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Once again for Canadian voters

Posted: April 19, 2011 - 8:48pm

Canada is headed toward a national election May 2, and the usual politicians are going to have their feelings hurt, again.

The vote is our neighbor’s fourth election in seven years, and Canada’s crazy quilt of federal parties is likely to produce yet another fuzzy outcome.

All the party leaders wagging fingers at Conservative standard-bearer and deposed Prime Minister Stephen Harper struggle for a public persona or compelling issue to seriously challenge him. Neither does Harper and his party dazzle the electorate.

His minority government was brought down by a no-confidence vote March 25, which earned a paragraph in a Seattle Times news summary. Opposition parties held Harper to be in contempt of Parliament for not revealing details on government spending, corporate tax cuts and crime legislation. An indecorous lack of transparency.

Voters in Canada, not surprisingly, rate the economy as their top concern in polls, and they give Harper credit for doing a decent job with it. Of course, with the parliamentary system voters do not directly cast ballots for a prime minister.

The maxim that all politics is local is intensified in a system with provincial votes cast in 308 ridings, or districts, for the federal party favorite who goes to Ottawa to elect the next prime minister. Distinct regional choices do not translate into Harper getting the benefit of the doubt found in national polls.

So can Harper or anyone win outright, or are there hints of a coalition among the outs, or another minority government, that always needs help to pass a budget?

In two rounds of TV debates, Harper offered a stoic defense as his challengers huffed and puffed. Viewers polled gave a restrained nod of approval to Harper the first night and lower marks the next.

Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton and Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe are groping for themes that will resonate back home. There is a kerfuffle about money — the G-8 Legacy Infrastructure Fund — that was supposed to be spent on projects for hosting the 2010 G-8 Summit, but got pointed toward local projects in a politically sensitive Ontario district. Pork, earmarks, leaked government audits; shocking.

Tuesday night, Layton harangued Harper about health care, which is coming up for federal-provincial budget negotiations in 2014. Conservatives are not the folks to have bargaining on the other side of the table, the NDP leader warned, and found traction in polls.

Wednesday night, Duceppe was thought to command the French-language debate. Go figure.

Harper is poked and prodded on budget priorities and deficits, but Canadian voters are just as leery of a nasty recession and the job losses that whacked the United States, so no massive rollbacks in spending are proposed by opponents.

U.S. trade and energy purchases have propped up the Canadian economy. Conservatives are sensitive enough to U.S. environmental mutterings about Alberta’s oil-sand reserves to contemplate a pipeline that would carry oil to a remote B.C. port for sale overseas to less-finicky customers.

Allan Tupper, professor and chair of the University of British Columbia’s political science department, offers a caution for an observer’s parliamentary handicapping. Quebec, Canada’s second-largest province, is dominated by a federal party not running elsewhere. The Bloc Quebecois holds 75 of 308 votes that complicate all the parliamentary strategizing.

Canadian voters face a gaggle of familiar candidates who do not inspire or grossly offend voter passions. Hard to believe our two systems could be so different, and so much alike.

• Dickie is a columnist for the Seattle Times. Readers may send him email at ldickie@seattletimes.com.

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