On May 2, Canadians will head to the polls for the fifth time since 2000, with below-average turnouts for every new election.
Before the early '90s, voter turnout in Canada rarely dropped below 70 per cent. In the last four elections the average has dropped to 62.1 per cent, and in 2008 just 58.8 per cent of eligible voters returned to the polls to give Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada a second minority government.
On Mar. 25, the Liberal Party of Canada tabled a motion of no confidence in the House of Commons, with the support of the NDP and Bloc parties. That triggered another election, with a five-week gap between the drop of the writ and election day.
The Conservative Party was just halfway through its term, but the battle lines were already drawn. Most political commentators expected an election to occur this year, potentially surrounding the budget.
With a good chance of yet another minority government - and only a slight chance that the country will gain a stable majority for four or five years in a row - the question of whether Canada is broken politically is a valid one.
Pique spoke to Patrick "Paddy" Smith, the director of the Institute of Governance Studies and a political science professor at Simon Fraser University about the coming election and the state of Canadian politics.
Pique: Canada seems deadlocked with a divided left and a united right. Do you expect this election to change the equation?
Patrick Smith: My short answer is no. I think the equation will stay more or less as it is, but there is a possibility of a breakthrough with a Conservative majority. Right now they're 11 seats shorts of it, and in B.C. there are probably 11 seats in play - and three of them are Conservative. If they can pick up four or five here, another four or five around Toronto and four or five in Newfoundland, which is leaning conservative - and hold on to everything else - they would be at majority status.
There doesn't seem to be anything in Quebec to suggest that the Bloc won't do as well as they did last time, which basically means taking 50 seats out of the equation for the other parties. The short answer is that... in the foreseeable future we need to think about what the implications are - and not to make our leaders promise not to cooperate and go to an election every two months. We have to think of other ways to organize politics.
Pique: In recent elections we've seen diminishing returns at the polls as more voters stay home. Is this is a result of so many elections or is there another source for the spreading apathy?
PS: It's for a larger reason, and not one that anybody who thinks about democracy has a good answer for. It's the same the whole world over, in democracies the trend line is down. In the U.S. it's down to around 50 per cent turnout, and that's the so-called "greatest democracy in the world," where half the people don't vote.
It has to be a concern for anyone concerned with democratic health. Canada has the same trend line as other places. We can't say for sure that four elections in seven years is too much, and there's no evidence that Canadians think it's too much or that the number of elections is a motivating factor for those who vote or don't vote. In any group, it's those disaffected by the other or larger things.
Pique: Do you see us moving to an Australian system where you get a tax break if you vote?
PS: The Australia story becomes interesting if the trend line continues negatively. Then, at some point, some people might think it's time.
It's the same question, if we move to quotas for gender in terms of representation. Some countries have done it. In Canada we haven't, but the parties are increasingly committed to making sure there's a reasonable number of candidates representing both genders.
In the short-term, the thing would be to try and re-engage voters. The group that is mostly not voting are the 18 to 35 year olds. Is there something that might reach out and grab the attention of that group? It's hard to say. The nature of how this campaign will play out will be a little different with more impact around the use of social media - which is something folks 18 to 35 are more comfortable with and already get their information via. So there is some possibility of engaging young Canadians because of that particular change.
My own sense is that the bigger feature of that is that it really just changes the news cycle. Instead of getting out one or two stories a day, there are 12 or 14 cycles with people responding to tweets from 30 minutes ago. It really changes things; parties have to be more attentive now.
Pique: Is Canada broken politically? Given how polarized politics are in this country, is it time to hold regular elections and get rid of confidence votes?
PS: That would involve such fundamental changes. I don't think most Canadians would like to reopen the constitutional file, because we would have to get rid of Parliamentary government and go to a republican form of government with an executive branch that's totally separate from the legislative branch - as they do in the U.S.
I think a lot of Canadians might agree with the first part of the question and say "yes, Canada's broken," but when you tell them the answer most people wouldn't say turning ourselves into the American form of government is where they want to go. The nature of Parliamentary systems is very simple, the government can only govern when they have the confidence of the House and confidence votes are always available to governments when they need them. And minority governments do come up from time-to-time. The average life of a minority government is two years and this one lasted two-and-a-half years.
But folks sitting in Burnaby and Whistler don't have a lot of influence over folks' politics in Quebec, and as long as the Bloc gets two-thirds in Quebec it will make forming a national majority quite a bit harder.
Some people vote strategically or hold their nose to vote to prevent one party from getting elected, but for the most part Canadians go out and vote for their political conscience. As a democrat it's hard to say it's broken - but we're also moving to our fourth minority government and we've never hard four in a row. It means politics are changing, but not necessarily that it's broken. Canadians are not averse to the idea of a minority government, and both (Liberal and Conservative) parties have had experience governing with a minority.
In Britain they had the same situation, before they produced a coalition. For some reason Canadians, unlike most democracies - Germany, Britain, Israel; lots of countries have coalitions - don't like coalitions. The Harper government has turned "coalition" into a dirty word. Coalition is not a dirty word, and we need to address that as long as the Bloc keeps getting 50 seats.
Pique: If all politics are local, what are some of the issues that should be of importance to British Columbians in the next federal election?
PS: In his first visit here (of the election cycle) Mr. (Jack) Layton (NDP) played the HST card, and played the whole federal side of it knowing that it's at least very unpopular. Whether the conservatives get a majority or not we'll find out, but it will be a pretty close vote. The fact that (Layton) saw the HST as grounds for whacking away at conservative members of Parliament that voted for the HST was a way to get an advantage.
Most academics do say that local issues matter and that national elections don't matter a whole lot. A colleague who teaches in New York, who is a Canadian and has written a couple of books around this, found that local politics (influence voters) by a factor of 10 to 15 per cent, which can be a lot in a close race. The exception is when you have a particular local champion, high-profile candidate - that can make a difference. In Burnaby-Douglas, when Svend Robinson ran as an (NDP) MP it was for a third- or fourth-ranked party, but he was known nationally and that played out locally.
Sometimes you get a big local issue. I imagine the politics at Fukushima, Japan will be a little different when they rebuilt it. You always get things that affect a community positively or negatively that make local matters more important. But most studies of federal elections suggest what matters is leadership and national party branding.
Having said that, in close races - and there are about 10 in B.C. - that 10 per cent factor is enough to change all those results. In Burnaby-Douglas it's NDP versus Conservative, in Vancouver South it's Liberal versus Conservative, in Surrey North it's Conservative vs. NDP. Some are calling it a three-way race in Vancouver Centre where Hedy Fry usually wins, but the other parties have found good competitors where local matters and the local profile of the candidate could make a difference.
Pique: What are your views on political reform, given that we still have an appointed senate, a governor general, first-past-the-post voting, etc. Is it time for an update with an elected senate, or to abolish the monarchy, or move to proportional representation? What are some of the reforms you favour?
PS: I would say Canada might indeed benefit from some reform, but we have to face up to all the challenges that come with it. It might benefit to have some system of governing that's more proportional, for example. As far as our first-past-the-post system goes, one argument has always been that it fosters stable majorities. But with the situation with Quebec we don't get political majorities, and instead we get all the bad parts of minorities rather than a stable government. We would get a more reflective form of government if we adopted a proportional system, whether it's STV or mixed-member, but the reality is that change, if it came, would probably produce a need for Canadians to feel less scared about coalitions.
Pique: And the elected senate?
PS: Not without constitutional reform, which is a much bigger issue than an unelected senate. I think most Quebec politicians sitting there, whether they're sovereignists or federalists, would say if you want to open the constitution we have six other items we want to put in there along with the senate reform (because all provinces have to agree to change the constitution). They're not going to do one thing they don't care about unless they get two things they do care about.
I always talk to my students about senate reform. It's a worthy issue and worth discussing whether we should have party hacks on the public payroll, but I tell them it's like trying to nail down warped floorboards. You get one corner sorted out and another corner pops up.
It could be different in the future. (The senate) knows its place generally, and I don't mean that in a bad sense. But when they used the veto (to kill a Liberal and NDP climate change bill) it really made people notice.
Having said all that, it really is an incredible anachronism to have such a body, so yes, it should be reformed. But how? If I were a betting person I wouldn't be placing any money on senate reform.
Pique: The Harper Government has been under fire a lot lately, including the contempt of Parliament issue, Bev Oda, Bruce Carson. In your opinion have we reached any kind of tipping point similar to the Liberal's sponsorship scandal and gun registry flop? Is there anything to these controversies that could deter the Conservative base?
PS: I think we're actually close. My sense is this: in the jockeying going on at the beginning and trying to establish a narrative for this election, the Conservatives portray themselves as good managers of the economy. The opposition is working to paint them as people that can't be trusted... and in contempt of Parliament. Though it's probably two weeks out I think we're going to see those two issues growing into one for the opposition, which will question whether we can trust the Conservatives on the economy.
Of all the parties, there's only one within breathing distance of a majority, but everything would have to go their way for that to happen. If this stuff continues and what the opposition is saying continues to stick... I think the opposition will continue to play up Bev Oda and Carson and other related things, although the public already seems a little tired of those already. But, if it gets down and dirty, there's always more mud to sling.
Pique: If it were going to be a Conservative majority or minority, wouldn't the best thing be for the Liberals and NDP to form a coalition?
PS: I think it might have been a good thing, although when you look at European countries the parties run on their own platforms and people understand that if there's no majority there will be some accommodation later on. It may not be what individuals prefer, but some Greens wound up with cabinet seats in the Germany government and the sky didn't fall.
I just don't see that happening. I think we've already talked ourselves out of a coalition. The Liberal Party thinks this is Ignatieff's shot at becoming Prime Minister, and that he's not going to get another one. The NDP think the Liberals are vulnerable, and if they fall apart who benefits? The NDP. So no, there's no stomach right now for any form of coalition between those parties. After the election? Perhaps. If we'd ever had one like Britain where the sky didn't fall, people would realize that they're not such a bad thing - even if all the British tabloids the next day were saying "Hung Parliament."