Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, North America

CANADA: An Electorate Divided

Paul Weinberg

TORONTO, May 5 2011 (IPS) - It was a highly disciplined campaign focused on the core base of Canadians, especially in greater Toronto, where a large number of citizens of recent immigrant origins helped to boost the Conservatives Monday to a comfortable parliamentary majority status of 167 seats out of a total 308.

Author Marci McDonald says the Conservatives successfully appealed to the core social values of various communities, including people of South Asian and Chinese origin who had been traditional Liberal voters.

“When Harper devised this strategy of appealing to social and religious conservatives, most people assumed he was going after the white evangelical Conservative Christian that [also] made up the Republican Party in the U.S.,” she told IPS.

“But what he understood was that Canada was a different country. If he crafted social and religious policies, they would appeal across faith and ethnic lines,” said McDonald, who just released the paperback version of her book “The Armageddon Factor: the Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada.”

The Conservatives were able to take advantage of local electoral contests for future members of Parliaments in Canada which are decided on a matter of a few hundred or thousand votes.

Newspaper columnist Tom Walkom says it was vote-splitting among the two main opposition parties with similar centre-left platforms, Liberals and New Democrats, that allowed Conservatives to win 18 of the 24 seats in the greater Toronto area – which Stephen Harper needed to gain a more secure positioning in power after a shaky period of minority government rule under his belt following the 2006 federal election.

The normally second-place Liberal party had dominated politics in Canada’s largest city, where generations of waves of immigrants settled in the past 60 years. What was once the leading political party in Canada has found itself relegated to a rump of 34 elected members the House of Commons.

Simultaneously, the smaller and more leftist NDP made sufficient gains under its popular leader Jack Layton across Canada, particularly in French-speaking Quebec, to permit him and his party to vault over into main opposition status with 102 seats

“Harper owes his majority to the voters of the GTA [greater Toronto area],” said Walkom, pointing to how the Conservatives lost seats in both Quebec and British Columbia.

“The second notable fact is that most of these GTA gains resulted from vote splitting between Liberals and New Democrats – vote splitting that, ironically, was fuelled by a last minute surge of support toward Jack Layton’s NDP,” he noted.

Walkom says the Conservatives will continue to win national elections with as little as 40 percent of the vote even as the other 60 percent of Canadians throw their weight behind more than one progressive political party. He suggests the Liberals and NDP will have to consider merging despite their rivalry and historical differences.

“Eventually, both parties will be forced to face the mathematics of the situation. Each wants to be the one to defeat the Harper Conservatives. Neither can do it alone,” he wrote in his Toronto Star column.

But Reg Whitaker, a professor emeritus at the University of Victoria, told IPS he expects that Stephen Harper will attempt to satisfy his base.

“It is also quite possible that he may decide to throw some raw meat to his redneck social conservative base – even where he promised to lay off, such as abortion rights,” Whitaker said. “They may think he owes them, and if he agrees, best to get it through quickly, with four years of untrammeled power ahead of him rather than later in the game.”

During the election, one Conservative MP, Brad Trost, who was running for re-election in Saskatoon-Humbolt riding in Saskatchewan, had boasted that his petitioning had resulted in the Harper government’s decision to refuse a 18-million-dollar funding request from the International Planned Parenthood Federation.

Later in a press conference, Harper stressed that the current situation, where women can receive free abortions under Canada’s public health care system, will remain in place.

“I’ve been clear as party leader, I think I’ve been clear as prime minister and I think our government has been clear notwithstanding the people who may feel differently. As long as I’m prime minister we are not opening the abortion debate,” Harper said to reporters.

While Harper has stayed away from the hot-button issues of abortion and gay marriage, notes McDonald, the prime minister quietly announced a number of measures including a recent election promise of an income splitting scheme which primarily benefits families where one parent is a breadwinner at work and the other parent stays at home with the children.

Another perspective comes from Christopher Waddell, director of the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University and a former journalist.

He says that in the last days of the election campaign, the Conservatives also made gains in Ontario from fiscal conservatives/social liberals in some greater Toronto ridings.

“That boosted the Conservative share of the vote in the province to 44.4 percent from 39.2 percent in 2008 and meant Liberal MPs such as Martha Hall Findlay in Willowdale and Glen Pearson in London North Centre among others lost to Conservatives,” he stated in his Political Perspective blog.

Pleasing both constituencies in an expanded Conservative base will be a challenge, Waddell says.

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