However much the average voter is willing to let government influence their lives is probably related how much the average voter believes people in the government are bad and want to harm them. This is why Canadian-style government, with its state-run health care, liquor sales and (sometimes) car insurance absolutely galls the likes of hard core Republicans in the States, who view any gathering of over 250 people to be a personal threat, much less a massive, grinding, industrial-era beast like the government telling them how much they have to pay for their 40oz. JD. The United States mostly owes its existence to a skeptical view of government and so, why not today? Any government could be tyrannical, best get yer guns ready now while you can, because you can.
Canada, on the other hand, lacks the awe factor that the American government inspires in its public. Government is mostly seen as bumbling, ineffective, and if successful, totally accidental; a place where there are not so much malevolent plots against its citizens as there are petty grudges and overall incompetence which greatly delay much-needed bureaucratic paperiture. One could point to the likes of Tommy Douglas (universal health care) or Lester B. Pearson (multicultural, liberal values) and say, "look there, young cynic, positive Government in Action!". But unfortunately, these people come from the Old Canada, which was so totally dominated by a single party for decades that they could literally begin to craft policy without elections in mind. By the mid 1950's, the Liberal party of Canada began to view elections as tedious quad-annual pancake breakfasts, and was controlled at the highest level by Oxford-educated mandarins liberated from the need to worry about voters when making legislation. Government policy was announced across the land in sunny posters, with flowers and children, exclaiming how great Canada was, and bestowed the ruling party with a benevolent, paternal aura. This image of the Liberal party as being synonymous with Canadian Government, and indeed values was firmly rooted by the 1950's, and it's an attitude we still find ourselves dealing with today.
Canadians, however, like to play fair. That's why the liberals get to run things for 15 or 20 years, and once they mess things up (usually by taking voters for granted), people bring in the Tories and politely entertain their government ideals for 4-8 years. Tory governments in Canada are like Liberal time-outs, where they try to learn from their fuck-ups. Once the public concludes they have, back into government they go.
Thus Stephen Harper is doomed, Michael Ignatieff will be the next PM and probably sooner than later. As for the NDP, Canada's mainstream far-left party, Jack Layton/Icarus comparisons are plentiful, as he flew a little too close to power last November, got greedy and started whining when he didn't get his way. He'll lose seats next election for sure.
Editors Note, July 2012: My projected outcome of the next election was laughably inaccurate, but very much in line with the editorial wisdom of the time. NDP were vaunted into Official Opposition with 103 seats; Liberals under Ignatieff reduced to a laughable rump. Stephen Harper got his majority.
How We Handle(d) Regional Interests
Gilles Duceppe and the BQ is like a zombie head welded to the Government's shoulder. It's there, it's not going anywhere, and you'd better learn to live with it even though it makes life a lot more difficult. (Editors Note, July 2012: BQ were nearly annihilated last election. Wrong once again.) It instantly removes a block of 35-50 seats from active roster duty with either major party, making majorities difficult, but has basically evolved into the Quebec Issues party, which a majority of Quebecers have entrusted to represent them in Parliament. Since Wilfrid Laurier, the Quebec Bridge was a major aim of both political parties, in an attempt to find common ground between our "two solitudes" and forge a large coalition. Every majority Prime Minister until 1993 had been able to do it, and in a sense it ensured that Quebec would always have some influence on the national scale since it gave its votes en masse each election to the party it thought better served its interests. Therefore, the party which won unfettered ability to pursue its legislation was also the one which had been most accomodating, or appealing, to Quebec, which is how Quebec's admittedly unique interests are safeguarded. Or rather were safeguarded, because with the Bloc Quebecois now Quebec's default vote, it ensures that the Liberals and Conservatives can pursue policy independent of Quebec, but be limited to a minority-type government with BQ as the balance of power.
Of course this doesn't always work. The flaw in the Quebec Master Plan is that if one party sufficiently pleases 50% of the English Canadian electorate, that party will likely get a majority government with the Bloc Quebecois relegated to name-calling in Parliament. Jean Chretien did it, but only because of a confluence of factors that is almost unique in Canadian history and will not likely be repeated - it took 1) two separate large regional factions to be represented by over 100 seats in parliament, a protest vote of massive proportions. 2) The complete and unprecedented collapse of the PC party, and 3) A large migration of 34 seats from the NDP to the Liberals. And even though he achieved all these, the Bloc Quebecois still wound up Official Opposition, with Quebec’s balance of power secure. So to recap:
1. A Majority gov't cannot be easily obtained without majority Quebec support
2. In a minority gov't, the balance of power falls to the BQ, or
3. If a majority gov't is elected without Quebec's support, BQ will form the Official Opposition.
This is one of the exquisite, and largely unintentional balances which keeps our rickety Confederation intact. However, Canada's recent willingness to embrace regionally-based parties is troublesome as it inevitably turns government business into an us-versus-them mindset. All work on Parliament Hill is halted during name-calling sessions, and bitter feelings linger.
Some blame Pierre Trudeau for this, and in a way, it's valid. Pierre Trudeau actually lost western seats in every consecutive election since 1968, to the extent that by 1980, the Liberals were elected with a majority despite winning only 2 seats west of the Ontario/Manitoba border, and unwisely chose this as the time to unveil the National Energy Plan. The same 1981-1983 Knows-it's-his-last-chance-to-ensure-a-legacy Trudeau also decides to repatriate the constitution without Quebec signing it, which I'm sure they're not real happy about.
But Brian Mulroney takes the fall, since it was from his party that both BQ and Reform leaders came. This is not entirely fair, and in a sense it underlines the weakness of the coalition Mulroney built which lasted two elections; by cobbling together two segments of Canada deeply resentful of the Liberals, but for very different reasons, he ensured polarization and permanent internal tension in the party, and by consequence the country. The rump PC party limped along for seven years after its 1993 thrashing before being absorbed by the Reform/Canadian Alliance (now known as the Conservative Party of Canada), which bills itself as a national alternative for conservative-minded voters, but is still at heart deeply rooted as a Western Canadian issues party.
A third, Eastern Canadian regional party might have been possible except for the fact that Brian Mulroney is despised there and should literally fear for his life when travelling in Nova Scotia, having almost single-handedly destroyed the fishing, railway, mining and logging industries in those parts.
Canada has, at least in the last century, been influenced by regionalism far more than the United States. Dead-serious secessionist groups do pop up in the US every 10 or 15 years, but they are usually confined to tax-evading outdoor woodsmen. Rarely does secessionism reach the level of popular thought there as it does here - probably just about every Westerner has at least briefly pondered the idea - and in Quebec, secession is no joke, it's a real presence with massive organization. Currently it is on an ebb flow but will no doubt resurge at some point in the future. America doesn't face these constant, tangible threats of secession, so when something does come up, they crush it quick and clean, but messily if necessary.
Of course the United States cares far more about its territorial integrity than Canada does. It has done, and would be willing to, fight with the full force of its military against any region which wanted out; no way would Canada even fire a single shot. To be fair, Quebec's secession movement is one of the most successful in the world considering that probably not one of its supporters would willingly give their life to help make it happen. It's virtually secession by committee.
I guess a country of such diverse background and geographical largeness as Canada would never reach the kind of self-congratulation Americans achieve. Americans believe that their government could militarily turn on them because Americans believe that Americans can do anything. Canadians, on the other hand, are smug in our knowledge that we can do a lot of things okay, and a few things really well, but government is not among them. It`s too inept to pull much, and we wouldn`t believe them if they tried. Imagine if Rick Hillier took command after a military coup to oust Stephen Harper. We`d probably laugh at his televised speech assuming command; and if we didn`t, Canadian soldiers wouldn`t shoot on Canadian civilians anyways, under orders or no. Canada`s rough colonial heritage makes it easy for us to tell authority to fuck right off when need be.
Therein lies the crux of our difference; America was borne of war, and so fears it happening again, much like a woman whose husband met her while cheating on his (now) ex-wife will always wonder if it will happen to her. Canada's independence occurred slowly and gradually, and so sees the same thing happening to any of its parts as inevitable.