(Or: Once More, With Feeling! The Third Canadian Federal Election in Four Years Musical Spectacular!)

Overture

Canadians will vote for their representatives in the House of Commons, the elected lower house in Canadian parliament, in the 40th Canadian general election on October 14, 2008. Prime Minister Stephen Harper met with Governor General Michaëlle Jean on September 7, 2008, asking her to dissolve parliament and issue the writs for a general election.

In plain English, Canadians are voting on Oct. 14. Canada is divided into 308 electoral districts called ridings. The boundaries are drawn so that each riding contains roughly 100,000 people, though some densely populated urban areas are well over this benchmark, and some sparsely populated areas are well below it. The system is based on the British parliamentary system: each riding elects a member of parliament (or MP) to represent the riding in the House of Commons. Members of the House of Commons propose, debate and vote on bills that are then passed on to the upper chamber, the Senate (Canada's answer to the House of Lords). Bills that make it through the House of Commons and Commons committees move on to the Senate, where they are debated and voted on again.

With rare exception, successful candidates for the House of Commons belong to established political parties. The party that wins the most seats becomes Her Majesty's Government. The leader of the party with the most seats becomes prime minister. The leader of the party with the second most seats becomes the Official Opposition, and all of the non-government MPs together form Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition.

A party that wins more than half of the seats in the House of Commons forms a majority government. A party that wins more seats than the other parties but less than half of the seats in the House of Commons forms a minority government and requires the help of the other parties in order to pass legislation. A minority government that fails a confidence vote — a vote dealing with the nation's finances or any other vote designated as a confidence motion by the government — is automatically defeated and an election is called (generally).

The parliaments convened following the 2004 Canadian federal election and the 2006 Canadian federal election both involved minority governments. The 2006 election was, in fact, triggered by a non-confidence motion in the government.

Everybody up to speed? On with the show...

Dramatis personae

  • The Right Honourable Stephen Harper, prime minister of Canada and leader of the Conservative Party. Former leader of the now-defunct Canadian Alliance party. A key figure in the 2003 deal that saw the Alliance merge with the Progressive Conservative Party. Conservative leader since 2004. Prime minister since 2006.
  • The Honourable Stéphane Dion, leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition and leader of the Liberal Party. Former minister of intergovernmental affairs and the environment in the previous Liberal governments of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin. Leader of the Liberal Party since 2006, when he emerged as the surprise winner of the party's leadership race.
  • Mr. Gilles Duceppe, leader of the Bloc Québécois, the third party in the House of Commons. A Québec nationalist and separatist, he supports sovereignty from Canada and defending Québec's interests in the House of Commons until such a time. Leader of the Bloc since 1997. Lacks the honorific "The Honourable" as he refuses to be appointed to the Queen's Privy Council for Canada like the other opposition leaders.
  • The Honourable John "Jack" Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party, the fourth party in the House of Commons. Seconded the motion that brought down the Liberal government in 2006. Former city councillor in Toronto. Leader of the NDP since 2003.
  • Ms. Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party. Does not hold a seat in the House of Commons, though she managed to secure a spot in the televised leaders' debates after an independent MP joined the Greens shortly before parliament was dissolved. Former head of the Sierra Club of Canada. Green leader since 2006.

Act I

(This section is entirely skippable if you're familiar with the last two years of Canadian political history.)

To truly understand the foundations of this election, one must first think back to the 2006 election. Harper's Conservatives won enough seats to form a minority government. Liberal leader and incumbent prime minister Paul Martin resigned on the spot, saying he'd serve out his term as a member of parliament but would not stay on as leader. The party's leadership race began with more than 10 candidates, four of whom were seen as frontrunners.

The Liberals were not used to not being in power, having formed the government for most of the 20th century, and party members were anxious to rebuild and rejuvenate their team so as to be able to take on the Conservatives quickly. Many expected the Conservative government to be short-lived, as there was no way the centre-left opposition parties would let some of their more contentious ideas pass, right?

No one really expected Stéphane Dion to take the leadership. While he was well respected as an academic and political scientist, he was not expected to win. But win he did, taking out heavy favourite Michael Ignatieff on the fourth ballot. Dion owed much of his win to fellow candidate Gerard Kennedy, who threw his support to Dion after dropping out following the second ballot, and something of a concerted effort to keep Ignatieff away from the leadership. His first words as leader of the party dubbed "Canada's natural governing party" seemed to indicate that Harper's government was not long for this world:

"The most exciting race in the history of our party is over — let's get ready for the election!"

The Conservatives, however, had other plans. Shortly after the leadership race ended, they launched an ad campaign based around an incident that took place during one of the leadership debates. During an exchange about the environment, Ignatieff told Dion, who had been the minister of the environment in the previous government, that the Liberals "didn't get it done" when it came to meeting Canada's target emission levels under the Kyoto Accord. (Ignatieff was not an MP at the time; he was first elected in 2006.) Dion cut Ignatieff off, telling him his comments were unjustified:

"This is unfair. It's unfair. You don't know what you speak about. You think it's easy to make priorities?"
The ads contained the exchange, followed by a voiceover intoning "Leaders make priorities. Stéphane Dion is not a leader."

Throughout the remainder of the 39th parliament, rumours began to circulate that Liberals lacked confidence in their leader. Some suggested they wanted to get an election over with so they could turf him, while others indicated that Dion was gung ho to hit the campaign trail and had to be talked out of it by party members convinced they were going to get slaughtered.

Whatever the cause, the Liberals wound up supporting or abstaining from voting on every confidence motion the Conservatives attempted to put through the House of Commons. And the Conservatives, eager to simultaneously pass legislation and make the Liberals look incompetent, started making motions matters of confidence when they didn't technically have to be.

The NDP and the Bloc Québécois, for their parts, routinely voted against almost everything the Conservatives put forward. There were two main reasons for this, other than the fact that they just didn't like the ideas: They could come across bas being the real opposition, in contrast to the Liberals who appeared to be letting things pass in order to avoid an election, and the Liberals letting thing pass allowed them to vote against everything because they weren't really in the mood for an election either.

The 39th parliament was not without scandal, much of it affecting the governing party (as is often the case; does anyone really care about opposition scandals)? The RCMP raided Conservative Party headquarters. The party was accused of running an election campaign financing "scheme" that allegedly allowed them to skirt legal limits. And, not least of all, it was also accused of offering a life insurance policy to a terminally ill independent MP in return for his vote on a budget measure that could have brought down the Liberal government in 2005. None of this has been proven.

Polls, however, seemed to indicate that despite all this, the Conservatives continued to lead the Liberals and were possibly even making headway towards majority government territory. The Liberals — publicly, at least — didn't really have a consistent answer as to when, if ever, they were going to call an election. Towards the end of the summer of 2008, after the government had distinguished itself as one of the longest-lasting minority governments in Canadian history, Stephen Harper publicly dared Stéphane Dion to "fish or cut bait." Dion indicated that, perhaps, he might actually be interested in fishing.

Shortly thereafter, Stephen Harper told reporters that parliament was dysfunctional and that he was "going to have to make a decision."

Act II

Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Her Excellency Michaëlle Jean at Rideau Hall early in the morning of September 7, 2008. It was a Sunday, a curious day to begin an election campaign if there ever was one. The meeting between the governor general and prime minister was private, but as is custom, he explained that he felt parliament could no longer function and that a general election was probably a good idea. The governor general, the representative of the monarch in Canada, has the constitutional authority to refuse, but that isn't really how things work. Parliament was dissolved and the writs for an election were issued by order of the governor general, on the advice of the prime minister. (It sounds more regal that way, doesn't it?)

This is typically how it works. This time, however, was slightly different, as Harper's Conservatives had passed a law mandating fixed election dates. Harper insisted that he had not violated the spirit of his own law, a concept he'd been championing forever. Conservatives pointed to the fact that the law did not preclude the opposition from toppling a minority government at its own discretion, so why shouldn't a minority government have the ability to topple itself at its own discretion? The fixed election dates law, they claimed, referred mostly to majority governments. The issue was soon forgotten.

Harper's reasons for ending his own minority government, the first Conservative government since 1993, are anyone's guess. Some conspiracy theorists suggest he fears the boost the popularity of Barack Obama might have on Canadian centre-left parties and wants to get a Canadian election over with before the 2008 U.S. presidential election comes to a head. This is probably not the case, as some pundits have pointed out that even the most charismatic Canadian politicians still look like cardboard cutouts when compared to Obama.

The campaign's major themes have, so far, been the economy and the environment (and the overlapping territory) with a surprise cameo appearance by the arts. Harper set off something of a firestorm — especially in Quebec — when he, questioned about changes in arts funding during his government's tenure, implied that the arts were not something "ordinary Canadians" were terribly concerned about.

This campaign is also notable, like its far more historic counterpart in the U.S., because web 2.0 has never been a full-blown factor in an election before. A handful of candidates were forced to withdraw or were dropped by their parties when online research produced the skeletons in their closets. These ranged from blog posts to videos of them smoking marijuana to criminal records. The Conservatives also wound up on the front pages after civil servants came forward alleging that Gerry Ritz, the federal minister of agriculture, had employed gallows humour during a conference call dealing with an outbreak of listeriosis that left 17 people dead. (He apologized.)

The Green Party had been angling for a spot in the federal leaders' debate for years, arguing that since it ran a candidate in all 308 ridings and surpassed the benchmark of two per cent of the popular vote in the 2004 election and received taxpayer funding as a result, it had earned a place in the debate. The group of representatives of the major Canadian broadcast networks that organize the debates refuted this, saying the Green Party could only participate in the debate once it had a seat in parliament. The party did technically have one seat in the House of Commons at the time the 39th parliament was dissolved, since an independent joined the party shortly before the election was called. The broadcasters' consortium discussed the issue with the other parties; it was suggested that both Harper and Layton said they would boycott the debates if May was allowed to participate. Dion said he wouldn't participate if Harper didn't. The Greens threatened to sue, pointing out that the Reform Party and Bloc Québécois hadn't elected MPs to the House when they were first allowed to participate either. This proved to be the first real controversy of the campaign, and many of Layton's own supporters were critical of his standpoint. Both Harper and Layton backed down eventually and the consortium confirmed that May will participate in both the English and French debates.

The polls conducted throughout the campaign seemed to indicate that the Conservatives might be able to win a majority government, though others suggested they would probably win a stronger minority government than they had in 2006. Few predicted a Liberal victory, and some sources indicated early on that even if his party lost, Dion would not go quietly. If the party loses and Dion refuses to resign, he will face a leadership review — an internal referendum in which the party determines whether it has confidence in his leadership. Leadership reviews are often nasty and divisive. (The other party leaders, including Harper, would also face leadership reviews if their parties don't form the government after this election, though polls suggest the Conservatives have a sizable lead over the other parties and the other parties, not expecting to form a government, rarely turf their sitting leaders this way. The only exception to this is the Green Party, which holds a leadership review every two years regardless of whether an election has taken place. These also function somewhat differently from those of the other parties, as anyone who wishes to challenge the sitting leader can do so. In these cases, the leadership review becomes a leadership race.)

Act III

Thanks to the Google age, all of the parties were forced to drop candidates whose past indiscretions came back to haunt them. Criminal records, controversial blog posts and statements (including some conspiracy theories about September 11, 2001) and, in one case, public nudity were all culprits. These were, however, small controversies in the grand scheme of things. On the eve of the French-language leaders' debate, Liberal foreign affairs critic (and former NDP premier of Ontario Bob Rae) held a press conference wherein he accused Harper of plagiarizing a speech by Australian prime minister John Howard shortly before the beginning of the Iraq War. Whole portions of the speeches — Howard's pre-dated Harper's by two days — appeared to be identical. A Conservative campaign staffer admitted to being "overzealous" in borrowing from "another world leader" while crafting the speech Harper gave and insisted that Harper had no idea just how similar his speech was to the one Howard had already given. He resigned from the campaign.

The Liberals, meanwhile, have suggested that the speech was actually supplied by the Bush administration to international politicians thought to be sympathetic to their ideas. This is unproven.

Both debates featured a different format from the usual, podium-driven debates of old. This year, the leaders sat around an oval table — Harper and May on one side, Dion, Duceppe and Layton on the other. Harper, as the incumbent, was on the hot seat during both debates. The other leaders took aim at his record on the economy, environment and the arts, though various pundits said he conducted himself wall and is believed to have emerged as the winner of the English-language debate. Pundits crowned Duceppe the winner of the French debate, noting that Dion performed much better than expected in his native language. Post-debate polls indicate that the various parties have not moved around much in terms of support (and certainly not in terms of placement), though it is widely believed that the Conservatives may not have the numbers to win a majority government.

Finale

The Conservatives did not, in fact, have the numbers for a majority government — they fell 12 seats short of the mark. The Liberals lost substantial support in the Greater Toronto Area, though holding the city itself. One big surprise came in Edmonton, where the NDP spoiled a repeat of the Conservative Alberta sweep of 2006 by ousting caucus chair Rahim Jaffer.

Conservatives: 143
Liberals: 76
Bloc: 50
NDP: 37
Green: 0

Sources

The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/national/politics
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canadavotes
Elections Canada: http://www.elections.ca
Parliament of Canada: http://www.parl.gc.ca
I actually get paid to know these things now. It's awesome.

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