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Inconclusive results may force parties to co-operate

“They have to at least get something done or a pox on all their houses.”

– Peter Phillips, U of S

It was an election that few wanted and nobody really won. Besides producing a third consecutive minority government, Canada’s 40th general election last week saw political parties all fail to live up to expectations in one way or another.

The Conservatives, despite improving their standing to 143 seats, failed to capture their intensely coveted majority.

The Liberals crashed to 76 seats, recording their worst popular vote (26.2 per cent) in 20 years and almost certainly setting up a leadership change.

The NDP, although upping its seat count to 37, fell far short of Leader Jack Layton’s grandiose hopes of running for prime minister.

The Bloc Quebecois, notwithstanding polls suggesting they might sweep Quebec, actually dropped by one seat to 50.

And despite widespread publicity throughout the campaign, the Green Party ended up with no seats and just 6.8 per cent of the vote, only marginally better than in 2006.

Everyone lost

“In one way, everybody lost. Everybody is somewhat dissatisfied by their lot. They all underperformed in terms of the goals they set for themselves,” said Peter Phillips, head of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan.

Disgruntled voters showed their opinion of the lacklustre, gaffe-filled campaign by staying away from the polls in droves. Voter turnout was a paltry 59.1 per cent, the lowest on record for a general election in Canada.

Now, after their third election in four years, Canadians approach the winter of their discontent facing a looming recession, job insecurity, falling commodity prices and a global economic malaise.

Politically, the question is how Prime Minister Stephen Harper will govern with a stronger plurality but still no majority.


Harper hinted at conciliation with other parties during his acceptance speech at party headquarters in Calgary on election night.

That would be a switch because conciliation was pretty thin during the previous parliamentary session, which may go down as one of the most fractious, mean-spirited ever.

Some pundits predict more of the same, saying appeasement is not part of Harper’s makeup.

“He is not a man who’s known for coalition. He’s not a man who’s known for bargaining. This is a micro-manager who is pretty heavy handed in his expectations of what’s going to occur,” said Shannon Sampert , a University of Winnipeg politics professor.

Political burnout

Harper will also take advantage of political burnout among parties and voters alike to ram through his legislative agenda, Sampert said.

“That’s exactly why he’s going to be able to rule as a majority even though it’s a minority because no one’s going to want to go down. It’s going to be another two years.”

Sampert suggested Harper’s increased standing in the House of Commons may make him even more aggressive with controversial legislation, such as changing the Canadian Wheat Board Act to remove the CWB’s single desk.

“He’ll go at it heavier than ever. His rhetoric is that he has Conservative support across the rural provinces and they’re not going to dump him on this one.”

However, others feel an impending economic crisis will force Harper and other party leaders to be more accommodating.

“You can’t really have a polarized debate about how to protect the economy in these very turbulent, unpredictable dangerous times. I think that’s another reason why he’ll tone down the rhetoric and adopt tactics that are more conciliatory,” said Paul Thomas, a University of Manitoba political scientist.

“I think the pressures on the parties not to force another election are so tremendous that there’ll be a variety of creative things done to maintain Parliament going. It won’t be as mindless and negative as it was in the final days of the last Parliament.”

Election fatigue

Phillips agreed, saying politicians know they can’t go back to the polls any time soon, lacking both the will and the money to do so.

For that reason, the next Parliament may have to be more co-operative, he said.

“I suspect at least in the short to medium term they’ll all recognize that nobody really has a mandate to do anything dramatic.

“I think you’ll see a period of time where both sides will recognize that they can’t do what they did in the last year and a half. They have to at least get something done or a pox on all their houses.” [email protected]

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