Sunday, 11 August 2013

Old enough to vote

Progressive Conservative Leader Joe Clark celebrating his
victory over Pierre Trudeau in the 1979 Canadian federal election.
It was the fall of 1988, my second year of university, and I had a job that consumed my life. Yet I still
found the time to realize an important milestone in my life. Finally, after 18 years, I was eligible to vote in my first election.

What is a minority government?
My interest in politics began at age nine, when I stayed up late watching the federal election results that would see Joe Clark and his Progressive Conservative party upset the governing Liberals led by Pierre Trudeau. The results would end in a minority government, so when I went to bed, I had two questions: who was going to win? And what exactly is a minority government.

Politics was always a topic of conversation in our home. My parents are immigrants. They had to actually pass a test, demonstrating their knowledge of Canada and its government, so they knew how the system worked, and they explained it to me.

The non-confidence vote
A few months later I learned another important concept: the non-confidence vote. As quickly as they had been elected, the Conservative government had fallen. Finance Minister John Crosbie, sporting new shoes as was the tradition on budget day, presented a budget with a tax on gasoline. The opposition parties got together and voted it down, triggering another election. At the time I was nine, and did not realize how significant it was. It had to be, because it was televised. This in the days before C-SPAN or 24-hour news channels. I remember distinctly thinking, "The government is out? Really?". It was not very dramatic.

Birthday election
Sure enough, Canadians were going back to the polls, on February 18, 1980 – my 10th birthday. It was the first election campaign I ever followed, and it was full of intrigue. Trudeau had quit politics after the election. Suddenly, with another chance at power he was back. I recall thinking that just wasn’t right. He couldn’t just “un-quit”, but he did.

The night of that election, I had a terrible feeling, and it was confirmed. The Liberals had won a majority. Worse, the outcome was already assured before they even started counting votes where I lived, in Alberta. That didn’t seem quite right to me either.

The other thought I recall having was of sadness and dread. We had four more years of Trudeau and the Liberals. The situation just gave me a bad feeling, and I can’t explain why. It was like we were trapped, and it would be forever until the next election.

The three main party leaders in the 1984 and 1988 Canadian federal
elections. From left are Liberal Leader John Turner, NDP Leader Ed
Broadbent, and Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Mulroney.
The next election
Year after year passed, and my life got busier. Then one day in Grade 9, on the bus ride home from school I heard the impossible. Trudeau had taken a walk in the snow and decided to retire. I couldn’t believe it.

Since the 1980 election, Brian Mulroney had replaced Clark, and the Liberals would choose John Turner to replace Trudeau, making him prime minister automatically. That was another thing that did not quite seem right to me. Soon after, a federal election was called. Mulroney would go on to record the largest landslide in Canadian history and become prime minister. That election occurred in 1984, when I was just in the first few months of Grade 10.

Then came free trade
One of Mulroney’s big ideas was a free trade agreement with the United States. Eventually, the Senate blocked passage of the agreement until a federal election could be held. It would be a quasi-referendum on free trade, because both the Liberals and New Democrats opposed the agreement.

On February 18, 1988, I had turned 18, legal voting age in Canada. After watching for years, and thinking how so many parts of our system of government just did not seem right, I finally got to be an active participant.

I felt a sense of pride that day I voted. I still recall the candidates: Doug Main for the upstart Reform Party; Halyna Freedland, the New Democratic Party; Una MacLean-Evans, Liberal Party; and Scott Thorkelson of the governing Conservatives.

Thorkelson actually came to Lister Hall where I lived, circulating through our dining hall as we ate. My good friend Chris Jesswein asked him some tough questions on free trade. I asked him a question about voting with his party as opposed to his constituents. He stumbled and stammered, and never really gave me an answer. When he left our table, he went around the circle and shook everyone’s hand – but mine.

He won that election because of free trade and the vote splitting that resulted. If you add up the NDP, Reform, and Liberal votes they are almost double Thorkelson's.

Five years later he was out, a victim of the Mulroney backlash and unable to stand on his own two feet.

That’s okay, I didn’t vote for him anyway.

(But I won’t tell you who I did vote for)

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