2008 Canadian Election Issues and Events

Feature by Jay Makarenko || Sep 14, 2008

Find out more on key issue areas and events in the 2008 federal election, including the minority/majority government question, the economy, leadership, the environment, and Canada in Afghanistan.

Minority or Majority Government?

One of the central questions of the 2008 election is whether Canadians will return a minority or majority government to power. Since 2004, Canada has elected two successive minority governments: first, a minority Liberal government, helmed by former Prime Minister Paul Martin, and then the Conservative minority government helmed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper that fell when the Prime Minister asked Canada’s Governor General, Michaëlle Jean, to dissolve the last Parliament and Canada’s 40th federal election got underway. The Conservative minority has been the second longest in Canadian history, lasting 888 days (2 years, 5 months, 4 days). The longest was the 1922-25 Liberal minority government of William Lyon Mackenzie King, which lasted 1,277 days (3 years, 5 months, 28 days).

Duration of Minority Governments (1867-2008)

Political Party

Prime Minster

Term

Duration

Liberal

William Mackenzie King

1922-1925

1277 days

Conservative

Stephen Harper

2006-2008

888 days

Liberal

Pierre Trudeau

1966-1968

826 days

Liberal

Lester Person

1963-1965

846 days

Liberal

Pierre Trudeau

1973-1974

490 days

Liberal

Paul Martin

2004-2005

421 days

Conservative

Arthur Meighen

1926-1926

176 days

Progressive Conservative

John Diefenbaker

1962-1963

132 days

Progressive Conservative

John Diefenbaker

1957-1958

110 days

Progressive Conservative

Joe Clark

1979-1979

66 days

(Source: Parliament of Canada, 2008)

Public opinion polling during the summer of 2008 placed the Conservatives and Liberals in a virtual dead heat, leading most to speculate at the time that if an election were held there would be a third minority government. Polls taken during the first week of the election campaign, however, have suggested a widening lead for the Conservatives and the possibility of a majority government ― a goals that has forever seemed beyond the party’s grasp since it took power in early 2006. Much, however, will depend how well the two parties campaign during the election, and how that public support takes root in the 308 local campaigns across the country.

Whether a minority or majority government is elected will have important implications for Canada. As a minority government for the past three years, the Conservatives could not govern with complete independence for fear of losing a vote of non-confidence in the House of Commons. If, however, the Party is able to gain majority government status, then it will enjoy a great deal more freedom in pursuing its policies and programs.

For more information on minority governments:
Mapleleafweb: Minority Governments in Canada

The Canadian Economy

One of the issues at centre stage in Canada’s 2008 election campaign is the economy. Canada had enjoyed strong economic growth throughout the late 1990s and into the early years of the new millennium. Beginning in 2007, however, the country’s economic performance began to slow, due in large part to a struggling US economy. The subsequent impact, from a Canadian lens, has been particularly evident in Ontario and Quebec, the manufacturing hub of the Canadian economy, as the economies of both provinces are closely tied to the financial well-being of the US.

In this context, early public opinion polling has shown that Canadian voters view the economy as the highest-priority issue in the 2008 election. In a September 2008 poll released by the Strategic Counsel, 20 percent of Canadians regarded the economy as the most important issue, up from only seven percent in the 2006 election. By contrast, health care, which was the number one issue in that election, dropped from 20 percent to 14 percent.

For more information on the Strategic Counsel poll:

All of this suggests that it is the political parties which demonstrate the best ability to handle economic issues that will stand the best chance of electoral success. As the 2008 campaign continues to unfold, the political parties and their leaders will continue to place an emphasis on their economic policies and credentials, while, at the same time, working to downplay and discredit the plans of their opponents.

For more information on the major parties economy policies:

Political Party Leadership

Another core issue of the 2008 election campaign is political leadership or, more specifically, public confidence in the abilities of the party leaders to govern the country. While political leadership is typically an important aspect of any Canadian election, it has taken an even more pronounced place in the 2008 election. This is due, in large part, to public opinion polls and the resulting election strategies of the two political parties in particular ― the Conservatives and the Liberals.

Polls have suggested that Canadians have stronger confidence in Conservative leader Stephen Harper than Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion. (In some cases, polls have shown the electorate has more confidence in New Democratic Party leader, Jack Layton, than Dion.) As such, the Conservatives have attempted to make the election, at least in part, about who would make the best prime minister. The Conservatives have tried to undercut Dion’s image by portraying him as a “weak” or “risky” leader, unfit to lead the country. Moreover, they’ve attempted to strengthen the image of their leader, Stephen Harper, by presenting him as an experienced and level-headed prime minister. Early in the election, the Conservatives have also tried to soften their leader’s image by showing him in a more casual and personable light.

The Liberals must deal with the leadership issue by taking a completely different approach. One of the major obstacles they must overcome is the seemingly negative perception the public has of Stéphane Dion; they’re attempting to do this by asserting him as a decisive and strong political leader, and by showcasing him as an “average citizen,” rather than a politician who has been regarded as a somewhat-distant intellectual. The Liberals have also attempted to counter the image of Prime Minister Stephen Harper put forth by the Conservative Party, instead portraying him as a controlling and secretive leader with a hidden agenda, and attacking his judgment by tying him to past Conservative scandals, such as the Cadman affair, alleged spending misconduct in the last election, and the conduct of Maxime Bernier, the former Conservative minister of foreign affairs.

The Environment

While the economy may be the most important policy issue in the election, the environment will also be critical. Public opinion polling has shown that the electorate’s concerns about the environment have increased significantly since the 2006 election. The Strategic Counsel poll referenced earlier, for example, found that 15 percent of voters ranked the environment as the most important issue, up from three percent in the last election.

This rise of the environment as an election issue is due to a number factors, including greater public interest in environmental issues (such as global warming) and the appearance of green politics at the federal level. The Green Party, which is grounded in pro-environment policies, has grown into an established political party in Canada. At the same time the Liberal Party, and Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, have made environmentalism a major component of their election platform through a policy initiative known as the Green Shift ― an initiative that was the source of considerable discussion and debate in the lead-up to the election.

As with the economy, it is the political parties that gain public confidence in this issue area which stand to enjoy a better chance of electoral success. It’s important to note, however, the tension between these two issues. For many Canadians, pro-environment policies are viewed as being “bad” for the economy. (Whether this is truly the case is open for debate.) As such, those parties stressing the economy first and foremost will attempt to maintain the perception that stronger environmental policies will place the livelihood of Canadians at risk. On the other hand, those parties stressing the environment will attempt to overcome this image, arguing that changes to Canada’s environmental policy are not only paramount, but economically feasible.

For more information on the major parties environmental policies:

Canada in Afghanistan

The Canadian mission in Afghanistan has traditionally been a high-profile issue in Canadian politics. Moreover, a September 2008 article by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) reported that the number of Canadians who disapprove of the Afghanistan mission was at its highest point since 2002. Overall, 56 percent of those polled disapproving of the mission (34 percent “strongly disapproved,” while 22 percent “somewhat disapproved”).

The Afghanistan mission, however, has not registered as a major issue in the 2008 election. This may be due to a number of factors, such as general agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberals on the nature and duration of the mission, reluctance on the part of the public to “politicize” the issue out of respect for the soldiers, or the public perception that the mission is “far away” and “distant” from their everyday lives.

Nevertheless, the issue of Afghanistan has the potential to severely impact the election campaign. This would likely be the case if Canada experienced high casualties or a major military defeat while the election campaign is in play. The Afghanistan issue may also receive heightened attention if either the New Democratic Party or the Bloc Québécois choose to make this issues a central part of their election campaigns, as neither party supported the extension of the mission.

The 2008 US Presidential Election

Many have commented that the US presidential election may impact the Canadian federal election, particularly as Canadians often know just as much about American electoral events as their own. In this regard, public opinion polls have shown that Canadian support for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and his message of change is extremely high. As such, some have suggested that Canadians may support domestic political parties and leaders that resemble Obama’s image, while turning away from incumbent parties and leaders.

Such a trend is plausible, especially considering Canadian exposure to American media and knowledge of US electoral events. However, the Canadian polity differs significantly from the American tradition and it may be too much, or too simplistic, to assume that Canadian views or trends would simply mirror those in the US. In this context, it may not be the case that support for the Democrats would translate into support for the Liberals or the New Democrats, parties that share similar values and approaches. Similarly, generally unfavourable Canadian views of the Republican Party and US President, George W. Bush (Republican) may not necessarily impact support for the Conservative Party or Prime Minister Stephen Harper, parties/leaders that are also akin.