by John Gizzi
With three days to go before Canadians head to the polls on May 2, signs are strong that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party will again emerge on top and form the next government.
The big question about the U.S.’s neighbor to the north (and largest trading partner) is whether Harper’s Conservatives will win another plurality of the 308 seats in parliament and thus form another minority government. After nearly five years in power, the Conservatives have yet to win an outright majority in parliament and thus Harper has had to rely on opposition parties to pass anything.
But this time the Conservatives, a number of polls suggest, may actually pull off enough upsets in the marginal ridings (constituencies that elect members of parliament) to make Harper the first Conservative Prime Minister to lead his party to a majority since Brian Mulroney back in 1988.
Virtually all polls give the Conservatives a handsome lead nationwide. The most interesting development is that the leader of the opposition Liberal Party, scholar Michael Ignatieff, has not lived up to advance reviews as a campaigner. Jack Layton, leader of the far-left National Democratic Party (NDP), was universally considered the winner in the party leaders’ nationally televised French language debate in mid-April. Since then, there has been a dramatic shift to the NDP from the separatist Bloc Quebecois (BQ, which holds three-fourths of the parliamentary seats from Quebec) and the environmentalist Green Party.
“If the support holds,” concluded the Financial Times’ Toronto correspondent Bernard Simon, “the NDP would pick up seats from each of its three rivals. More importantly, however, it would split the left-of-center vote, potentially helping Tory [Conservative] candidates in closely fought constituencies. The Liberals and the BQ stand to lose the most.”
A majority-Conservative government as opposed to a minority-Conservative government is almost the proverbial difference between night and day. Governing with their present numbers in parliament, Harper and his party have been far more centrist than right-of-center. The government has, for example, embraced environmental regulations (although it has avoided the carbon tax favored by many European leaders), and selective tax cuts rather than those benefitting taxpayers across the board. As a result, noted Business Week, “[Harper’s] tax cuts have reduced the federal take to its lowest as a share of gross domestic product since at least 1961.”
On the other hand, Harper did oversee a major corporate tax cut in 2007, and while complaining that he has not rolled back or shut down government programs in the style of British Prime Minister David Cameron, Harper-watchers note that the Canadian leader has not added new programs to the federal government.
Most Canadians who know Harper well insist that with a genuine Conservative majority in parliament, he would become the real deal as a Conservative prime minister.
One Canadian author and journalist who is well-acquainted with both Harper and former U.S. President George W. Bush put it most succinctly: “George Bush is by upbringing and instinct, more centrist than conservative. But because of the nature of the Republican Party of today, he has to sound and behave more right-of-center than he actually is. Stephen Harper grew up on conservative ideas, watching William Buckley’s "Firing Line" on TV and devouring conservative theory at university. His idea of a vacation is to go on a retreat with academics and discuss theory. Because of the moderate culture of the Conservative Party and Canada itself, he has to water this down. But if he ever wins a majority, watch him!”