Election Drama Does Not Equal Effective Government

October 9, 2009 Updated: March 5, 2012

Canadians may have little interest in heading to the polls any time soon, but the political drama unfolding in Ottawa is enough to keep even the most passive political observers on the edge of their seat.

With the fourth election in six years looming, headlines are recounting rumours of defecting MPs while Prime Minister Stephen Harper is racking up half a million hits on YouTube singing about getting high with his friends. (For those not in the loop, Harper sang the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends” on the piano at the National Arts Centre gala on Saturday night.)

The New Democrats—who in the past have opposed the Conservatives at every turn—have become the closest thing the government has to a political ally, while the Bloc Quebecois can see their fortunes rise as the Liberals implode in Quebec.

But the feast of juicy headlines could mean Canadians will be starved for effective government.

In September, The Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson raised the question of effective government with his piece, “Is Canada Broken?” Ibbitson cited research from Queen’s University political scientist Ned Franks that found Parliament sits over 60 percent fewer days than it did 40 years ago, and passes half as much legislation as it did in the early 1950s.

A month later, Maclean’s Magazine answered in the affirmative with an article by Andrew Coyne and Paul Wells entitled “Canadian Democracy is Broken” which was coupled with a forum on the same theme. They pointed to problems such as a lack of power among individual MPs, elections over nothing of substance, and the need for electoral reform.

Of course, Canada continues to function well, is rebounding quickly from a global economic downturn, and offers its citizens among the highest standard of living in the world. But to some observers, the country is just coasting by on the merit built up by previous generations.

Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff has said that as a matter of principle, he can’t support the Conservatives any longer. But one has to wonder what principle would guide him to force an election that would bring his party back in a weaker position than it is now.

The current Parliament began with Harper giving a throne speech that talked about putting partisan politics aside. Then his government tabled a budget that would cut public funding for political parties and threatened the very survival of the opposition parties who already received only a fraction of the donations the Conservatives do. The idea may have had merit, but many found the delivery shocking.

In response, the three opposition parties joined together in an effort to replace Harper with Stephane Dion, who was already doomed to step down as the leader of the Liberals after leading them in their worst election showing ever. Canadians, particularly in the west, gasped at the idea of an opposition “coup” and the Conservatives put parliament on hold so they could try to find some way to stay in power.

When Parliament resumed, the Liberals forced the Conservatives to introduce a most unconservative stimulus budget that would pump billions into the economy. Appeased, the Liberals, now led my Michael Ignatieff, let the Conservatives stand. That changed after disputes over Employment Insurance were not resolved over the summer break and on August 31, Ignatieff announced that his party would bring down the government.

But with the support of the NDP, which had previously fiercely denounced the Liberals for supporting the Conservatives, the government has managed to avoid an election.

So far, the only thing that has fallen is the Liberals’ polling numbers in comparison to those of the Conservatives.

A Strategic Counsel survey released Monday put the Conservatives in reach of a majority with 41 per cent, 13 points above the Liberals’ 28 per cent. But despite the prospect of defeat, Ignatieff is pushing ahead with plans to bring down the government. He has said it is a matter of principle and not polls, but if the polls have it right he will be forcing an election so that Harper can finally get a majority government.

And while EI remains a major issue for the Liberals, the Conservatives have already introduced key measures EI experts identify as needing reform. Much beyond that would have the Liberals undoing cuts they made while in power to make EI sustainable.

Currently, the Conservatives need either the support of the BQ or the NDP for survival. But rather than seek cooperation, the Conservatives dismiss the smaller parties as “socialists and separatists.”

Depending on how one interprets the polls, the harder the Liberals push for an election, the further they fall. That fall was likely accelerated somewhat when Liberal MP Denis Coderre resigned as the party’s Quebec lieutenant and denounced “Toronto advisors” for meddling in Quebec, stoking a concern held by Quebec voters that the federal Liberals are outsiders.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives have moved firmly toward the centre, displacing a position the Liberals prided themselves on holding. That move was symbolically reinforced with Harper’s performance at the National Arts Centre gala. In the last election, Harper doomed his prospects in Quebec by cutting arts funding and denouncing exactly those kinds of “rich galas.”

It all ads up to great theatre, but makes it hard to argue against assertions like Coyne’s that parties have been reduced to leadership cults, or Ibbitson’s that major concerns languish in Parliament while politicians play “an elaborate and futile game of political chicken.”

More frequent elections tend to feed into voter apathy, particularly when nothing of substance is at stake.

Worse, with each election, a giant parliamentary reset button is hit and the long process of passing laws in the House of Commons grinds to a halt and has to start all over again, which means each bill in process has to be reintroduced, re-debated, and re-reviewed.

So while politics in Canada may be getting more interesting, it is getting less effective. Even if the Liberals do rise in the polls, an election is unlikely to change the face of Parliament, though it could push Canadians that much farther away from engaging their democracy.