Conserving Canada or a Conservative Canada?

Posted on April 1, 2011 in Governance Debates

Source: — Authors: – news/commentary/opinion
Published Thursday, Mar. 31, 2011.   Henry Mintzberg

I cherish this country for what it is, not for what its Prime Minister wants it to be. The past two elections suggest that most Canadians share this sentiment, even if a minority managed to elect the government both times.

What if this minority gets a majority this time? Not much to worry about, say some of the pundits: A swing to the far right can’t happen here. Well, it happened in Britain under Margaret Thatcher and in America under George W. Bush. The voters eventually smartened up, but do we have to go through that kind of turmoil here, too?

I write books about strategy. I define the word as a pattern of actions out of the past more than a plan of intentions into the future. In other words, strategy is revealed by what is done, not by what is claimed will be done. If you need an example, pick an election and compare the promises with the actions that followed. How about the actions that followed our last election?

We have had wave after wave of attack ads, carrying the gutter politics of the Bush-Cheney-Rove gang into Canada. At the Copenhagen conference on global warming, Canada became the laughingstock of the world. Our government has questioned personal choices about abortion but not about guns. The oil companies received huge tax cuts, and there were moves to bring in a Fox News North (to replace the CBC?). The Prime Minister has exhibited contempt for parliamentary procedure while his appointments have been embroiled in one scandal after another. This is a pattern in actions if I ever saw one, and it points to exactly the strategy a Conservative majority would pursue.

Now we are in the thick of an election campaign, with all the usual slurs and promises. “We interrupt this shouting match to bring you today’s bribe (with your money) – tax splitting, university fees, anything.” The man who should be bringing some dignity to all this is the worst of them. “Coalition, coalition, coalition,” he cries, like some name-calling kindergarten kid.

What’s wrong with a coalition anyway? It’s working in Britain and has worked for years in Germany and many other countries. Indeed, we got medicare in this country because a small group around Tommy Douglas worked with the minority Liberal government at the time. (Will we lose medicare as we know it, too?)

Why this swing to the far right, in Canada of all places? Have we not been the ones most aware of the machinations of the American ideologues? Now we are their clone, while Britain, France and Germany are governed by moderate conservatives, and the U.S. by a liberal.

Two explanations are evident. One is Liberal ineptness, first the outright corruption of the sponsorship scandal and now yet another “leader” incapable of connecting with the public. And the other is the nature of our political process. If a party can concentrate its support at one place in the political spectrum while its opponents divide votes over the rest, into power it can go: Minority rules on the right.

Perhaps 30 per cent of Canadians are hard-core conservatives, with some others prepared to swing that way when sufficiently fed up with the other parties. (Early polls showing stronger support for the Conservatives may be failing to indicate that many voters are undecided between the other parties.) In the past two elections, this was enough to leave about two-thirds of the electorate out in the cold.

To explain how we can change this – that is, reframe the political process in this country – let me offer a primer about the obvious in Canadian politics.

We do not elect a president in Canada. Everyone knows that except our Prime Minister. What many people forget is that we do not elect a prime minister, either. In fact, we do not even elect a political party. We elect members of Parliament in our individual ridings. Of course, they usually run under the banner of a particular party, but we know that, in Parliament, they can take a walk and sit elsewhere.

Contrary to Stephen Harper’s claims, the winner of the election is not the party that gets the most seats or the most votes, but whichever party or coalition or set of individuals can get the support of the sitting members. Usually these members defer to the party with the most seats, and that party to its leader, who becomes prime minister. But recall recent events in Australia and British Columbia, and an earlier one in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, when the members of the party in power turfed out their leader – their country’s prime minister.

Of course, this isn’t about to happen in Ottawa. Right now, the one thing George W. Harper has going for him is John Kerry Ignatieff. But need this be yet another contest between two so-called leaders? Have we not had more than enough of this? How about a little grown-up politics for a change, a popular movement to get a government of people and ideas instead of a leader with a dogma?

Imagine treating this election as a plebiscite: a vote for conserving Canada or else for a Conservative Canada. Those who support the latter know where to put their X. So those who support the former had better get their X’s together before May 2.

How can they do that? By voting “strategically” – that is, concentrating their voting power riding by riding. On, say, April 18, they consult the polls in their own riding (if they exist, otherwise the results of the last election), and swing their votes to the Liberal, NDP, Green etc. who has been garnering the most support and is, therefore, most likely to pass the Conservative at the post.

Think of it: people power in Canada, putting country ahead of party, beliefs ahead of personalities. Our own little Tahrir Square, right across this vast land. We are at a turning point in this election, facing a choice between two fundamentally different views of this country. Will the majority decide?

Henry Mintzberg is Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University.

< >

Tags: ,

This entry was posted on Friday, April 1st, 2011 at 6:31 pm and is filed under Governance Debates. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

One Response to “Conserving Canada or a Conservative Canada?”

  1. John Welwood says:

    Dear Professor Mintzberg,

    I saw and read this article in the Globe over the weekend. I wish every Canadian could have access to it. I sincerely hope the Harper view of the country will be rejected by the Canadian electorate, however, I’m pessimistic this will happen, especially as the latest Nanos poll confirms the Conservatives continue to hold a commanding lead with potential voters. Nevertheless,your opinion piece is greatly appreciated.

    Yours truly,

    John Welwood
    Kincardine, ON


Leave a Reply