In many ways, Canada and Australia are similar countries: big, sparsely
populated, highly urbanised, federations with Westminster systems,
still notionally subjects of the Queen. But politically we have gone in
rather different directions, as next Monday’s Canadian election
demonstrates.

There are at least three important differences. Canada has never had a
Labor Party, so its main centre-left party, the Liberals, is more
middle-class and is flanked by a smaller socialist party, the New
Democrats. It has also never had preferential voting, so shifts in
party support happen more suddenly and votes translate into seats in
unusual ways. And regional differences are much stronger than they are
in Australia, so parties can maintain a foothold without having
nationwide support.

So whereas Australia’s political system is almost unnaturally stable,
Canada’s has been in turmoil for more than a decade. In 1993 the
Progressive Conservative Party was almost wiped out (after introducing
a GST) and was overtaken by two new regional-based parties, the Reform
Party in western Canada and the Quebec Bloc in French-speaking Quebec.

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Before the 2004 election, Reform merged with the remains of the
Progressive Conservatives to form the Conservative Party, but the
Liberals and New Democrats were still able to command a narrow majority.

Then last year the Liberals became mired in a corruption scandal, the
New Democrats deserted them and the government of Paul Martin was
defeated in a vote of confidence. Now the opinion polls show the
Conservatives with a clear lead, and their leader Stephen Harper looks
set to become prime minister.

Until the last week or so, the general expectation was that the
Conservatives would only be able to form a minority government, and
would be forced to compromise with the other parties in order to
survive. But the latest poll results show them with a 13% lead over the Liberals, 40-27, a huge reversal from the last election when the Liberals led 37-30.

In most countries, 40% of the vote wouldn’t be enough to win an
absolute majority, with first-past-the-post voting and a four-party
system, however, that goal is now very much within reach. But if the
prospect of a majority Conservative government unsettles enough
Canadians, there could still be a swing back to the left in the last
week.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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