Editor’s Note: The final three paragraphs of this story were added December 2 to reflect political developments in Canada.
Over the past eight years, in the face of intractable wars, flagrant violations of the Constitution and the worst financial turmoil since the Great Depression, a half-joking refrain has given comfort to American progressives: “If things get any worse, we could always move to Canada.” It is time to reappraise this Canadian exit strategy, and not merely in light of the possibilities for change affirmed by the election of Barack Obama. Though the United States is poised to stagger back towards the political center, a rightward-shift may be under way across the Canadian border.
On October 14, Canadians voted to keep the Conservative Party in power and granted it nineteen new seats in the federal Parliament. The center-left Liberal Party, which enjoyed decades of electoral success on a socially liberal and fiscally centrist platform, won only 26 percent of the vote, one of the worst outcomes in its history. Though roughly 62 percent of Canadians voted for a center-left or left-wing party, the modest electoral success enjoyed by the social-democratic New Democratic Party, the separatist Bloc Québécois, and the emerging Green Party cannibalized support from the Liberals more than it hurt the Conservatives. “If…US voters are hungry for change, Canada’s election locked in a status quo that already seems out of date,” concluded journalist David Beers at a Globe and Mail online forum October 15.
The re-election of Prime Minister Stephen Harper demonstrated his success at “masking his extreme right positions” and reflected his party’s shrewd commitment to voter outreach among burgeoning immigrant constituencies in Central Canada, says University of Toronto political scientist Stephen Clarkson. But it also proved that “the economy…is always the number-one issue” in Canadian elections, observed Norman Spector, a Globe and Mail columnist and former chief of staff to Brian Mulroney, the last Conservative Prime Minister to win re-election. Though Canadian banks remain stable and wages have been growing, the global financial crisis has sparked acute anxiety among working-class families. As voters gathered to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving during the week before the election, the CPAC-Nanos polling firm recorded a five-point swing over the dinner table towards the Conservatives.
While the crisis in global capitalism has sparked a resurgent left in other Western democracies, Canadian voters issued a withering indictment of Liberal leader Stéphane Dion’s capacity to shepherd the country through economic turmoil. Dion has said he will step down as leader next year and, in Spector’s view, the Canadian center-left “will have to find its own Stephen Harper”–an assured and decisive leader to stand up for the country’s progressive majority.