By Andrew Potter - Ever since the government fell on a non-confidence motion last week, Stephen Harper has been going off like a broken car alarm, telling everyone who will listen that this is a reckless, opportunistic, unwanted, and unnecessary election. So why, then, are Canadians heading to the polls for the fourth time in seven years?
The short answer is that we need to. Parliament is effectively deadlocked, and has been so pretty much continuously since 2004. Three successive minority governments have given the country no direction and no consistency, with the government and opposition engaged in a perpetual bidding war for voters' favour.
It is a situation that wasn't supposed to be possible. In his guide to the constitution How Canadians Govern Themselves, senator Eugene Forsey contrasted our confidence-based system of responsible government with the checks-and-balances of the American congressional system. "In the United States," he wrote, "President and Congress can be locked in fruitless combat for years on end. In Canada, the Government and the House of Commons cannot be at odds for more than a few weeks at a time."
Forsey's view was that any sort of extended parliamentary logjam is practically impossible. When the government and opposition "differ on any matter of importance, then, promptly, there is either a new government or a new House of Commons." And that was supposed to settle the matter. There could be short periods of uncertainty or antagonism, but either Parliament would quickly sort itself out, or the voters would do it for them.
Except that brief period of antagonism has been going on for seven years now.
Forsey's argument aside, it bears keeping in mind that there is nothing that abnormal about this period, and there is nothing to suggest that Parliament is in any way broken. After all, Canada had six federal elections in the 11 years between John Diefenbaker's first minority in 1957 and Pierre Trudeau's first majority in 1968. The country didn't fall apart, and the system eventually righted itself.
There are two traditional electoral coalitions in this country, one comprised of the regions plus Quebec, with some small Ontario support, and another made up of large clutches of seats in "voter-rich" Ontario and in Quebec. Canada's electoral configuration seems to work according to a principle of punctuated equilibrium, where these two coalitions tend to alternate power for extended periods of stability. But every now and then, a shock of some sort to the party system throws everything into disarray. We then get a succession of minority parliaments until some sort of realignment occurs.
What is complicating things this time around is the ongoing presence in Ottawa of the Bloc Québécois, which makes a majority government almost impossible. Unlike previous periods of extended minority rule where all the parties at least had an interest in playing some role in national governance, the Bloc has no such ambition. You can find plenty of people who are willing to defend the Bloc on the grounds that many of their supporters are not actually separatists, and that it has become effectively a place for francophone Quebecers to park their votes. But that is precisely the problem: Their entire rationale for being in Ottawa is to advance the interests of Quebec at the expense of the rest of the country.
The Bloc Québécois is now supported by what is essentially an ethnic voting block. Ethnic voting blocks are bad enough in any democracy -when people vote according to their race, language, or tribe, rational public policy becomes extremely difficult. But when that block has also decided to abstain from any role in the national government, the effect is absolutely toxic.
So where do we go from here? Ideally, the Bloc Québécois would simply go away. That was in fact Lucien Bouchard's original intent: the party was designed to stick around just for a couple of elections in a final push for sovereignty, and then dissolve itself. It was never intended to become a permanent part of the furniture on Parliament Hill. But being a Bloc MP is easy work, and the per-vote public subsidy means the party will be around for as long as it gets enough votes to keep the lights on.
Another possibility is that French-speaking Quebecers will get tired of being on the outside looking in, and will start voting for either the Conservatives or the Liberals. One of those parties might eventually rebuild enough trust and support in the province to gain a national majority. More likely, though, is a third option, which is that, under pressure from disaffected French-speaking Quebecers, the Bloc renounces separatism in order to remake itself as a politically legitimate partner in a stable governing coalition.
One way or another though, we are going keep having elections until some sort of realignment happens and Parliament settles things down. The MPs in Ottawa might not like it, and voters might not want it. But parliamentary democracy has a habit of getting exactly what it needs.
Andrew Potter is a public affairs columnist at Maclean's.
Blame the Bloc
The country has been ungovernable thanks to the large group of parliamentarians who have opted out of Canada