Blame Canada.
Mention Canada to Liberals of a certain age and they shudder. No,
it’s got nothing to do with the antics of Margaret Trudeau with the
Rolling Stones. Jeanette is safe.

But remember that little upset in the middle of the 1993 election
campaign, though? Remember how the Canadians went to the polls
just a few weeks before we did – and the ruling Progressive
Conservatives, who had introduced a GST, were left with just two
seats? Remember what the pundits and a Mr Keating made of that?

Australians don’t relate to our Commonwealth cousins in North American.
It must be something to do with the fact that they prefer ice hockey to
cricket. If we think of them at all, it’s as failed Americans or
crazed Quebecois.

However, it’s worthwhile remembering the political similarities –
structurally, at least – that exist between our two countries.

Of all the nations in the world, Canada has a political system that
most closely resembles Australia – central and provincial governments
based on the Westminster system, bicameral parliaments at both levels
and, of course, HM the Queen as their head of state.

And there a couple of other similarities between Canadian and
Australian politics at the moment that could teach a lesson or two to
our Federal Coalition.

The Canadian Prime Minister, Paul Martin, has called an election for
June 28. Martin leads the Liberal Party, but just to make things
confusing, Canadian Liberals are a liberal party, not a Liberal
Party. The first point of interest is the timing.

Lesson 1. If you think things are bad now, they can get worse

Paul Martin is trailing in the polls but he has decided to call an
election for June 28 nonetheless. His reason seems to be that
things can always get worse. The Canadian Liberals are unlikely
to lose Government, but Martin may well have to rely on the “third
force” New Democrats to support him in a minority government.

Of course Martin has a whole set of issues to deal with that are
different to those facing John Howard, but although the issues might be
different some of the themes are remarkably familiar: ministerial
rorting, a stale government (the Liberals have been in office since
1993), and new and resurgent opposition leaders, to name three.

In Canada, as in Australia, it is the leader’s prerogative when to call
an election. Timing, to state the obvious, is crucial. You
can hang on and hang on and hope things change, but Paul Martin
obviously is not waiting around to find out.

Lesson 2. Beware a new leader of the opposition

The leader of the Conservatives, Stephen Harper, is no live wire but
has a touch of the Bob Carr about him. He’s serious, intelligent
and honest – just the way you may have described Bob Carr in his early
days. Martin is the solid type himself, but is struggling to gain
traction against the capable Harper. Martin knows that the longer
he waits the more coverage Harper will get in the press and the more
opportunity there is for Harper to be portrayed as the alternative
prime minister.

If John Howard prevails over the new Leader of the Opposition here,
there could be more Canadian pointers he could take into his fourth
term.

Lesson 3. Amalgamate the conservatives

One of the reasons Stephen Harper has picked up in the polls is that he
has merged the two conservative parties: his own Canadian Alliance and
the Progressive Conservatives. It is about time the Liberals and
the Nationals (and the CLP for that matter) in Australia realise they
can’t continue as separate parties.

True, things were worse in Canada. After 1993, conservative
politics there splintered. It was as if the worse nightmares our
Coalition entertained over One Nation had come true.

The Liberals like to think that if they wait long enough the Nationals
will fold anyway but that could be a long and painful process and cost
the conservatives government in the future. Better to do it
during a fourth term. It would rejuvenate and refocus the
conservatives in Australia and give them a whole new launching pad for
the 2007 election – particularly if Howard wants to lead the party into
that election.

Lesson 4. Watch out for the Third Force

When voters get tired of politics, really tired, they might just turn
to the other kid on the block. In Canada, a combination of voter
disenchantment with the main parties and a new charismatic leader for
the left-leaning New Democrats means that they could double their House
of Commons seats to 28.

Now, no one is expecting third parties to have a big say in this
Australian election at lower house level – and our undemocratic
above-the-line voting system for the upper house works against minority
groups too – but Australia is ripe for a third party, the Greens this
time, to start to make inroads as a creditable alternative option.

Whether the Greens can do what the Australian Democrats could not –
stay relevant – we will have to wait and see, but there is an opening
there for a third party to gain traction over the next decade like the
New Democrats in Canada and the Liberal Democrats in the UK.

Hillary Bray can be contacted on hillarybray @crikey.com.au

Peter Fray

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