Saturday, August 29, 2015

Incumbents Usually Lose Holiday Elections

I spent Sunday morning of the August long weekend watching TV coverage of the call for Canada's 2015 federal election.  The current campaign has been run through the typical Canadian summer holiday in August.  At 11 weeks, the unusually long campaign means that it will also continue over the Labour day holiday in September, and through Canadian Thanksgiving in early October.

In some political circles, the received wisdom is that people don't follow political campaigns during the summer, or over other significant holiday periods.  A quick look back at past federal elections though, suggests that the theory that Canadians are inattentive to politics during their vacations may be flawed. 

In fact, Canadians have generally not been kind to those who have held elections during holidays. For example, at the federal level, you have to go back to 1953, to Louis St. Laurent's Liberals, to find a successful summer campaign by an incumbent.* There is a similar trend for campaigns that have extended over the week between Christmas and New Year's.  For example, the election of 1980 occurred partly over the Christmas holiday of 1979 and led to the defeat of Prime Minister Clark's Progressive Conservative government.

In total, there have been 14 Canadian national elections that were held in whole, or in part, over traditional holiday periods since 1867.  In these campaigns the government has lost 9, won 4 and was returned with 1 minority (1972).  More recently, 2006 was a loss for the governing Liberals (over Christmas), while partial summer campaigns in 1993 and 1984 both saw incumbents routed at the polls. 

Some think that holidays mean that Canadians are too busy with travel, family and friends to turn their attention to the political scene.  However, the historical pattern of loss for incumbents suggests that explanation is flawed. Canadians may well tune out official campaigns during holiday periods.  But, perhaps instead they engage in informal (and maybe more civil) discussion about policy issues, within their immediate social circles.  If this is true then it seems that, as an historical matter, a holiday campaign has often proven a chance for electors to come to a collective decision that leads to change.

No one knows what will happen on election day on October 19. But if the historical trend holds, messing with the Canadian traditional summer vacation and other holidays in 2015 could spell trouble for the governing Conservatives.

Update:  On Monday October 19, 2015, the governing Conservative party lost Canada's 42nd election to Justin Trudeau's Liberal party, which won a majority government.  *Note: The 1974 campaign ended on July 8, so was a partial summer campaign that ended in a majority victory for incumbent PM Pierre Trudeau.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Lawyers, Political Scandal & Canada's 'Watergate'

The presence of so many lawyers at the heart of political scandals is neither accident nor coincidence… they have operated at a level in the political culture where the attitude to conflicts of interest can best be described as ‘don’t get caught’.[1]

The current Senate scandal in Canada has implicated senior officials in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office, some of whom are also members of the Bar. The status of legal professionals as ‘officers of the court’ might incline people to think that they are less likely to become involved in political skullduggery. Yet, as suggested above, the involvement of lawyers in public scandals is nothing new. 

Canada’s 1st political controversy occurred early in its history.  In 1873, there was an apparent break-in and theft of documents at the Montreal offices of Conservative lawyer and future Prime Minister J.J. Abbott.  The documents stolen, which were released publicly, implicated a number of high ranking politicians, including ‘Father of Confederation’ G. E. Cartier and Prime Minister Macdonald, both of whom were lawyers. 
Amongst other things, what became known as the ‘Pacific Scandal’ revealed widespread graft in election financing, reaching to the highest levels of the Conservative Party.  The imbroglio ultimately resulted in the fall of Macdonald’s Conservative government in 1873[2].
Interestingly, the Pacific Scandal bears some similarity to the most famous modern American scandal, which occurred 100 years later.  The events surrounding ‘Watergate’ in the 1970s also involved allegations of a politically motivated criminal burglary.  President Nixon and the Prime Minister Macdonald were, of course, both lawyers, but so were many others implicated in each scheme.  Each scandal directly connected the leaders of the United States and Canada to highly unethical behaviour. 
One difference between the two events is that while both men lost office, Macdonald was defeated in an election, while Nixon resigned from office.  Another difference was that while Nixon resigned as a member of the California Bar, Macdonald remained a lawyer in good standing throughout his entire political career.

In the end, the effects of the past Canadian scandal had minimal long-term impact.  It’s true that the Pacific Scandal was a major factor in a later Liberal victory over the Conservatives.  By 1878 however, Macdonald was back in power, and remained Prime Minister of Canada until his death in 1892.  For its part, the Conservative Party still managed to hang on until another of Canada's great lawyer-politicians, Wilfred Laurier, defeated them in the election of 1896.

Some have described the legal profession as a kind of 'fifth estate’ that protects democracy by upholding the rule of law.
[3]  Many, if not most lawyers, play this role by providing professional representation to clients involved in legal proceedings. At a broader level though, there has long been a close connection between the Bar in Canada and politics.  The record of lawyer involvement in scandal, illustrated above, but in many other instances as well, suggests their contribution to our political culture may be sometimes be mixed with less democratic behaviours and values.    

[1] Carol Wilton, “Introduction: Beyond the Law – Lawyers and Business in Canada, 1830 to 1930”, Essays in the History of Canadian Law Volume IV (Toronto: U of T Press for Osgoode Society, 1996) at 28.
[2] Richard Gwyn, Nation Maker, Sir John A Macdonald: His Life, Our Times Volume Two 1867 – 1891(Toronto: Random House, 2011) at 244 – 258.
[3] Peter Russell, The Judiciary in Canada: The Third Branch of Government, (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1987) at 38.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Similarities Between Canada's 1945 Election and 2015

History has a funny way of repeating itself.  A recent news article highlighted several similarities between the 2015 national election in Canada and the one in 1993, here:

CBC Comparison 2015 to 1993

But there is a least 1 other past campaign, that also has several curious similarities with the 42nd national election.

Canada's 20th federal contest took place in June of 1945.  A national Gallup poll in 1943, had shown that the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), a party of the left, was leading in a 3-way race against the governing Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives (PC).  By comparison in 2015, the successor to the CCF party, the New Democratic Party (NDP), has also been leading their 2 rivals in the polls for several months, see here:

CBC Poll Tracker Mid August 2015

The CCF's surge in 1945 was likely part of  a wave of support for the Party, following their surprise success in a provincial contest in Saskatchewan in 1943.  Today's NDP has also been energized by its victory, last spring, in what many consider the home province of modern Canadian conservatism, in Alberta, see my previous comment on that election here:

Landslides in Alberta's Provincial Politics

In Canada's 20th electoral contest, the longstanding incumbent, Prime Minister King (Liberal),    faced 2 new opposition leaders in John Bracken (PC) and MJ Coldwell (CCF), neither of whom had led their respective parties in a national election.  Similarly, today Harper, in his 10th year as Prime Minister, faces two new opposition leaders in Liberal Justin Trudeau, and the NDP's Thomas Mulcair, both in their 1st national campaigns. 

At least some of the election issues, like international security, are also common to both 1945 and 2015.  With the war winding down in 1945, King demanded a new majority mandate, saying without it: "We would have confusion to deal with at a time when the world will be in a very disturbed not over".  Audio of King's campaign kickoff speech is available here:

Prime Minister King Starts 1945 campaign.
Interestingly, just as King raised international concerns in the wake of World War II, so too did Prime Minister Harper also raise national security issues as one election issue in his own campaign kickoff on August 2, 2015, see a summary in this news item here:

Harper Says Other Leaders Can't Be Trusted With Country's Future

Today the constitutional role of Canada's Senate is a campaign issue.  The NDP has taken the position that the Senate, a non-elected upper Chamber in Canada, should be abolished.  One of the platform planks of the upstart CCF party in 1945 was also Senate abolition. 

Finally, in 2015 the Conservatives rolled out a new program, the Universal Child Care Benefit (UCCB), which saw many families receiving a cheque from the government last July.  In 1945, one of the major platform planks of King's Liberals was the establishment of a similar program, the "Family Allowance", which also promised a subsidy for families with children.

Studying Canadian politics and law, I am always struck by how often similar issues seem to arise over time.  What is old, it seems, may be new again.

In the 20th election, King's demand for a new mandate resulted in his re-election, but only with a minority government, which required the support of several independent Members of Parliament.  Given how close the polls show today's election to be, its impossible to say with any certitude what will happen on election day this October. Only time will tell if the historical synchronicity between the 1945 and 2015 will continue.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Landslides in Alberta's Provincial Politics

A recent news report got me thinking about my favourite History professor from Queen's University at Kingston Ontario, who sadly died much too early. In the 1980s I was lucky to study Canadian political history there, with the late great Don Swainson. I wrote a couple of papers for him studying Alberta's tendency to elect consecutive landslide governments.

First the Liberals, then the United Farmers, Social Credit, then the Progressive Conservatives, each time virtually wiping out the opposition. I predicted at the time, wrongly, that the cycle would continue and that the government would change dramatically. Sometimes individuals change history and I had no idea, like many others, of the effect that Ralph Klein's premiership would have on the province.

Since then though, I have watched to see if the trend might re-assert itself. It seemed a few years ago that, in the great Western tradition, a new political party might do just that, but the PC'S were able to pull one out. Now, looking at reports of polls in the news, it sounds like that change that has been typical of Alberta politics historically may be in the offing. Its a 3 way race in their provincial election between the new kids on the block the Wild Rose, the PC'S and the NDP. In politics anything can happen. But if I had to guess, there is about to be that once in a generation, or so, change that I pictured many years ago. As I write this I can see Don smiling, and hear him saying, "we will see". Indeed.

Postscript: Comments created April 23th, 2015. The Province of Alberta's 29th general election occurred on May 5, 2015 when Rachel Notley's New Democratic Party ended more than 4 decades of PC party reign, with a majority victory. The recent election date of May 5, 2015 can be added to a similar list of watershed ALTA elections: July 18, 1921 (United Farmers), August 22, 1935 (Social Credit) and August 30 1971 (PCs). 25 years later than I predicted, but even a broken clock is right twice a day!