24 January 2006

And the Winner is...

A fascinating result last night. Here are a few random thoughts and riffs on the election results.

The numbers
As everyone and her brother has observed, Prime Minister-elect Stephen Harper was given only a slim minority, hardly what one could call a mandate. The operative cliché is, “Canadians don’t vote governments ‘in’ so much as they vote governments out,” (which puts an interesting spin on today's cliché, that the West is now 'in'). What the polls didn’t predict – and why would they since the pollsters pulled the wool over the eyes of those who employed them – was the strength of the residual Liberal support. There was an anti-PaulMartinLiberals wave reflected in the voting, to be sure: that’s what likely accounts for the Conservative victories in Québec. But without a “kick the bums out” mentality going into the next election, Harper will have a challenge to retain traditional Liberal voters who thumbed their noses at a tired regime. And to those who say that last night's results demonstrate that the Conservatives are now truly a national party, I would respond, that's an observation of figure, not ground (although I would agree that a form of proportional representation would better demonstrate the "nationality" of all parties).

The myth of the “test drive”
Contrary to what many “ordinary Canadians” have been saying today on phone-in shows, a minority government is no “test drive” of what a party would do if they held a majority. Minority governments are typically on their best behaviour, leaving the more radical aspects of their platforms waiting in the wings until they are given a majority mandate. Better yet, they are “held in check” (an interesting Harperism that I read as reflecting latent frustration at being held in check) not by “activist judges” (ditto), but rather by being forced to work collaboratively with those who may not share their views. This has always made for better government – that is, more enlightened policy and more fiscal responsibility – in Canada, up until the point when partisanship rears its power-hungry head. Anyone believe that Harper will attempt to introduce any legislation that smacks of controversial social policy? Any that will touch off a Charter battle? No hands up, eh? I thought not. The minority rule: stay on your best behaviour and hope the economy doesn’t tank before you can go for a majority. By the way, the promise of successive minority (read: collaborative) governments is probably the best reason to push for proportional representation in parliamentary reform.

An election? More like an exorcism!
With Paul Martin stepping down as leader, we have finally exorcised the Liberal Party of two ghosts who have been clashing in the attic for decades, namely Pierre Elliott Trudeau vs. Paul Martin Sr. You see, it was PET who “stole” the reins of power from the current Paul’s father, who was the PM-in-waiting back in the late 1960s. Later, Jean Chrétien – a disciple of PET – replayed the rivalry of the previous generation, keeping Paul Martin Jr. waiting… and waiting… and waiting. Out came the long knives (oops! That’s a Progressive Conservative metaphor; right, Dalton Camp?) and down went Chrétien. But there was a curse left on 24 Sussex that Paul Jr. could not overcome, and so, embattled for over a year, haunted by the spectre of scandal and corruption, his political career is now laid to rest. (Last night’s concession speech will, however, enable him to return – be reincarnated, if you will – in the form of the elder statesman.)

Without getting too metaphysical about it, there is an earthly, realpolitik explanation for last night’s result. Many of the most powerful Liberal organizers decided to sit this one out, allowing Paul Martin to twist in the political wind, as it were. This was especially true in Québec. With a new leader arising, the old machine can once again be fired up; it will be a very different campaign next time, say about two years from now, give or take a couple of months. And given the relative solidity of the Liberal support base, probably a very different outcome. Stephen, I wouldn't get too comfortable in the new digs if I were you.

Liberal Arts
Assuming they care about what I have to say – and I don’t know why they would, necessarily – the best thing the Liberal Party can do now is to retrieve Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Trudeaumania in a new form. Think about it: Trudeau came to power when television was becoming the dominant medium of politics, just eight short years after the Kennedy-Nixon debates that defined broadcast politics. He was able to capitalize on the effects of the environment enabled by that medium to re-energize the entire country. He was relatively young and very different than traditional politicians: he was smart, worldly and hip to what was happening in society. The Liberal Party has the opportunity to do precisely the same thing by selecting a slate of leadership candidates who are similarly endowed, and analogously different from what came before. The leadership candidates have the opportunity to embrace the changes in the political environment enabled by ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity, but not yet capitalized on by any political party. In doing so, they have the opportunity to engage a wider spectrum of the electorate, not merely to vote, but to actively engage in the conversations that comprise democratic process.

And now that I think of it, this is a lesson that all parties can learn. School’s out… for now.
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P.S. I flipped among CBC, CTV, Global and City coverage last night. Tied for last place in TV visuals: Global, whose garish and juvenile graphics looked like they were done by a kid playing with his first graphics and animation software - and what was up with their percentage of popular vote icons sitting on the screen at 0% for most of the night; and City, who merely rejiggered their CP24 screen layout program, and consequently occupied too much screen (un)real estate with nothing. In second place, CBC, who tried to be visually tricky with their curved screen illusion, but the wiper effect on the numbers was downright distracting. As well, the live coverage window was a tad too small for my liking. The unanimous winner, in my household at least, was CTV, with non-distracting graphics, a large window to the live coverage, and an understanding of visual metaphors - the national seat count turning like an odometer demonstrated a great comprehension of interface design. Kudos as well to Elections Canada, who arranged for most of the country's polls to close at the same time, with BC only a half-hour later. It made for both a shorter, and more exciting evening.

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