Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Divided, but not yet conquered...

In the past few weeks, a number of polls have been published and they all tell us the same thing - an election would not likely change much. In some, the Conservatives are falling; in others, they are holding a small lead.

No one is gaining or losing ground in any significant way. Why?

There have been some good pieces on this topic recently (Jeffrey Simpson's from the August 10 Globe and Mail being one that stands out for me). For this blogger, one point that would be worth exploring is the extent to which the Conservatives have not been better able to capitalize on a divided opposition.

Why is this on my mind? Perhaps the combination of the recent news about former PM Chr├ętien's health and the whole coalition chatter that followed the UK elections has me looking back at when - and why - we last had a majority government in Canada.

For many, the Liberal's success can be attributed to the fact that they faced divided opposition. Agreed - this played a big part. However, don't we have a similar situation today?

Let's consider this a moment.

From 1993-2003 we had 3 successive Liberal majority governments. Some key characteristics of their time in office included:

- a weakened opposition, with a lot of vote splitting on the right;
- the Bloc owned Quebec;
- a strong Minister of Finance who had to bring in fiscal restraint and then was able to be more expansive when the national finance's improved;
- a number of provinces were run by the Conservatives; and
- a national challenge in the form of the referendum.

From 2006-2010, the Conservatives have won 2 minority governments. Some key characteristics of their time in office include:

- a divided opposition, with the Liberals weakly-led and increasingly occupying the left with the NDP;
- the Bloc still own Quebec;
- a strong Minister of Finance who now has to bring in fiscal restraint, following a period in which he was able to be more expansive because the national finance's were strong;
- a number of provinces are run by the Liberals (or Danny Williams); and
- a national challenge in the form of the severe global economic contraction.

There are some important differences for sure.

First, the opposition the Liberals faced included the upstart Reform and the separatist Bloc. Today, the opposition are all established parties with relatively strong brands. Second, vote splitting among the right was more prevalent in 1993-2003period, particularly in vote-rich Ontario.

For me, while these differences are significant they don't fully explain the challenge the Conservatives have faced in reaching that electoral promised land. Are there other explanations worth discussing?

I think the events over the past 6-8 months start to answer this question.

In 2003, when Paul Martin was held to minority, you could argue that there was still public apprehension about Stephen Harper and what a "reform-conservative" government would look like. Perhaps the same thing occurred in 2006, when Harper won his first minority.

Today, what may be holding them back is not the public's fear of the unknown, but rather their concern with what they do know and have seen.

The proroguing of Parliament twice in 12 months to avoid the accountability of the House. The lack of respect for the same transparency campaigned upon. The disregard for almost unified advice on the census. The excessive expenditures on aircraft and summits during a time of apparent restraint.

Maybe the public is taking notice. And maybe this is why the Liberals hang on, the NDP remains a player, and the Bloc own Quebec.

You and I? We get more of the same.

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