Life

How Strangely You Canadians Elect Your Leader

A visitor from the UK contrasts Conservative PM David Cameron with Conservative PM Stephen Harper, and what it takes to win there and here.

By Aleeza Khan 8 Apr 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Aleeza Khan is a journalism postgraduate student from London, studying the Magazine Journalism MA at City University. She has written for various publications in the UK and Vancouver and also writes a blog.

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Harper and Cameron: 'Robot' Steve and 'Thoroughly Modern' Dave. Photo: Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press.

I'm not totally new to your land. While I'm from London, I have many connections to Canada and have visited numbers of times. What has made me feel a stranger during my current visit, though, is this exercise underway called the Federal Election of 2011.

From my vantage in Vancouver, I've been taking notes and forming comparisons with the election we in Great Britain went through less than a year ago. You may have noticed that the person who became prime minister, David Cameron, calls himself a Conservative, as does your Stephen Harper. There, most similarities seem to end in the way the two men present themselves, in the way they've run for office, and in the effect they have on the voting public, particularly younger ones like me.

Can I share some observations?

1. In England, we feel the need to like our prime minister. You apparently don't.

Cameron and Harper. Both are leaders without a majority and represent the same political family -- but in terms of appeal, family resemblances are few.

"Thoroughly modern Dave," as The Daily Telegraph likes to call him, has been hailed for bringing in a new age of conservatism, coined "the outstanding modern example of a very old British type." He brought in a huge change for us Brits as the first Conservative-led government since 1997. He replaced Labour's down trodden Gordon Brown who came into power after Tony Blair resigned as leader of the Labour party and prime minister in May 2007. Having never been voted in, ex-chancellor Brown had a tough time winning over the British public, especially in the difficult post Iraq time. So it's safe to say that Cameron was widely seen to be bringing about a welcomed change. And he made a defined point of stating how big that change to a modern "big society" was to be.

But from what I've noticed so far, Harper's style is ... different. While Cameron is desperate to be seen as fresh, Harper lumbers like a dinosaur of Canadian politics. He's ruthless, old fashioned, someone you wouldn't particularly want to have a beer with but wouldn't mind running the country. Bluntly put, he's dull. And has Lego-man hair.

"Dave," well he wants to be your friend -- your posh, privileged ex-Etonian friend, but a friend nonetheless -- who shares your beliefs and understands the modern society you both live in. This Cameron, the man who cares about his family and is just like you, is a walking, talking PR machine, and a good one at that. But he's too concerned with being liked and is scared of making a fool of himself, known to choose sweeping principles over hard policy.

This is something that Harper doesn't seem worried about. His policies are strong and his position is firm. Maybe this is why, while he may only have the minority rule, he is still proven to be the most successful candidate in recent years. People in Canada don't seem to be put off by his non-PR'ed persona. And to be fair to Harper he's done well to hold on during the global economic crisis, something that Britain's Labour government in power at the time of the crisis had no hope of doing, especially since Brown's persona, even by his own admission, was decidedly charisma deficient.

2. In Canada, the prime minister says coalitions are evil. In the UK, the prime minister owes his job to one.

Given his zero charm and lack of a dynamic proposition for change, how has Harper managed to hold on? I asked Michael Byers, a former NDP candidate and professor of International Law and Politics at the University of British Columbia, who also closely follows British politics.

"Remember, he's never been the choice of more than 38 per cent of the electorate. What has enabled him is that the centre left has been divided among four other parties. If this is the case that means the centre-right wing party who can secure 38 per cent will govern. Their campaign policies are directed at a fairly narrow segment of Canadian society." So the lesson here is keep your opposition divided and you don't have to be liked, you just need to keep the people that will vote for you coming to the polls. Interesting.

Further along my quest to find out more about "The Automaton" -- The Economist's loving nickname for Harper, I was Google-ing away and stumbled across an article in Britain's very own Guardian that describes him as "the prototype of the current crop of charisma-free middle managers." Ouch.

As if striving to be the polar opposite of David Cameron, Harper doesn't need to be your friend. He promises nothing will change if he gets majority hold, which is something I find hard to believe. If you have the power to get your policies through without them having to be examined with a fine-tooth comb by your opposition, why the hell not introduce your more controversial policies? It would be bad party politics not to push through things that may not have been possible before.

That's the game they play in the UK; if you have the power, change everything you can. Cameron would have changed more if he didn't have to buddy up with the Lib Dems led by Nick Clegg and form a coalition to get into power. His leadership, unfortunate for him, is dogged with a Clegg-shaped compromise, something that's fuelled many newspaper column inches and politico gossips.

3. In Great Britain, candidates want as many people as possible to vote. Not in Canada.

We Brits are interested in our characters and scandals and our infamously relentless press encourage it with their coverage. In Britain we need to connect with our politicians and find them interesting. But the only remotely interesting or controversial thing I've managed to discover about Harper is that he's a born again Christian. Hmm, not exactly a sex story or an expenses scandal, is it. Maybe that's Canadian politics, and Harper's, problem. Voters aren't engaged with politics as there's no attempt to keep people hooked.

Wondering if this was the case, I spoke with Dennis Pilon, professor of Political Science at the University of Victoria. "We need some form of personal contact that establishes a connection between political campaigns and individuals. We've got a large number of people who are alienated from politics who are being left to twist in the wind. It's definitely a problem; we've gone from 75 per cent voter turn out in the about 50 or 55 per cent now."

Both Byers and Pilon, interestingly for me, also highlighted something in Canadian politics completely alien to politics in Britain. Byers said: "It has been a tactic to focus on turning people off politics. If you can keep voter turn out down, which is clearly a strategy of Harper's, then you simply need a small but committed base that ensures you can become prime minister."

Pilon agreed; "Right wing parties actually benefit from a depressed voter turnout. The conservatives are taking a leaf from the Republican playbook, driving people away from the political process by placing barriers in the way of people participating." A strange tactic, and harmful in the long term, but clearly an effective one for Harper so far.

The televised debates were the first ever in British politics and they made a huge difference to the elections. I had friends who never before had shown an interest in politics having mass debates and actually expressing political opinions on Facebook, something that would have been considered social suicide before this. These were the elections for the new generation, spawned by the Obama-mania of the States and the interest young urbanites had shown there. Which brings me to my final observation...

4. Back in England, younger people are a lot more politically engaged than here in Canada.

A by-product of Harper's strategy to play to his base and suppress other votes would seem to be boring the pants off younger people. It's not in his interest, I guess, to get the young turnout.

Certainly the kind of Conservatism he's pushing isn't attractive to young people the way Cameron's inspired a lot of newer voters in the U.K.

But surely that's not great for Canada because if young people don't vote (it's currently only 30 per cent), then as time passes there will be an entire electorate made up of the politically disengaged. I asked Pilon about this too, and he confirmed my thoughts. "Absolutely. I think the direction we're heading in is wrong and bad. The parties are reaching for voters who already want to vote and abandoning the ones who are a bit more difficult. Unless we reverse this, the logic of this will be that a smaller and smaller group of people will be participating in our political system."

In last year's U.K. election the three main characters, and I use the term characters deliberately, who were running had people genuinely interested for the first time in years, specifically young people. It was never cool to be into politics before, but last year brought droves of us young'ns to the voting polls and a lot of this was down to the entertaining and controversial nature of the campaigning. There was Brown and his "bigot-gate" scandal, the madness of "Cleggmania" after the TV debates and Cameron's constant Brown lampooning and promise for "big society."

And where Cameron invited the cameras into his home, to show first hand how modern, cool and down right normal he was chilling in his jeans and slouching on the sofa, Harper doesn't seem to be striving for the approachable character that wins the young vote.

I mean, I've seen the famous photo from the election of Harper holding a kitten and smiling wanly. I've seen the one of him of the same vintage wearing a blue jumper and holding a baby. I'm told this was a big deal, his attempt at being more down with the people. But is he down with the people?

My Google quests and conversations with various young Canadian friends tell me he is a hockey fan, he's religious and he plays the piano (imagine!). I've got to say, Cameron appears an all round hipper guy. We know that he cycles to work, he runs a lot, he likes Radiohead and Florence + the Machine, and his wife, "SamCam," has become a British fashionista in her own right.

All these facts may be trivial but what it proves is that Cameron is trying to show he is engaged with society, the pop culture of today. He's a young leader and hell is he trying to show it.

But Harper, well ... it's not that he's old. Actually, he's the youngest in terms of years out of the Federal party leaders. But, was he ever really young? If so, he's grown up to be what the Ottawa Sun labelled "an arrogant micro-manager with the warmth of a robot."

I guess he's a bit more like Brown in this way, he knows he's no Mr. Charisma so thankfully, he doesn't try to be. But in politics nowadays, in the U.K. at least, you need to be a father, a husband, a friend and a politician.

Today I read that the polls show Harper the robot continues to lead his closest competitor by a good nine or 10 points. As I say, your elections, and your Conservative candidate for prime minister, are quite different here.  [Tyee]

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