Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A Harper majority would have minority support

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Five political parties and an archaic and politically toxic first-past-the-post electoral system have long turned Canadian federal elections into a crapshoot. The Oct. 14 election promises to be the wildest crapshoot of them all.

The Harper Conservatives, with little more than the same 36-per cent support (124 seats) they obtained in 2006, could win a near or absolute majority government. Imagine, 31 more seats with no increase in votes.

Pollster Nik Nanos of Nanos Research says a majority is mathematically possible. There are close four-way races in B.C. and Montreal where seats can be won with as little as 32 per cent of the vote. "We could have more strategic voting in this election than before."

The Greens have taken five points from the Liberals, leaving the 64 per cent of centre/left Canadians split more evenly than ever before among the Liberals, the New Democrats, the Bloc Québecois and the Greens.

The electoral crapshoot would long be a thing of the past had NDP leader Ed Broadbent and his caucus seized a never-before-disclosed offer from prime minister Pierre Trudeau immediately after the 1980 election. The Liberals captured 147 of 282 seats with 44 per cent of the popular vote, but failed to elect a single MP west of Winnipeg despite the support of about 25 per cent of western voters.

A Liberal majority with no western seats ignited western rage. Not only do ongoing unrepresentative and perverse electoral outcomes undermine democratic legitimacy and suppress turnout, they rupture the bonds holding the country together, artificially fomenting regional alienation and fracturing national unity.

Trudeau invited Broadbent to his office for a chat. The NDP had captured 26 of its 32 seats in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and B.C. with about one-third of the vote. Trudeau said he would introduce legislation for proportional representation if the NDP would co-sponsor it.

According to well-placed sources, Broadbent said he would take the proposal to his caucus. The answer was no.

Broadbent told the prime minister NDP MPs were afraid of losing their seats. Trudeau declined to forge ahead alone.

So here we are. On almost every major issue of this campaign, from funding for culture and the arts to crime and punishment to the role of government, the four parties of the centre and the left are all closer to each other than they are to Stephen Harper's Conservatives. Yet they and the two-thirds of Canadians they represent could be shut out for four years.

Sick and tired of waiting for their politicians, Canadians are taking matters into their own hands and resorting to strategic voting. Two websites, www.voteforenvironment.ca and www.democraticspace.com/canada2008, offer updated riding-by-riding information on which candidate can defeat the Conservative.

Kevin Grandia, founder of voteforenvironment.ca, reports nearly 39,000 unique visitors to his website in its first three days and 234,335 pageviews. "We have a massive split of the progressive left vote," he says. "There's 17 days left in this election and if we keep pushing hard we could realistically spread the...message to more than one million Canadians..." Democraticspace.com urges visitors to ask themselves "what Harper would do with a majority."

A historian and an English professor who specializes in the use of language for cultural purposes say a Harper majority government or even a strengthened Harper minority would remake the face of Canada.

Trent University historian Dimitry Anastakis says Canada "will be a smaller country. (Harper's) modus operandi is to grind government to a halt through tax cuts or spending cuts and gridlock created by a pseudo-elected Senate, more powers to the provinces and the end of the federal spending power." Ottawa will do little more than manage national defence. "(Harper) doesn't like government. He's quite happy to see the provinces usurp the federal government to be the key drivers in how the Canadian economy and key social policies work. So you will see a Canada that can't control greenhouse gas emissions, create social policies, achieve educational goals. The collective approach for dealing with social and economic problems will be out the window."

McMaster University English and cultural studies professor Marc Ouellette says the Harper Conservatives aren't interested in building a Big Tent party. Secure in their 35 per cent ideological base, they are using wedge issues and U.S. Republican-style "culture wars" to smash the coalitions of the other parties. Again, like the Republicans, they hope to win and govern by pitting all against all outside their own Small Tent.

"By playing on peoples' fear of difference, you can get allies from groups who would otherwise be against one another," Ouellette says. "(Ontario Premier Mike) Harris got the doctors' support with tax cuts and the working poor to back him by slashing 'handouts' to people on social assistance.

"It will be: If you get sick, it's your fault; If you're out of work, it's your fault. People will be on their own."

Canadians could face a real revolution after Oct. 14, a revolution desired by little more than a third of us, a revolution courtesy of a broken electoral system.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 1, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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