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Canadian Conservatives Win North America's Other Election:

Most Americans haven't noticed. But there has been another election going on in North America the last few weeks, and yesterday Canada's Conservative Party government won it. Here's a summary from the liberal Toronto Star, and one from the conservative National Post.

Despite the ongoing economic crisis, which is usually the sort of event that damages incumbents, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper managed to win reelection and even increase his party's seats in parliament from 127 to 143. On the other hand, he still has only a minority government and must get support from other parties to pass legislation. The Conservatives also managed to prevail in large part because three left-wing parties split 51% of the vote amongst themselves, enabling the Conservatives to win many ridings (Canadian electoral districts) by plurality votes.

From an American point of view, the Conservative victory is probably good news because the Conservatives are more willing to support a close alliance with the US than the left-wing opposition parties, and in particular more willing to continue the combat role of Canadian troops in Afghanistan (Canada, along with Britain, is one of the few NATO allies whose troops in that country actually engage in active combat operations). Barack Obama, who wants to greatly increase troop levels in Afghanistan, may be secretly happy about Harper's victory for this reason. The Conservatives are also relatively more pro-market and pro-free trade than their opponents.

Canadian libertarians tell me that Harper and his Tories have serious flaws, and I don't doubt it. But the Conservatives north of the border sure look a lot better to me than either American party does right now. Their policies are probably more pro-market than those of Bush's "big government conservative" GOP. Harper's plan to address the current economic crisis (he promises to "cut taxes, fight inflation and balance [the] budget") seems to be less interventionist than the massive Paulson bailout. Even before the crisis, Harper's Canada may have surpassed the US in economic freedom, especially in the field of protecting property rights[though it's important to recognize that Harper and the Ottawa government are not solely responsible for this, since Canada, like the US, is a federal nation with a lot of policy diversity between regional governments].

In addition, the Canadian Conservatives don't have nearly as much of a social conservative/religious right streak as the Republicans do. And libertarians have to give at least a little love to a prime minister who took a lot of flak for cutting government subsidies to the arts - a goal the Republicans weren't able to achieve with their campaign against the NEA.

As a longtime supporter of North American Free Trade, I wonder if it's too late to trade the Bush-McCain GOP for Harper and the Canadian Tories? The latter surely have lots of shortcomings, including some that are probably more visible up close to Canadians than they are to me. Nonetheless, I suspect that in this case the grass really is greener on the other side of the border.

UPDATE: Just to clarify, I should mention that I wasn't counting the secessionist Parti Quebecois [correction: known as the "Bloc Quebecois" at the federal level] as one of the three "left-wing parties" that split the opposition vote; I know that it's primarily an ethno-nationalist party rather than one based on economic concerns. I was counting only the Liberals, the NDP, and the Greens (who did indeed win 51% of the vote between them); these three do focus primarily on social and economic issues and might have been able to defeat the Conservatives had they united.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Why Don't Canadian Conservatives Support Quebec Secession?
  2. Canadian Conservatives Win North America's Other Election:
28 Comments

Why Don't Canadian Conservatives Support Quebec Secession?

Yesterday's Canadian election gives me an opportunity to explore what to me seems an interesting mystery about Canadian politics: Why don't Canadian Conservatives support Quebec secession?

Canadian Conservatives prefer relatively pro-market policies. Quebec is the most statist province in the country and its political influence drives Canada's economic policies well to the left of where they would be in a separate anglophone Canada. Canadian Conservatives hate paying for federal government subsidies to Quebec (Quebec is a major net recipient of transfer payments from the federal government). Obviously, there would be no such subsidies if Quebec were an independent nation. In the long run, secession might even lead to relatively more market-oriented policies within Quebec itself, since an independent Quebec government could no longer rely on Ottawa transfer payments to finance its statism. Finally, Quebec secession would be a major political boon for the Conservative Party. In the recent election, the Conservatives won 133 of 233 parliament seats in the anglophone provinces, but only 10 of 75 in Quebec. The Tories won't necessarily do this well in the "rest of Canada" every time; but their odds of getting a majority would be greatly improved if Quebec were to secede.

Given the above realities, if I were a Canadian Conservative I would do all I could to help the Parti Quebecois (the secessionist party which wins most of the Quebec vote) to achieve their goal of establishing an independent nation. "Vive le Quebec libre" would be my slogan too.

Actually, I think I know why most Canadian Conservatives in the real world are opposed to Quebec secession. Francophone Quebec nationalists and the Anglophone western Canadians who form the base of the Conservative Party are bitter political enemies. No doubt, many Conservatives can't stand the thought of giving their traditional rivals what they most want. That's an understandable attitude, even if an irrational one. There's plenty of similar (and worse) irrationality in American politics too. But as a somewhat detached outsider, I would respectfully suggest to Canada's Conservatives that giving your adversaries what they want is sometimes the best way to achieve your own goals.

Of course, I'm not an expert on Canadian politics, so it's possible that there's something I'm missing here. The above analysis is based on my general expertise on federal systems combined with a necessarily limited knowledge of Canada. Hopefully, Canadian readers and others more expert than I am will enlighten me as to what I'm missing.

UPDATE: Based on the comments, it's worth pointing out that the Conservatives (like the other major Canadian parties) already accept the idea that Quebec and other provinces have a right to secede. Had any of several previous Quebec referenda on independence passed, the other provinces and the federal government would have let Quebec go and would certainly not have used force to compel it to stay. The debate in Canada is not over the right to secede (as it was in the US in 1861), but merely over whether it would be desirable for Quebec to exercise that right.

Thus, arguments to the effect that the principle of secession is inherently dangerous because any province could use the threat of secession as leverage probably don't explain Conservative opposition to Quebec independence. Canadians (at least most of them) have already accepted that principle.

UPDATE #2: Canadian-based political scientist Jacob Levy makes a good point in the comments:

Being a "federalist" party in the Canadian sense (that is, anti-secessionist) is the sine qua non for support in English Canada. There might be some number of western voters who would cheer Quebec's departure and be happy that the ideological median in their new country had moved a long way right. But the Conservatives would sacrifice something close to all their votes in Ontario (the largest province)-- many of whom have no identity-commitment to being Conservative but have a massive investment in the idea of Canada....

Ontario is far from solidly conservative or culturally conservative, and it would electorally cut off at the knees any party that abandoned federalism. Whatever Conservative leaders might wish in their hearts, it's a political non-starter.

I think Jacob is right that openly supporting Quebec secession would be politically dangerous for the Conservatives (or any majority-anglophone party). That may indeed sufficiently explain why they don't do it. At the same time, it remains the case that secession would greatly facilitate the achievement of conservative policy objectives in the long run. So maybe the right strategy for Conservatives would be to increase the likelihood of Quebec secession indirectly by opposing Quebec demands for increased subsidies and other concessions from the central government, thereby strengthening the PQ by reinforcing their argument that Francophones can never get what they want within Canada. To some extent, of course, that is what the Tories are already doing. Whether they could get away with doing it to a greater extent is difficult for me to judge. Which just goes to show that professional politicians are usually better judges of political strategy than armchair commentators.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Why Don't Canadian Conservatives Support Quebec Secession?
  2. Canadian Conservatives Win North America's Other Election:
83 Comments