Canada parliament to begin work after shake-up election

By Lee Carter
BBC News, Toronto

  • Published
NDP leader Jack Layton on Parliament Hill in Ottawa
Image caption,
NDP leader Jack Layton saw his party become the official opposition in the 2 May election

Following the shake-up to Canadian politics in the country's general election on 2 May, all eyes are now on newly-elected MPs, as the country's parliament begins a new session on Thursday.

It certainly won't be business as usual.

Around a hundred fresh faces will be heading to Parliament Hill in Ottawa to take their seats.

The New Democratic Party (NDP), the new official opposition party, is providing many of those new members, who bring with them varying degrees of experience.

And Canada's House of Commons will never have been more ideologically split along politically polarised lines as it is now.

Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper's comfortable majority victory, seizing 166 of the 308 seats in the legislature, offers some sort of political stability to Canadians, who have now trudged to the polls four times in seven years.

The party Mr Harper presides over is the result of a 2003 merger between two rival conservative parties.

The result is a party that veers more to the right ideologically than past conservative governments historically have in Canada.

'Incremental social changes'

Some of the prime minister's critics contend that he will use his new powers to usher in radical social change, such as restricting access to abortion or repealing Canada's same-sex marriage laws, even though this was frequently denied by Mr Harper on the campaign trail.

Paul Wells, a senior columnist for Canada's weekly news magazine, Maclean's, believes Mr Harper, widely credited as a shrewd and gifted political strategist, will only attempt incremental social changes.

"Part of the genius of Harper is that he sounds so much like a red meat conservative, that in a lot of ways he doesn't need to act like one to keep his base happy," says Mr Wells.

"There's a million ways to be a social conservative, just as there's a million ways to be French - you don't have to carry a baguette and wear a beret."

Image caption,
Stephen Harper's Conservative Party won a majority government in general election

Mr Wells says the prime minister's primary concern is to form a long-term strategy to ensure that a right-of-centre government will remain an enduring force in Canadian politics, long after he steps down.

In the short-term the Harper government appears to be concerned with bread and butter issues, preaching fiscal prudence, smaller government and measures supporting law and order and Canada's military.

Canada, which emerged relatively unscathed from the banking and mortgage crisis that dragged down some of its G8 colleagues, appears to be recovering from the global downturn of 2007.

A budget, ironically almost identical to the one that brought the government down three months ago, will be unveiled on 6 June, promising to completely eliminate the country's deficit by 2014, along with corporate tax cuts and tightly targeted social spending.

New opposition

If there is a whiff of steady-as-she-goes with the government, the same cannot be said for the opposition parties.

Their post-election standings have completely transformed Canada's political landscape.

The normally third placed left-wing NDP, led by the feisty former Toronto city councillor Jack Layton, has become the official opposition for the first time after winning 103 seats.

Even before entering parliament though, the NDP has already endured a humiliating media drubbing over the so-called "rookie MP" controversy.

The party owes much of its electoral success to voters in the French-speaking province of Quebec, where a sudden surge in popularity, increased its seat count there from just one to 58.

But it's emerged that in the party's haste to field candidates, some had decidedly less experience than others.

A 19-year-old student of applied politics will become the youngest MP ever to sit in the Canadian parliament.

And one of the other swiftly nominated and elected MPs, 27-year-old Ruth Ellen Brosseau, found herself lambasted for days in the Canadian media after it emerged that she had never visited her constituency, had spent part of the election campaign holidaying in Las Vegas and could not speak fluent French.

But Vincent Marissal, a political journalist for the respected French-language newspaper La Presse, says the media ridicule may have backfired.

"Most Quebec voters were proud to elect outsiders," Mr Marissal says.

"It was like holding up a big sign to the rest of Canada, that like it or not, Ruth Ellen Brosseau is going to Ottawa and she's my MP. Quebec voters like playing with matches," he adds.

Indeed that seemed to be the reaction of local people when Ms Brosseau finally paid a visit to her enthusiastic constituents.

And what the new MPs may lack in experience, they make up for in diversity, according NDP's Director of Communications Kathleen Monk.

She points out that 39% of the party's members are women, and a growing number of MPs are from a minority or aboriginal background.

"I think the parliament will better reflect average Canadians," Ms Monk says.

"For the first time, you're not going to see businessmen and lawyers filling up the House of Commons and making all the decisions," she adds.

'Big fights ahead'

Image caption,
Former Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe saw a crushing defeat in May

Quebec's sudden and enthusiastic support for a federalist, Canadian party at the expense of the separatist Bloc Quebecois, which abruptly ran out of steam and conked out after 20 years as a dominant regional political force, raises the spectre of re-opening the painful debate over the French-speaking province's place within the Canadian federation.

That support could, according to Mr Marissal, end up being divisive for the NDP.

"It will be hard for Jack Layton to manage between his Canadian caucus and his Quebec caucus. I see big fights ahead around the national unity debate," says Mr Marissal.

Possibly the most humbled MPs slinking into the new parliament will be those who still belong to the once-dominant Liberals, who governed Canada for 70 years in the last century and are now reduced to third party status with just 34 seats.

The new interim Liberal leader Bob Rae, insists that the centrist party, whose past prime ministers have included Pierre Trudeau, Lester Pearson and Jean Chretien will pick itself up again and rebuild.

"I can assure you that the Liberal Party has a future that is every bit as promising as our past achievements have been," Mr Rae told reporters shortly after taking the leadership role.

Mr Rae, a former NDP premier of the province of Ontario, ruled out any discussions about merging with the federal NDP.

But privately some Liberals are saying that unless the party's fortunes change, the pressure to sit down and negotiate with their rivals, can only get stronger.