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Parliamentary Elections in Canada

November 28, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Prime Minister Jean Chretien and his Liberal Party won 173 of Canada's 301-seat Parliament in national elections yesterday, allowing the party to maintain its hold on power. After a background report, two Canadian political watchers discuss the results.

RAY SUAREZ: There was no need to recount the votes in Canada. Nationwide elections yesterday, gave Prime Minister Jean Chretien, and his Liberal Party, a solid hold on the Canadian’s 301-seat parliament.

JEAN CHRETIEN, Prime Minister, Canada: The people of Canada have renewed their confidence in our program, in our team, and in my leadership.

RAY SUAREZ: For Chretien, it was a sweet personal victory. With more than a year and a half left in his second term, Chretien gambled on a sound economy and a budget surplus, and called for new elections. His Liberal Party waged a five- week battle against four opposition parties. Canadian television was able to call the election early last evening.

CBC ANCHOR: The liberals will form a majority government.

RAY SUAREZ: In fact, their third straight majority government. The liberals did it by carrying their base, Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, by a huge margin. Their candidates won 100 of 103 seats there.

HON. ALLAN ROCK, M.P.: Welcome to a historic evening. For the prime minister, it’s a three-peat.

RAY SUAREZ: They also carried Manitoba, and the Atlantic provinces of New Foundland, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward island. And in Quebec, the liberals took seats away from the separatist bloc Quebecois, each party now holding 37 seats. Quebecois leader, Gille Duceppe tried to remain upbeat.

HON. GILLE DUCEPPE: We’ll be there proudly to represent those people, to fight for social justice, and also to make the light on all the scandals that affect the liberal government.

RAY SUAREZ: Out West, the conservative Canadian Alliance easily held its base, with solid majorities in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia. But party leader, Stockwell Day had predicted large gains nationwide. It never happened.

HON. STOCKWELL DAY: We continue to be the — and now are in an increased way– the federal alternative for those who would choose another form of government and we will work towards that towards the next federal election.

RAY SUAREZ: And as for the three sparsely populated territories to the North, the Liberals carried them as well. Overall, the Liberals now hold 173 of the 301 seats in parliament. The Canadian Alliance, 66 seats; 37 seats for the bloc Quebecois. 13 for the New Democrats and just 12 for the Progressive Conservatives, once the country’s governing party.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the Canadian elections, we get two perspectives. Giles Gherson is the editor of The Edmonton Journal, in Edmonton, Alberta. And Stephen Clarkson is a professor of political economy at the University of Toronto, and is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

Stephen Clarkson, by returning the liberals to power, by returning Jean Chretien to a couple of more years as prime minister, what were Canadians saying?

STEPHEN CLARKSON, University of Toronto: What were Canadians saying? Well, they didn’t like the alternatives. The problem was that people didn’t really like Chretien. He’s a bit old. He’s a big old hat, but the alternatives were really much worse. And the main possible rival, the Alliance Party from the West, was not able to break into the major concentration of votes, which are in Ontario and has 103 seats, and Alliance just got two. So I think they were saying just, this is much ado about nothing. We have pretty well the same parliament we had a couple of months ago.

RAY SUAREZ: Giles Gherson, according to some writers in Canada, this was going to the time when alliance was going to break out of its western stronghold and become a national party. What are some of the reasons why that didn’t happen?

GILES GHERSON: Well, the Alliance Party is really a party that was created in the last year out of another party called the Reform Party which really, you know, won its first set of seats in the parliament, won one in 1988 and then it won in ’93 some seats and then a few more in ’97. And it became the official opposition. And the whole idea in the last couple of years was to try to, as you say, win seats in Ontario and Eastern Canada by changing slightly, by modifying a rather hard-line conservative platform into a more modern platform, and by having… and hoping to try to attract votes in Ontario where a government that had been in power for some time was supposedly becoming less popular. But that obviously wasn’t the case. You have in the Liberal government a pretty unambitious but steady managerial government, and it found favor in Ontario and in the eastern Canada, and the alliance was unable to really make much of a dent.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Clarkson your analysis on why The Alliance didn’t break out of the West.

STEPHEN CLARKSON: Well, the party has an image of intolerance, racism even, being against immigration. This is not a fair charge, but it stuck. And they are also are connected with real fundamental Christianity in the West, which is quite well rooted there. And that Mr. Day believed in creationism was quite the opposite in its effect as Mr. Lieberman being an orthodox Jew. It really was something that people were worried about, and he made a lot of mistakes in the campaign. He got the direction of the Niagara River wrong. He thought it flowed south and it actually flows north. And he was just on the defensive. And the most interesting and important, I think, and most interesting for American viewers would be that even Mr. Day as a right-wing leader came out very squarely in favor of universal medical… Medicare as we have it now, defending a system, which is accessible to every Canadian and costs nothing to go to hospital or see a doctor. So even our right-wing party was forced into the center in drawing the consensus about the role of government in Canada.

RAY SUAREZ: What is… what’s going on with that East-and-West split? Is it really serious? Are there wide policy differences between the Liberals and the Alliance Party?

STEPHEN CLARKSON: Well, it’s a historic split. The West has always been alienated. I’m sure Giles can speak to this better than I, but the West is a long way from the center. The center of Canada has most of the seats, most of the votes. All of the seats in the West only account for 30% of the seats in the House of Commons, so they always feel disempowered. However, the very fact that the West is more right wing than the central government has meant that the Liberal government has moved to the right in order to accommodate it. So it may have no seats in the government, but the government responds to those pressures nevertheless.

GILES GHERSON: I think that’s very true.

RAY SUAREZ: Giles, go ahead, Giles.

GILES GHERSON: Well, I think, you know, the fact that the alliance and previously the Reform Party had made a very strong case for policies such as tax reduction, such as reducing the deficit, notwithstanding the fact that they had really no role in the government — the Jean Chretien government was pretty mindful of those kinds of policies. The Chretien government is a very centrist government. It basically campaigns to the left and governs from the right. And as a result, it’s been extremely difficult for a party even further to the right to make inroads. The West, yes, it’s more conservative than central Canada, and I think… And the Alliance Party is actually rooted and based in Western Canada in Alberta. But the other aspect of the alliance is that fact, the fact that it is a regional party in many ways, and people vote for it out here because it’s a part of western affirmation. It’s an instrument through which the western voice can be heard very clearly in parliament. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. I don’t think… It’s something that a lot of westerners don’t think it’s a bad thing, because as we were saying earlier the Chretien government does listen to that voice.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Giles, you mentioned earlier in the interview that the alliance is a fairly new party. Even it’s antecedents are fairly new on the Canadian scene.

GILES GHERSON: That’s correct.

RAY SUAREZ: Now that it is once again the second largest party in parliament, does this give it a platform on which to build itself into a national party, or will this be a time where we really see if it’s got any appeal in the eastern part of the country?

GILES GHERSON: Well, this is what we’re going to find out over the next number of years because, in fact, the very comment you just made was what was exactly what was said after the 1997 election when the Reform Party became the official opposition with 60 seats in the parliament of 301 seats. Now the Alliance has 66 seats out of a parliament of 301 seats, so it really hasn’t gained very much. Now it’s facing a third term prime minister, a government that’s a bit older in the… longer in the tooth, looking a little tired perhaps. I mean, there weren’t many new faces in the Liberal ranks elected yesterday.

So it will be interesting to see whether the Alliance with a young leader, a newer leader, can now make some headway in a new parliament. After all, this is really going to be Mr. Day’s first exposure in parliament. He was in the parliament for three weeks before the election was called, and really hadn’t found his footing. So I think all eyes are going to be on the alliance to see whether they can make more of their opportunity than the Reform Party made last time.

RAY SUAREZ: Stephen Clarkson, let’s talk a little bit about Quebec. The Bloc Quebecois, the separatist party in Quebec, was talking about trying to mount another referendum. It actually lost ground in its home province. What’s the state of inside Canada relations? Is the province going to stay?

STEPHEN CLARKSON: Well, I think it does indicate that the province is going to stay in the sense that a referendum on sovereignty is less likely given that the bloc did worse in this campaign than it expected. And the other side of that is that Mr. Chretien did much better. He got 50% of the seats in Quebec having previously just had a much smaller number around the City of Montreal. And what that suggests is that there’s no momentum in sovereignty, in the sovereignty cause.

And the longer-term prospect is that when Mr. Chretien retires, which will probably be within two years, he will be replaced probably by the present minister of finance, Paul Martin, who is much more popular in Quebec. He’s much more popular in the West. He’s much more popular everywhere. And in another election, he would make mincemeat, really, out of the Bloc Quebecois and probably make inroads in the West. So at the federal level the bloc is not in good shape, but it’s only a proxy for what really counts, which is the Independence Party which is in power in Quebec city, the capital of the province of Quebec. But still the capacity of the Quebec government to run a successful referendum is very, very much in doubt.

RAY SUAREZ: And Giles Gherson, does the continued rumbling inside Quebec create hostilities in other parts of the country that will continue on through the next parliament?

GILES GHERSON: Well, there’s always a bit of that but, you know, as the Bloc Quebecois has been in parliament since 1993, ostensibly in parliament only for one term– that’s what they said when they first ran– but now in parliament for their third term, in a sense they’ve become as much a part of the furniture of the House of Commons as any other party.

And I think the animosity that was there in the 1993-1997 parliament is really worn off in many ways. They play a full role in the Commons, plus the fact they’re no longer, as they were in the first Chretien government, the official opposition. So, you know, really I think they’re accepted for what they are. And this result yesterday, where the liberals have scored a substantially larger number of seats in Quebec and the Bloc Quebecois fewer, I think it shows that Quebecers really voted for the status quo as much as other Canadians did yesterday. So I don’t see, no, any increases animosity at all. I think it’s really carry on, It’s the steady as she goes kind of result.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, steady as goes, Stephen Clarkson, is that is it that feeling that things are going pretty well in your country that helped bring Mr. Chretien back for another term?

STEPHEN CLARKSON: Well, in central Canada where I am, there was certainly no issue. The liberal party got 98% of the seats in Ontario, 50% in Quebec, 60% of the seats in the Atlantic, and even in the West where it did badly it got 20% of the seats. So it is a party that has national representation, has all the seats in the far North, and it will remain a status quo party, as you say. It’s very pragmatic. If it gets pushed on the right, then it will cut taxes. Or if there were to be a resurgence of the left, it would move to the left. In effect, it’s going to continue the work of integrating the Canadian economy in the American system under NAFTA and be very quiet, small government. It’s interesting in a way. It calls itself Liberal, but it’s really in the last seven years it’s been undermining the liberal heritage of Pierre Trudeau by cutting back the welfare assistance, but that seems to not annoy enough Canadians that they want to vote it out of power.

RAY SUAREZ: Stephen Clarkson… Go ahead, Giles. Quick comment.

GILES GHERSON: I understand in the West that’s pretty popular. I mean, the fact that the party has been pretty much a center right party has meant that there’s relatively little animosity, I mean, although… Not withstanding the fact that people have been voting for The Alliance. But as I say, that’s really western affirmation.

RAY SUAREZ: Giles Gherson, Stephen Clarkson, thank you both.

STEPHEN CLARKSON: You’re welcome, bye-bye.