Political scientists are expected not only to explain but also to predict events correctly. This is of course as futile an enterprise as expecting a sports writer to predict the outcome of the next football game. Rather than enter into a tedious debate on the nature of scientific enquiry in the social sciences, I hope I may be forgiven if I begin this essay with a personal anecdote that forever brought home to me this futility in a forcible manner, and simultaneously brought me down from any pedestal I may have aspired to climb in my earlier academic days. Many readers will recall the day when a coterie of powerful Communists staged a coup and deposed Gorbachev in the dying days of the Soviet regime. That evening, a CNN program invited Henry Kissinger and Jeanne Kirkpatrick, probably two of the most famous American political scientists at that time, and skilled practitioners of the game of politics to boot, to comment on the coup and its implications. Alongside them was Garry Kasparov, the equally famous chess player. The two political scientists waxed and waned about the action-reaction "fact" associated with political change, about the power of the Soviet regime, and about the inevitable reassertion of that power in the current circumstances. Kasparov, in his typical temperamental manner, looked at them condescendingly and simply stated: "Times have changed. There's no going back. The Russian people will not let this happen. They will revolt. Within a week, the coup leaders will have to give up their attempt." In light of the then recent events in Tiananmen Square, when the Chinese leadership ruthlessly put down a similar attempt by democratic activists, Kissinger and Kirkpatrick may have been forgiven for being patronizing to Kasparov and suggesting that all the wishful thinking and fantasizing in the world would not bring the downfall of the Soviet empire. Subsequent events, of course, corroborated Kasparov's intuitive, yet very reasonable and rational conclusions.
This incident did not make me wish to abandon the study of politics. In fact, the opposite was the case. What it did was to place greater emphasis on the intuitive nature of inquiry, and to allow my intuition, which as philosopher of science Michael Polanyii suggested is nothing more than internalized objective knowledge, to show me the way. I may be wrong in my assessment, but then again, I cannot be expected to do more than state what I see as the appropriate data in an honest manner, weigh it as carefully, but also as boldly and perhaps even as brazenly as I can (without losing sight of reality, one hopes), analyze it, interpret it and then draw some conclusions. In other words, take the steps associated with scientific inquiry. It is in suggesting appropriate data, in interpreting it and in drawing conclusions, especially those associated with the future, where intuitive judgment plays such a significant part. I firmly believe with Polanyi that whether my judgment ends up being right or wrong, the effort is worthwhile and I may add, fun. I don't expect the readers of this essay to agree with my choice of variables, let alone my interpretation of them, or my conclusions. I urge others to use their own best judgments.
Now that I have justified whatever brazen notions I'm about to advance in this essay, let me turn to its focus, namely the state of Canadian politics as I write this, and its possible effects on the upcoming election. Since I always ask my students to state a thesis in their papers, I should do the same and state two related thesis statements that will lead my arguments. The paradox in the coming federal election is that the greatest source of strength of the Liberals during the past decade, namely its success in managing the economy, is most likely to be responsible for its defeat. A majority or minority Conservative government is likely to result depending on the campaign itself of course, and is more dependent on the Conservatives' own campaign than on the Liberals or any other party. In other words, it is my position that this election is for the Conservatives to lose. It is my intention to show that there are plausible reasons for what is arguably a bold statement.
Let me start with some preliminary caveats. In a paper of this length, it is impossible to deal with all the factors and/or parties associated with the campaign. The fact that I have decided to deal with the two major parties is that I believe that whether the election results in a majority or minority government, it will be the Liberals and the Conservatives who will remain the chief players. The Bloc's strength is not likely to wane, and the NDP is likely to end up as it is today or, in the unlikely event of a total Liberal debacle, to pick up some seats in this election. It is not my intention to slight these parties or the Greens, but to provide an assessment of what I see as the "big picture" and the "big players." The second caveat is more in self-defense. It cannot be stressed enough (more on this later) that today's campaigns are crucial, and as we have seen repeatedly over the past three decades, they will make the difference not only between who wins and who loses, but how great the margin of victory and defeat can be for the players themselves. The comments that follow are based on some plausible assumptions, and on the situation as is on December 1, a full seven weeks before election day.
This will be the longest campaign in decades. This will not likely affect the campaign because the parties appear in agreement that there should be a Christmas break in campaigning. The last time this occurred, 1979, the impact of a lengthy, holiday campaign was negligible. On the other hand, campaigns have changed dramatically. In the traditional campaign, the first period –cleanly separated this time by the Christmas break—was characterized by an opposition that dwelt on the sins of the government and a government that defended its record. In the second part, both sets of parties would turn to more positive matters, namely providing their vision of the future and the policies that in their view would fulfill this vision. But politics today is no longer carried out in the traditional mode. Electronic technology has ensured that the neat old game of offence and defense is an impossible one to entertain. The two are constantly intertwining, and a party stays within one single mode at its peril. Success in contemporary campaigns depends on capturing the initiative early and not abandoning it. This as much as the tendency toward incivility, is the reason that campaigns have become more acrimonious in recent decades. Parties and their leaders cannot afford to let go of their offensive mode for any length of time, and spend their time responding appropriately to the opponents' daily missiles, and most significantly, doing so in a manner that will not be subject to any form of misinterpretation by generally well-meaning (and sometimes ill-intentioned) journalists and pundits. Mistakes, even sometimes minor ones, can be devastating.
If we believe that this is already a tall order for any political party, we may add that regardless of what surveys may appear to suggest –namely that local candidates still play a role in elections—the responsibility for the campaign rests squarely in the shoulders of a handful of people we call the leaders of the political parties. It is their job to embody the heart and soul of the parties, their historical and current vision, their program, their strategy, tactics and candidates, let alone their own personalities; in other words, what we call in a sweeping way their "image" with the voter. Is it any wonder that leaders require more (or less?) intelligence than mere mortals, and that they must be possessed by a massive ego, motivation and ambition in order to claim success?
If it is true that leadership has become irretrievably the central focus of modern elections, it is equally true that the volatility of the voters –the so-called swing or independent voter—is becoming more intense with each passing election. Surveys have conclusively showed that in Canada as many as twenty per cent of voters (i.e not counting the large number of uncommitted who do not vote) are prepared to change parties if circumstances warrant it. A careful examination of the results of the 2004 election indicates that of the 308 ridings, 16 were won by less than one per cent difference, another 39 by less than five per cent, and an additional 53 by less than ten percent (I'm indebted to the CBC website for compiling this data). It doesn't take much to convince any one that the short-term factors associated with the ebb and flow of the campaign –as opposed to deep-seated party loyalties—can prove decisive.
The combination of the importance of leadership in the context of the contemporary political discourse, and the importance of election campaigns leads me to my first interpretation. Given the heavy load of responsibilities outlined above, it seems to me that the real test of leadership, tied to decisiveness, is that those who wield it must be comfortable not only with who they are and what they believe but also, with what they say at any one time. Unless they are puppets in a blissful state of ignorance, dangerous psychopaths, or both, leaders have been compelled by modern technology to say what they mean and mean what they say, or risk being easily mistrusted by the voters or being found insincere by the media. On the other hand, of course, should they tell the truth as they see it, they may open themselves to criticism if that doesn't match the image the party may wish to portray. The reader may me more cynical about his earlier source of strength, but one could argue, for instance, that the reason that George W. Bush has been successful over the past six years despite his many flaws, is precisely that he appears to firmly believe what he says.
More specifically in Canada, Stephen Harper has made significant gains in the past year by attempting to develop the image of moderation that they clearly needed to find resonance in the voting public. The charge that he is little more than a Reformer has dogged him, given his early association with the former party, and countless pronouncements over the years. The big question mark in the minds of the swing or volatile voters is whether, regardless of what he may say, he has experienced a transformation in the past three years sufficiently so that he has moderated his stance on social policies –something he himself hasn't yet affirmed—or whether he continues to have a hidden agenda. A recent Strategic Counsel survey showed that voters thought he did so less than Martin.
Indeed, one can easily notice that he is uncomfortable when he's speaking on such areas as social spending, or matters of national unity, to give two examples. On the other hand, he has been brilliantly confident on anything having to do with cutting taxes –to the extent the Liberals haven't already done it—eliminating the debt and maintaining fiscal prudence. There is still a disconnect between what appear to be his firmly held beliefs in Reform ideas on social policy, and what he may think he needs to say—which caused untold problems in the 2004 election and was the primary cause of his defeat in the final days of the campaign. There is also clearly a disconnect between the party's claims to have changed substantially to become closer to the swing voters' perceived stance and the obvious split between the Progressive Conservatives and the Alliance/Reform wings of the party, which to some extent separates also the younger and middle aged from the older Conservatives. There are still many of the former who refuse to contemplate a Conservative government today and are, either actively or otherwise, working to prevent Harper from succeeding. The defection of Belinda Stronach, and earlier of Scott Brison and Keith Martin, all of them young progressive members, to the Liberals is seen as an example of this unbridgeable dichotomy between the two camps.
The question remains whether the Conservatives can do anything to make up for any shortcoming in their social platform, as embodied by their leader, which became so successfully the central focus of the Liberal campaign in 2004. The answer is that the Conservatives know that they have to run a flawless campaign in order to accomplish half of what a more "suitable" leader (one that would be comfortable wielding more moderate social views) could have. The difference is that while a more suitable leader may have led the Conservative party to majority status in this election, Harper may only be able to aspire to achieving a minority government. In order to understand what a flawless election campaign may look like, we need to taker a closer look at the current state of Canadian politics.
It is no overstatement that, all things being equal, the Liberals should be looking at spending a period in opposition. There are several reasons for this. First, the party has been in power for 12 years and four successive elections. Although this is not that unusual for the Liberals –they have held power for more than 70 of the last hundred years—the fact is that today alternation of government and power is something that ought to be expected under normal circumstances, federally or provincially. The second reason is that, unlike in the 2004 election, at what point Martin had recently become Liberal leader, the public has now had an opportunity to evaluate his performance, and that performance has been, albeit by no means poor, less than impressive, as polls indicate. In any case, the performance has not been so good that he remains a decisive reason to pull the voter to the Liberal camp.
Thirdly, there is of course, the sponsorship scandal and the first report from Justice Gomery. Despite the fact that it exonerated Martin and all current ministers, and that it zeroed in on the malfeasance of the Quebec wing of the Liberal party, the so-called "culture of entitlement" to which he made allusion, cut a wide swath and affected all federal Liberals. The public agrees that the Liberals ought to be punished in some way, and that a change of government ought to happen. The Liberals have not ingratiated themselves to that public by giving the impression that they will do almost anything to stay in power, including their late spending spree when it became evident that Martin's hopes of a spring election were not going to become realized.
In addition to these factors, the Conservatives have made some progress of their own since 2004. The most significant one is in the Montreal policy convention of this past spring, when decisions were made to move the party to the more progressive centre of the political spectrum where independent voters are. Despite some serious glitches –most particularly the inability or, more likely the unwillingness to dissociate the party from a neo-conservative social agenda—the party did come across as willing to take steps for the first time to become a real alternative to the Liberals. Since then, the Conservatives have made a significant effort to emphasize the youthful sectors –read non-redneck—of the party and to either retire or relegate many of the so-called reformers to the backbenches. It has been even suggested that the fact that the NDP was willing to cooperate with them in defeating the government indicates that the Conservatives may have become more palatable as an alternative.
The Conservatives have also spent a lot of time on organizational matters since that conference. As of the time the election was called, they had double the number of Liberal candidates nominated in their respective constituencies, and a war chest of more than double that of the Liberals. In addition to this, they have sent a clear message that they will have a full platform on all issues that are likely to appear as significant in the coming campaign. All these are considered essential trappings to a good campaign. The big question is whether they will be able to deliver it in a timely manner, and whether the policies espoused are seen as effective, safe, reasonable measures to solve Canadian problems. These matters are intrinsic to a sound strategy.
So, why is it that most Canadians still seem resigned to the expectation that nothing much will change and that, come January 23, the House will look very much like the one we just left behind? There are several reasons for this, some inherent to the Conservatives' perceived weaknesses, already alluded to, but some are clearly associated with Liberal strength. Of special significance is undoubtedly its management of the economy. Paul Martin is rightfully credited to a great extent with Canada's fiscal wellbeing, and that he has been largely responsible for setting the stage for the eight consecutive surpluses this country has experienced, whittling down the debt, reducing corporate and income taxes, and generally not spending "beyond our means." If it is true to some extent that the Liberals borrowed a page off the Conservative agenda in accomplishing this feat, this does not diminish his achievement.
The contrast with our neighbours to the south, with whom Harper has often publicly sympathized, is striking. Indeed, it is interesting that Bush's conservatism has lost any remaining lustre he may have had with Canadians –even for many Progressive Conservatives—and any alliance that is perceived with his philosophy, is seen as un-Canadian by many. Many expect the Liberals to use this weapon forcibly during the election, in distinguishing Canada from the US, and in espousing the twin major themes with which the Liberals feel comfortable today, Canadian sovereignty and national unity. Their record on the first is impressive, and popular, while none of the other national opposition parties have successfully disputed the Liberal claim that they best embody national unity.
On other issues, such as health care, aboriginal rights, provincial relations and the environment, the Liberals have been able to do little more than deflect major criticism, and thus are neither likely to help or hurt them electorally. An exception to this neutral column may be their policies on child care and infrastructure support for municipalities, where positive steps have been taken to address gaping needs vis-à-vis their traditional mainstays in urban Canada.
Ultimately, as writers such as Stephen Clarkson have pointed out, the greatest strength of the Liberal party, and the reason that so many pundits and voters still believe it will emerge victorious next month, is its uncanny ability to enunciate and embody the mood of the so-called average Canadian –which is little more than another term for the swing voter—at a point in time, alongside the expertise of its strategists to devise methods and techniques to destroy its opponents. The sole exception to this in recent decades was provided by the John Turner fiasco of both 1984 and 1988.
Thus far I have attempted to strike a balance between the relative strength of both major parties coming into this campaign. Let me finally turn to my thesis statements and determine the reasons why it is my view that this is an election for the Conservatives to lose. First is the readiness—albeit not enthusiastically—on the part of the Canadian media to lend credibility to Harper. Conservatives complain about their claim of Liberal bias in the media This is not the place to examine the extent to which the tone and the spin the media provides otherwise seemingly objective coverage has an impact on election outcomes. It seems to me, in any case, that this bias is less present today than it has been in the past few years. The media, especially the electronic media, is aware of this accusation, and has been going out of its way to show impartiality. It doesn't hurt, of course, that they need excitement to generate good stories and a tight "horse race" is always a boon to reporters.
The second factor is Quebec, a province where the Conservatives are not expected to do well, but which needs to be neutralized by them. Some political commentators in that province have already noted that Quebecers are less frightened of the prospect of a Conservative minority than was the case last year. This together with the strong anti-Liberal feeling that still runs deep on the heels of the sponsorship scandal, may give the Conservatives that needed neutrality, if not boost in support. Furthermore, it is no secret that the Conservative view on decentralization suits Quebecers better than the Liberal view.
This brings me to my central interpretation of factors and variables. A flawless campaign for the Conservatives would seem to consist of playing strongly on their strength –the areas in which Harper himself is familiar and comfortable—which is of course fiscal prudence and changes in taxation, and keeping the lid on areas where he and his party are out of step with the majority of Canadians, namely on social issues.
How might the Liberal success in economic management help the Conservatives? In two major ways: first, because the money is available for them to increase more or less significantly their target of tax cuts. Not only can they take partial credit for the fact that the Liberals took a page off their platform since the beginning, but they can meet their objective, which has always been "to put more money into the pockets of Canadians."
The second reason why a good economy is more likely to help the Conservatives is an interpretation of data that is in the realm of current public discourse: people in democracies are more likely to be predisposed to accept change both when times are bad and there's not much to be lost by trying alternatives, and when times are good, and change is not likely to cause catastrophic results. In the case of today's Canada, polls have shown that most people believe that there will be another minority government after January 23. The argument might go something like this: a change in government is needed. Harper remains an unknown quantity and still not fully trustworthy. The best way to try him out might be at a time when any policies he might espouse cannot be fully implemented, namely under a minority situation, and when the economy is strong and can withstand some change of direction.
But, one may ask: doesn't the undoubted strength in the economy remain Paul Martin's greatest achievement, and the Liberals' mantra that they will play repeatedly in the campaign? Although the answer to this question might appear to be decisively in the affirmative, the paradox is that voters everywhere have turfed out great leaders once their particular strength has been put to full use and it is time to move on: I need only repeat names that readers will recognize to know that this is the reality of leadership and its ephemeral nature: Churchill in post-war Britain, Suarez in Spain's democratic transition, Walesa in Poland's stand against communism, Gorbachev in the demise of the Soviet Union....The question that Canadian voters will ask themselves on January 23 is not whether the economy is good and reflects well on the Liberals' chances, but whether, to follow my example, they believe that Paul Martin has outlived his usefulness and is time for a change of personnel. The campaign remains the determining factor that will show whether the Liberals are able to counteract that underlying question, and whether the Conservatives are able to show that they have a rational set of policies, embodied by their leader, to take the Liberals' place in government.
An Important Note: Given the nature and purpose of this piece, I've made no effort to provide sources for most comments.
Professor, Department of Political Science, Brandon University
—Dr. Serfaty is Chair of the Political Science Department in Brandon University's Faculty of Arts. In addition to his teaching duties, Dr. Serfaty is BU's resident expert on Provincial politics, the topic of much of his academic writing and research.