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Even in Scary Economic Times, Canadians Demand Honest Government

British Columbia presents another counter-example to the thesis of this being a good time for governments to go to the polls. To be sure, Canadians demand security in tough economic times. However, the lesson from British Columbia is that they also demand competent, honest government.

In August, the Globe and Mail's John Ibbitson, surveying the political scene across Canada, noted that at least five provincial elections would take place during the first week of October. And the Globe's bureau chief in Ottawa suggested that Stephen Harper's already-strong position was about to get stronger.

With Conservatives leading in the polls Ontario and Manitoba, Ibbitson painted a scenario in which Harper could soon face like-minded premiers from the Ottawa River to the Rockies. Their governments, far from constituting a counterweight to the majority Conservative government, would all be pursuing lower taxes and deficits, and tough crime policies.

As we now know, this scenario did not come to pass.

In Manitoba, Premier Greg Selinger's NDP defeated the Conservatives. And, in Ontario, Premier Dalton McGuinty secured a third mandate to form government (albeit a minority this time).

With Toronto being the media centre of English Canada, that outcome in particular demanded an explanation; it had long been the consensus that the Liberals' days in power were numbered. Accordingly, after noting Conservative leader Tim Hudak's poor campaign performance, pundits and reporters concluded that 2011 was a good year for incumbent governments to go to the polls.

There is some truth in this analysis -- in particular when compared to political developments in fiscally-unfit Europe. But the analysis left out Québec, where public opinion polls consistently indicate a strong appetite for change. Indeed, there was even some speculation this year that Premier Jean Charest might call an election while the PQ was self-destructing and before Francois Legault could form a political party.

British Columbia presents another counter-example to the thesis of this being a good time for governments to go to the polls. To be sure, Canadians demand security in tough economic times. However, the lesson from Québec and from British Columbia is that they also demand competent, honest government.

On the West Coast as in Québec, the reigning government is Liberal (in name at least). Like Premier Jean Charest, Gordon Campbell had won a majority government in the previous election -- his third victory. And he, too, was mired in great political difficulty (as a result of his government's surprise decision to harmonize its sales tax with the federal GST).

As in Québec, the female leader of the opposition was facing a caucus revolt. However, unlike in Québec (at least to date), that revolt succeeded in replacing her with a new leader. Then premier Gordon Campbell, facing his own caucus revolt, resigned from office to be replaced by Christy Clark.

As Campbell's opposite in political style, Clark's popularity soared during the leadership campaign, and she began openly to speculate about going to the polls quickly. To justify ignoring British Columbia's fixed election date law, Clark argued that a premier needed a mandate from the people, not just from the political party that had selected her.

Clark's principled view shielded her from allegations of political opportunism. However, upon taking office, she had to delay calling an election until after British Columbians had decided the fate of the HST in a referendum. As her personal popularity began to wane and the party's polling numbers began to soften, she began to equivocate about an election. Reporters began to hound her and she finally declared that she would govern for the remainder of Campbell's term, throwing out the principled stand she had asserted during the leadership campaign.

In August, Ibbitson's analysis in the Globe and Mail ran under a headline "Coming soon: harmonious times for Stephen Harper." Had Premier Clark gone with her original plan and faced voters in the fall, she likely would have lost. And, this week, when federal health minister Leona Aglukkak sits down with provincial ministers to negotiate a new health-care accord, she would have been surrounded by three Conservatives -- and an equal number of NDPers.

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