Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks at Canada Day celebrations in Ottawa in 2009
October 19th will finally put an end to a Canadian election campaign that has seen it all. The five debates leading up to the election have pitted three campaign veterans against two newcomers, a French-Canadian nationalist against four staunch federalists, the heir of a political dynasty against a calculating policy wonk, and an avid environmentalist against a bearded socialist. The polarizing array of candidates springs from a deeply divided political climate.
To many, the election is a referendum on the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, perhaps the most divisive Prime Minister the country has ever seen. Whether or not tomorrow’s election sees the Harper Conservatives continue their nearly decade-long rule, they have already radically transformed the style of Canadian politics. Pitting various regions, religious groups, and tax brackets against one another, the Conservatives have pursued a “divide and conquer” strategy that has won them three consecutive elections, with just 36% (2006), 37% (2008) and 39% (2011) of the popular vote.
In the Parliamentary term immediately before Harper took office (from mid-2004 until early-2006), Paul Martin’s Liberal government held a minority of the seats in the House of Commons, with two minor parties (the NDP and Bloc Québécois) each holding the balance of power. Martin worked closely with all other party leaders in Parliament to guarantee passage of key pieces of legislation, including the 2005 federal budget.
Between 2006 and 2011, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives also governed as a minority in Parliament, but that is where the similarities with the Martin Liberals stopped. Rather than brokering with the opposition to pass legislation, the Conservatives took advantage of several leadership crises in the Liberal Party as opportune moments to pass their budgets. The Liberals were politically disarmed by this. Despite opposing the Conservatives’ policies, voting against their budget would trigger an election: a risk the party couldn’t afford. Welcome to the divisive world of Stephen Harper’s government.
Perhaps the best example of Harper’s highly partisan campaigning style has been the surprising wedge issue that has come to dominate the past several weeks of the campaign: the niqāb, or more specifically the Harper government’s controversial proposal to ban women who wear one from taking the oath of Canadian citizenship. The ban is surprisingly popular in Québec, where it has been the primary impetus of the collapse of support for the New Democrats in that province. The ferocious, emotional debate surrounding the ban was a major issue during both French-language leader’s debates, leaving many political commentators and journalists to question why the issue of the niqāb, a piece of clothing worn by just a fraction of Muslim women in Canada — who make up just 3% of the country’s population — was becoming such an important issue to voters when much more wide-reaching issues, such as the flagging economy, were at hand.
But this isn’t the first wedge issue Harper’s Conservatives have used for their own political gain. In 2010, they attempted to repeal the federal gun registry program solely to divide New Democrat supporters, who are spread between rural, largely anti-registry regions in western Canada and urban, largely pro-registry regions in eastern Canada.
The Conservatives under Harper have also changed the way Parliament itself functions. Stephen Harper’s preferred move whenever his government lands in a sticky political situation, ranging from Parliamentary expense scandals to a threatened vote of non-confidence, has been to simply shut Parliament down as he did in 2008 and 2010. When Parliament does sit, Question Period is dominated by jeers, name-calling and, in some cases, literal non-answers to legitimate questions. This is partisanship at its worst: demonizing others simply for being of a different political stripe.
The most unfortunate part of Harper’s aggressive revolution in Canadian political culture has been that other political figures have been all too happy to partake. The center-left New Democratic Party benefits just as much as the Conservatives do from the continued polarization of Canadian politics, and many have been all too happy to mirror the rambunctious behavior of Conservative MP’s both in and outside of Parliament, squeezing more centrist Green and Liberal MP’s to the sidelines. Political panels on Canadian news programs are starting to worryingly resemble those aired south of the border, with pundits attacking each other’s politics on a personal, not logical, level. Increasingly, they use emotional politics to win brownie points rather than constructing big tent unity to make real change, and relentlessly plug unnecessary talking points into conversations where they aren’t necessary.
The Canadian public has to make a choice today: either reject this change while there’s enough time left to fix at least parts of it, or allow the tide of polarization to proceed past the point of no return. Leaders like Justin Trudeau, Elizabeth May and, to some extent, even Thomas Mulcair promise a friendlier, more positive vision for Canada. One where political adversaries can set aside their differences and work towards a solution, and one where the top priority is the success of the country, not the success of a political party. In sum, a vision of Canada united, not divided.
Disclosure: Benson Cook is campaigning on behalf of the Liberal Party of Canada candidates in the Montréal federal electoral districts of Mount-Royal and Ville-Marie—Le Sud-Ouest—Île de Sœurs.
Image Attribution: “Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaking at 2009 Canada Day celebrations” by Heather Kashmera, licensed under CC BY 2.0 GR