24 January 2006

Cautious Canadians

The implications for Canada of the victory of the Conservative Party in last night's federal election aren't immediately obvious. The most likely scenarios hint at very little change on just about every front, and when it comes to things children of the Englightenment care about, the strongest language I would use is the old standard of "cautious optimisim."

For the benefit of American readers unfamiliar with the subtleties of politics north of the border, and despite what the Washington Post and the rest of the U.S. press would have you believe, the election results do not signal a significant "swing to the right." Yes, the popular vote swung by six percentage points from the Liberals to the Conservatives, but it would be a mistake to read too much into party names.

A more accurate description would have the center-right Conservative Party, not the electorate, swinging closer to the center in order to attract centrist voters unhappy with a tired Liberal Party that had become tainted by scandal. It's as simple as that. It's important to note that the victors ended up with 37 per cent of the vote, and only 40 per cent of the seats in Parliament. Hardly "a striking turn" as the New York Times would have you believe.

With a few notable exceptions, this is essentially what happens in every election in Canada, whose populace distrusts anyone who strays too far from the center. If the Conservatives had won a majority and therefore real control of Parliament, one could worry about the old "campaign from the left and govern from the right" strategy that has marked past disingenuous governments, but that's not the case here, not with a minority government.

I take comfort in the knowledge that the Conservative Party managed to win in large part by abandoning its recent past, a past sullied only a few years ago by a leader who believed humans and dinosaurs once walked the earth together. The new prime minister, Stephen Harper, may be a fiscal conservative, but he knows the social conservatism of his predecessors leaves a bad taste in the mouths of mosts Canadians. He led his party to victory by rejecting the homophobes and anti-abortion activists that once dominated the right wing in Parliament.

The bottom line is we're not going to hear calls to teach the evolution controversy from the Prime Minister's Office.

Harper, in fact, took over his party by negating that kind of thinking, and he is loathe to even mention religion. The strongest statement I could find from his lips on this subject is:
My view is that the purpose of a Christian church is to promote the message and the life of Christ. It is not to promote a particular political party or candidacy. I don't think this is good religion, besides being bad politics at the same time." (CBC News Online, Jan. 24.)
That's good news. Whatever Harper's views on monetary and foreign policy, and no matter how often his critics suggest he constitutes a best friend for George. W. Bush, I'm not going to lose any sleep over the outcome of this election.

Even on those issues where Harper shows a lack of respect for reason -- his opposition to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, for example -- his power to effect any real change is extremely limited, by his failure to win absolute control of Parliament, and the opposition of the Senate, which is still a very Liberal (and decidedly liberal) body.


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