade agreement between Canada, Mexico and United States during the Democratic primaries in Ohio this past February. He declared that NAFTA did not appear to be benefiting for a majority of American workers nor the environment. As a result, the platform of the Democratic party promises that an Obama presidency would “work with Ottawa and Mexico City to amend the North American Free Trade Agreement so that it works for all three” countries. In a meeting with George W. Bush and Mexican president Felipe Calderón in April, Prime Minister Harper defended the NAFTA agreement, as currently drafted against these “attacks” from Senator Obama.

The Canadian Mission in Afghanistan
Another key issue that played a role in the Canadian election campaign was the country’s military mission in Afghanistan. In a September 2008 report carried by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), it was found that the number of Canadians who disapprove of the Afghanistan mission is overwhelming. Overall, 56 percent of those polled disapproved of it (with 34 percent “strongly disapproving,” while 22 percent “somewhat disapproved”).

The U.S. 2008 Presidential Election
Many Ottawa insiders concluded that the U.S. presidential campaign had a great impact on Canada’s own federal elections, particularly as Canadians tend to be almost as well-informed about the American political process as their own. In this regard, public opinion polls showed strong Canadian support for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and his message of change. Shortly before the elections were staged, Harper began to sharply turn away from the Bush White House. The former insisted that just because he is a Conservative, this does not mean that his political creed is similar to that of the U.S. president. “The number one job of the next prime minister of Canada is to protect this country’s economy; our earnings, savings, and jobs, at a time of global economic uncertainty,” Harper said. In order to protect Canada’s trade interests, he would open lines of communication with the U.S Democrats, because of likely new political realities. On November 5, Harper called Barack Obama’s U. S. election victory “a truly inspiring moment” and vowed to pursue a new economic policy with the incoming administration that would not damage the Canadian economy. The Prime Minister’s office said Harper spoke with the president-elect, describing the conversation as a “warm exchange.”

Future Perspectives: An Eye Focused on Europe and Latin America
The next step Prime Minister Harper must take is to increase relations with the EU. “Canada and the EU will prepare formal mandates with a view to revitalizing negotiations on an economic partnership as soon as possible in 2009,” he announced. “We must stand against protectionism and work to lower and eliminate barriers,” he said on October 17, after meeting French president Nicolas Sarkozy. If negotiations go forth, Canada would be the first developed country outside Europe to have the kind of access to markets normally reserved for EU members. Also, Canada recently concluded bilateral deals with several Latin American countries. In 2007, Canada and Chile celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Canada-Chile Free Trade Agreement (CCFTA); moreover, Canadian officials have identified Brazil as one of Canada’s key markets for the future. Canada also demonstrated the ability to achieving transatlantic trade accords by agreements it initiated with Norway and Switzerland (in the context of the European free-trade area).

If Canada is successful in expanding its economic ties with the EU, what will be the attitude of Ottawa toward calls from the U.S. and Mexico to review the NAFTA agreement? With Harper almost certainly scheduled to move his attention from the Western Hemisphere to Europe, the victory of Barack Obama is likely to continue to be an important factor affecting Washington-Ottawa ties.