Canada Chooses 2006
Monday, January 23, 2006; 1:00 PM
Jim Sheppard was online to discuss the Canadian general election.
Jim Sheppard is executive editor of globeandmail.com, the Web site of The Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper. Prior to that, he was Deputy Editor of washingtonpost.com, where he worked for most of the previous 10 years.
Sheppard has covered most of the federal elections in Canada for the past 35 years for various newspapers and for The Canadian Press, the national news service of Canada. He was a foreign correspondent for seven years, based in London and Moscow. He covered the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the end of communism in Eastern Europe, including the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. He also reported on Ethiopian famines, the end of apartheid in South Africa, the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, and the end of the Iran-Iraq war.
A transcript follows.
Jim Sheppard: Good afternoon. It's nice to back at washingtonpost.com -- even if it's only electronically.
Before we get started, let me outline two points where Canada and Canadian elections are quite different than their American cousins.
First, although Canada and the U.S. are very similar in many ways, there's also a basic "through the looking glass" difference that's important to keep in mind. The word "liberal" is not an insult here. Many Canadians, maybe even the majority, identify themselves as being on the left, or at least the left-centre. The Liberal Party has ruled at the national level for something like 80 out of the past 100 years. So when we talk "left, right and centre," it means something quite different than what those terms mean in the U.S.
Second, there is no direct vote for the prime minister in the British-Canadian system, unlike the way the president is elected in the U.S. The next prime minister will be the leader of the party that wins the most seats in today's election.
Arlington, Va.: Gay marriage has been legal in many Canadian provinces for over two years. Our Canadian relatives and friends believe it's now a non-issue for the national elections - what's your take? Is marriage equality at risk in Canada?
Jim Sheppard: On the contrary, it's very much an issue in this campaign. Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has promised to hold a "free vote" in the House of Commons on the issue if, as expected, he forms a government. Unlike the American system, Canadian MPs are expected to vote the party line - except in unusual circumstances when a "free vote" is called. Mr. Harper maintains that the traditional definition of marriage - one man, one woman - can be restored by this simple act. Most constitutional experts disagree. Same-sex marriage was legalized here formally last year after the Supreme Court ruled that previous bans were unconstitutional. Most experts think any move to end same-sex marriage will require use of a device called the "notwithstanding clause" - a device to overrule part of the Charter of Rights in our constitution. That would be very difficult to do. But, clearly, it's still a hot-button issue.
Glover Park, D.C.: Jim: Really came to enjoy The Globe and Mail during my stay in Canada last month (now have it bookmarked on my PC). Could you speculate what Mr. Harper might do with climate change policy if he becomes PM? During the UN climate change talks in Montreal, I remember your paper knocking Martin as being all talk, no action on this issue.
Jim Sheppard: Thanks. Always good to talk to a regular reader. Mr. Harper has said he will withdraw Canada from the Kyoto treaty and try to develop alternative means to reduce emissions. It's a fairly controversial pledge. The other three parties back Kyoto.
Rockville, Md.: How much do the candidates' policy and views of the US influence Canadian elections vs. issues that are truly Canadian?
Jim Sheppard: The standard joke is that the best definition of a "Canadian" is simply "not American." In other words, we're not too sure about who we are but we know what we don't want to be. Relations with the U.S. are a key part of any federal election here and this was no exception. The current Prime Minister, Paul Martin, posed for a photo with Bill Clinton during a Kyoto follow-up conference in Montreal early in the campaign, prompting the Bush administration to have its ambassador here deliver a rare public tongue-lashing. It's fair to say that Bush and his team would much prefer to have Harper win the election. The Conservatives are always closer to the U.S. But there are substantial differences between the Republicans and the Canadian Conservatives. As for how much influence this has, though, I doubt it has much. Most Conservatives support closer relations with the U.S. Those that prefer to keep our distance are normally Liberal, NDP or Bloc supporters. I doubt that too many votes were changed by this issue, no matter how important it is.
Washington, D.C.: Can you speculate how a potential coalition government might look, if the Conservatives fall short? How would the NDP and BQ play into things?
Jim Sheppard: That's the $64,000 question. The polls certainly suggest a Conservative minority. Although they are comfortably ahead, the vote breakdown, region by region, gives no reason to suggest they can gain the 60 seats (or so) that they need to reach a majority. They have no natural partners in the Commons. The Liberals, NDP and Bloc are all, in varying degrees, a little or a lot to the left of the Conservatives. It will be interesting to see how Harper decides to govern, presuming he does win. It will almost certainly have to be on an issue-by-issue basis. There's no coalition possible.
Wichita, Kan.: Jim, with the expected fall of the Liberal party tonight, how close do you see this election to 1993, where the Conservatives almost ceased to exist for a while?
Jim Sheppard: If you'd asked me that question two weeks ago, I and many other pundits would have said "yes." However, in the last week or 10 days, there has been a small but significant reduction of the gap between the two main parties, particularly in Ontario, the largest province with more than 100 seats in the 308-seat Commons. Ontario is traditionally Liberal and many people who live in it find themselves unable to vote Conservative when push comes to shove. I may be proven wrong tomorrow but I suspect the Liberals will lose a significant number of seats without being reduced to rump status as the Conservatives were in 1993.
Arlington, Va.: Please explain the "Notwithstanding clause" of the Canadian constitution. I've been following the election but can't make heads or tails of it.
Jim Sheppard: It's a truly Canadian creation - most of us don't understand it either. Basically, it was a political compromise tossed in at the last moment to clinch the deal that gave us a new constitution and a Charter of Rights in 1982. At that time, many of the provinces were balking at then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's proposed Charter, because they feared - among other things - that it would give the courts the power to overrule provincial legislatures. So, to get their agreement after a long and bitter battle, Trudeau - to his ever-lasting regret - was forced to add to the constitution a clause that says "notwithstanding" any of the provisions of the Charter, the federal government or a province, or provinces, can pass a law that violates the Charter, at least temporarily. It's even more complex than that confusing summary sounds but . . .
Washington, D.C.: Has there been much discussion yet in the Canadian press as to whether Paul Martin will retire tonight? (Maybe he can go work for the Clinton Foundation.)
Jim Sheppard: Again, I could be terribly wrong. But if the current conventional wisdom is correct, the Liberals will lose seats and the Conservatives will get a minority government, but the Liberals won't be crushed enough to force an immediate resignation by Mr. Martin. In a minority situation, he can certainly fight on in the belief there will be another election in a year or so. In fact, in a complicated twist of our system, if Mr. Harper loses a nonc-confidence motion, there's always the chance Mr. Martin could be asked to form another government before another election. The Liberal party constitution says there should be a vote on whether to call a leadership review about 18 months after an election. There will definitely be calls within the party for him to quit because he's run a horrible campaign. I would think that the number of seats he wins (or loses) will be the main factor in determining how strong those calls are.
Arlington, Tex.: Given the impact on the Gomery scandal on the Quebec Liberal party and the Bloc Quebeçois' likely resulting gains, how does this election affect future referendums and other considerations of the sovereignty question?
South of the border, it's hard to tell if Quebeckers vote for the bloc because of true separatist feelings or simply because they are fed up with the liberals and have no other choice.
Jim Sheppard: That's a good question. Most observers would say there's no direct connection between today's federal election and any future Quebec referendum. The Parti Québécois could win the next provincial election, expected in 2007, and has promised to hold a third referendum if it does. But that's a long way off. The issue has been more of a simmering subtext in this federal campaign. Liberal Leader Paul Martin started the campaign by suggesting the election was a mini-referendum on Quebec independence. That tactic didn't work at all. Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe talked a lot in the early stages about the symbolic importance of getting more than 50 percent of the vote. But, as the Conservatives surged in the polls, they grabbed a significant chunk of both Bloc and Liberal support in the province, pulling the Bloc down to about 48 percent, the same level it got in 2004, according to the latest Strategic Counsel poll for globeandmail.com. So, last week, Duceppe tried to pretend he never suggested the 50 percent goal. Regardless, support for Quebec sovereignty - they don't use the word "independence" - appears to be about where it has been for years.
Saratoga Springs, N.Y.: Do you find it intersting that neither CNN nor MSNBC nor for that matter the New York Times seems to cover the election. I thought that Canada was the US's largest trading parnter but seems not register on any other media outlet?
Jim Sheppard: I'm not really sure how much the U.S. media has been covering the Canadian campaign but, no, it doesn't surprise me. After 10 years of living in the U.S., it still saddens me that most Americans know more about Mexico or Cuba than Canada, despite the historical and trade ties between our countries. (I must say, though, I was pleased to see that The Washington Post and washingtonpost.com has published several stories about the campaign).
washingtonpost.com: Primer: Canada Chooses 2006
Falls Church, Va.: Jim - How much do you expect strategic voting to come into play? For example, will there be significant NDP supporters voting Liberal to ensure that the Conservatives do not carry their riding (and vice-versa)? Thanks for you time!
Jim Sheppard: One of the main reasons that I -- and the true experts out there -- are cautious in our predictions is that "strategic voting" is almost a national past-time. In the 2004 election, Mr. Harper's Conservatives appeared headed for victory. But the Liberals launched a very successful negative advertising campaign labelling him as a scary right-winger who would destroy our cherished social programs. One of the results was "strategic voting" where people would normally support the left-leaning NDP changed their minds at the last minute (sometimes even in the polling booth) and voted Liberal just to stop the Conservatives. The Liberals have tried the same trick this time. Apparently, it has been less successful than last time. The Conservatives were ready for the negative attacks and fought back harder. The ads themselves were poorly done. The NDP really focused on preventing their vote from leaking. In fact, they tried to pitch Liberal voters to switch to the NDP instead. Yet again, I may be proven wrong. But right now, I think an awful lot of strategic voting will take place in Ontario.
Washington, D.C.: The CBC (and presumably other Canadian media) can't broadcast results before 10 EST. Can individuals get results from other sources?
Jim Sheppard: Most Canadian media - including globeandmail.com - are bound by a law that prevents us from publishing results until 10 p.m. EST. That's not quite as big a burden as it has been in the past because the polls in Ontario and Quebec, where most voters live, will be open until 9:30 p.m. EST. So we're really talking about a short period of time for the majority of Canadians to wait until the polls close in B.C. at 10 p.m. EST. However, I'm sure that many Canadians will be scouring U.S. Web sites and listening to U.S. radio and TV to find out information that can't legally be published here.
Madison, Wisc.: As an American who hunts in Manitoba every year, I have a question motivated purely by self-interest. Any chance a Conservative government will repeal Canada's ridiculous firearms registration system?
Jim Sheppard: Yes. They have promised to do that.
Alexandria, Va.: Jim,
How much play is the issue of improving Canada's health care system receiving in the campaign?
Jim Sheppard: It's a central issue. However, it does not seem to have generated as much traction as in past campaigns. All 3 federalist parties, and the Bloc, support the basic concept of Medicare. They argue about the details and about how much "privatization" or "two-tier" services to allow. The Liberals have tried to convince Canadians that the Conservatives are a threat to state-run Medicare but without any publicly-visible success. The NDP, who fathered Medicare decades ago, has wrapped itself in the health-care flag. But again, there's been no big surge to them for it.
Kanata, Ontario, Canada: What will the Globe and Mail do, now that the party it has warned Canadians about for years might win the election?
Are there any true Tory insiders that the Globe uses? Or, because of its hostility to the Conservatives and Mr. Harper, do its editors fear they will be on the 'outside' if there is a Conservative government? And, if it is a Tory minority, how hard will the Globe work to undermine and topple that government?
Finally, can the Leafs win the Cup?
Jim Sheppard: Actually, The Globe endorsed the Conservatives in this election after backing the Liberals in 2004. You can read the reasons here
As for the (Toronto Maple) Leafs, no way!! They'll be lucky to make the NHL playoffs.
Bethesda, Md.: To what extent is Stephen Harper's popularity a reflection of a change in Canadians' views as to the role of government, and the appropriate extent of the social net, vs. simply a rejection of the Liberals?
In the event his party forms the next government would it be a mistake for the US to think Canadians are more accepting of the current US administration?
Jim Sheppard: Mr. Harper would be the first to admit - and has done so publicly - that he's not really a lovable kinda guy. This election is mostly a rejection of a tired, scandal-ridden Liberal government and partly a very good campaign by Mr. Harper and his American and Australian conservative advisers. In fact, if it weren't for the fears many centre and left-leaning Canadians have about Mr. Harper personally, he'd probably be sweeping to a majority government today. (And he may get one yet, of course, if the numbers break right)
Washington, D.C.: How prominent is the Iraq war issue in this election? Is it high on Canadian voters' minds that their government has kept the country from involved/entangled in Iraq?
Jim Sheppard: The Iraq war has been mentioned a lot in the campaign but it's not a huge factor. If the Conservatives had been in power in 2003, it's possible Canada would have joined the U.S.-led coalition (as it did in Afghanistan). However, now, that's a non-issue. Mr. Harper has stated no enthusiasm for such a venture in 2006 and the other three parties are fundamentally opposed. So no votes are being won or lost on this one - despite its importance and high visibility. It just makes committed votes more committed to the party they already support for multiple reasons.
Calgary, Alberta: Hi I was just thanking you for covering questions about the election .As an American living in Canada it is nice to see something covered that isn't biased or condescending toward Canada. It is a wonderful country to be in.
Jim Sheppard: I agree. I truly enjoyed living for 10 years in the U.S. and working at washingtonpost.com Our son was born there and we certainly plan to go back. But it's good to be "home," too. I appreciate your comment on the lack of bias. Too often these days in Canada, we in the media hear complaints of bias - from all sides - that are more and more like the ranting endemic in the U.S. on the subject.
Washington, D.C.: Has Paul Martin's coup against Jean Chretien come back to haunt him in this election?
Jim Sheppard: Let's just say it hasn't helped. The Liberal Party is still pretty divided over the Chretien-Martin wars. There's a fairly strong feeling that it needs to renew itself. The Globe's Ottawa bureau chief, Brian Laghi, wrote a pretty good analysis on that subject in today's paper
Arlington, Va.: Jim,
Are any of the party leaders in jeporady of losing their seat? I know Jack Layton has a strong Lib running against him. What about Olivia Chow's chances?
Jim Sheppard: There was some talk in last few weeks that Mr. Martin was in trouble in his Montreal riding but that seems to have died down. The other leaders look fairly safe. Mr. Layton's wife, Olivia Chow, is generally considered to be in a close race in her Toronto riding. She lost by a narrow margin to a Liberal in 2004 and there's a lot of anti-Liberal sentiment out there right now.
Falls Church, Va.: Is there any chance that Paul Martin could remain as the PM even though the Conservatives win the most seats under an NDP-Liberal coalition? Or does Steven Harper automatically get the first chance to form the government if he wins the most seats?
Jim Sheppard: Technically, yes. Practically, not likely. By British-Canadian tradition, Mr. Martin remains prime minister unless another party wins a majority in today's election. If Mr. Harper gets more seats but not a majority, Mr. Martin could theoretically ask the Governor-General to call on him to form a government and seek a confidence vote in Parliament. It has happened before in Canadian history. But Mr. Martin has said he won't do that. It would be a much greater question if the Liberals and Conservatives won almost the same number of seats.
Arlington, Va.: I have read that BC and GTA are the real battlefields. Any other ares of Canada to watch tonight?
Jim Sheppard: B.C. and the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) are two of the three areas where the races are the closest and the most seats are at stake. The other area is the rest of southern Ontario, traditional Liberal territory where the Conservatives are poised to make some big gains e unless there's a lot of "strategic voting."
Gatesville, Tex. The bulk of American right-wing media talkers frequently generalize Canada as a 'socialist' country. I lived there for many years and, aside from universal health care and some strong labor representation, it never struck me as a socialist state. Is the label unfounded?
Jim Sheppard: Well, now we're back to the first comment I made about terminology. By U.S. standards, Canada is certainly "socialist." Here, we would laugh at that characterization. We do have a wealth of social programs that our American friends don't have. They have acquired a semi-sacred status here. But our economy is hardly state-planned so "socialist" is not really the correct term.
Arlington, Va.: Jim,
What happens to Belinda Stonach? Does she cross back if the liberals lose. Also if the PC's win but fail to form a government what happens?
Jim Sheppard: Belinda Stronach (who ran strongly for the leadership of the Conservative party before defecting to the Liberals dramatically last spring) is in a very close race in her Toronto area riding. Whether she wins or not, there's every chance in the world she will be a big force in rebuilding the Liberal party. If she wins, she might even be considered a leadership candidate if Paul Martin does go, or get forced out.
Wahington, D.C.: What are your thoughts on Michael Ignatieff's candidacy in Etobicoke Lakeshore? Will he win? Will he run for Liberal leadership when Martin resigns? Who else are the frontrunnners to replace Martin? Manley? McKenna? Trudeau?
Jim Sheppard: Ignatieff: The former Harvard professor is in a very tight race in what should be a safe Liberal seat. He might run for leader if Martin goes.
Manley and McKenna are the two front-runners for sure if there's a vacancy. Trudeau's son would be a popular choice, too.
Lindsay, Ontario: As an ex-pat and retired political scientist I have avidly followed Canadian politics since immigrating five years ago. Missing from this very good discussion (Thanks to the Post for airing it and to Jim Sheppard for leading it) is any commentary on the real Stephen Harper and the direction in which he wants to take Canada. Jim has correctly noted Harper's political origins and he successful effort to repackage himself as a moderate. I think there is little evidence that Harper has changed his policy objectives, which are to significantly reduce the size of the federal government and devolve more power to the provinces. Indeed, he has said that the Swiss federal system, with its largely autonomous cantons, is his model for a re-formed (pun intended) Canada.
I think many Canadians, who are fed up with 12 years of Liberal rule, will hold their nose and vote Conservative. But if someone other than Harper (such as Ontario's capable Conservative party leader John Tory) were the federal party's leader, we would be looking at a sweep of Parliament not seen since the Liberals reduced the Conservatives' majority in Parliament to two seats 12 years ago.
Jim Sheppard: I couldn't have said it better myself. Let me just add that you've hit upon what I suspect will be the biggest question that Canadians will be asking themselves tomorrow: Did we elect the "evolved" moderate centrist Harper of this campaign? Or was that just a shrewd election cover for the neo-Con he once was, and that some say he still is. Frankly, I don't think anyone other than Harper knows the real answer to that. But we'll soon find out.
Arlington, Va.: Jim -
Is there a movement to push for an elected Senate? Or some kind of reform much like Tony Blair has attempted with the British House of Lords?
Jim Sheppard: The Conservatives propose an elected Senate with greater regional representation. But that requires a constitutional change that will not be easy to make.
Washington, D.C.: If the Conservatives win and form a new government, will the nation stay united behind them if the government aligns itself more closely with the Bush administration's foreign policy?
Jim Sheppard: No.
Jim Sheppard: I'm sorry but that's all the time we have today for this discussion. There were a large number of thoughtful questions and I appreciate the time that all of you took to debate the issues or ask questions. If you're interested in following the results closely, or the aftermath tomorrow and beyond, please visit globeandmail.com - after you've been to washingtonpost.com, of course.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.