Minority status will put pressure on Harper

Voters across Canada have once again defied pollsters and pundits with election results that will force Stephen Harper's minority government to proceed with caution as they work to form a new government. Although most pollsters predicted that Harper would not win a majority, most felt his momentum in the final weeks of the campaign would carry him to a strong minority position. However, with only 124 seats and no substantial breakthrough in places like Ontario and Quebec or major metropolitan centres like Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, Canadian voters have once again shown that they are not interested in a significant shift to the political right.

In many respects the results in BC reflected the kind of caution that can be found in the national results. Following the trend that began in the 2004 federal election, the Conservatives saw their seat total in the province decline from 22 to 17. The Conservatives lost ground to both the Liberals and the New Democrats. The New Democrats saw their seat total in the province double to 10 while the Liberals saw their numbers increase by 1 to 9 elected MPs. Although the Conservatives' popular vote increased from 2004 to 2006, the increases were confined to a smaller number of ridings - another indication that a ground swell of support for Conservative policies was nowhere to be found.

Throughout the 8 week campaign, the Harper Conservatives had to downplay the most contentious aspects of the party's platform. Internally divisive issues like same sex marriage or abortion were avoided, much tighter control was maintained on individual candidates and daily policy announcements were carefully scripted to present a more moderate Stephen Harper. Forming government with only a minority of seats in the new Parliament, Harper will have to restrain his Reform/Alliance leanings if he wants to maintain the confidence of the full House of Commons.

What do the January 23 results mean to our province? It certainly raises questions about how the new federal government will proceed in areas like national childcare policies or protection of public health care. In both areas, the Conservatives have pushed for changes that are at odds with strong national programs and standards.

The results also put into doubt the future of a federal-provincial agreement for First Nations which was promoted by Premier Campbell. Although the undertaking commits the federal government to support new programs for First Nations groups, the Conservatives expressed their doubts about following through with those funding commitments if they formed government.

The Conservatives have also talked about correcting what they describe as Canada's "fiscal imbalance". They maintain that federal revenues exceed the demands of national programs even though many critics point out that the real imbalance has been the federal government's reluctance to either expand into new program areas or adequately fund existing national programs. Either way, the Harper Conservatives may well push for greater provincial autonomy, a move that could easily undermine the national standards and programs that contribute to national unity.

In the coming weeks as a new Cabinet is sworn in and the House is re-called for a new legislative session, Canadians will have their first chance to see how well Stephen Harper has been listening to voters.

Proceed with caution, Mr. Harper. There's a lot at stake.

About FPSE

The Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of BC is the provincial voice for faculty and staff in BC teaching universities, colleges and institutes, and in private sector institutions. FPSE member locals, represented by Presidents' Council and the Executive, represent over 10,000 faculty and staff at 18 public and 12 private sector institutions.