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Not Quebecois or American? The Elections Still Matter

08/30/2012 05:14 EDT | Updated 10/29/2012 05:12 EDT

There are two elections this autumn that will have repercussions throughout Canada. The first happens in Quebec next week, the second in the United States in November. What makes these so important?

The Quebec election matters because it could fundamentally change the political leadership and direction of one of Canada's principal provinces. The Parti Québecois is consistently leading in the polls there, and may be within reach of a majority government.

The return of sovereigntists to the helm of the Assemblée Nationale would make the so-called national question an issue again in Canadian politics. It would likely force federal political parties -- and Canadians -- to negotiate the treacherous waters of a referendum campaign.

By and large, Quebecers are not backing the PQ because they are hungry for sovereignty. Rather, the shift in voter preferences is a rejection of the scandals and perceived arrogance that have plagued the provincial Liberal party. One recent poll had the Liberals running third, behind the PQ and the newly formed Coalition Avenir Québec, which is comprised of both sovereigntist and federalist members.

The present decline of the Quebec Liberals and the apparent fluidity in the provincial political landscape has opened the door for some interesting scenarios. As one example, the federal NDP has announced its intention to launch a provincial party in time for the next election -- which, if the September 4 vote produces a minority government, could come sooner rather than later.

The participation of a second party with national connections in Quebec elections might do three things.

First, it would make the struggle for federalist votes more competitive, further weakening the hold that the Liberal party has traditionally held on this demographic.

Second, it could end the present era of flash-in-the-pan political parties in Quebec politics (last election it was the Action Démocratique du Québec, this time the CAQ).

Third, it would help the NDP solidify its current federal political strength in la belle province.

Almost exactly two months after the Quebec election, on November 6, Americans will elect their next president.

This election represents a decisive choice for Americans between two ideologies. One of these competing perspectives puts faith in the ability of government to improve social and economic equality through regulation and progressive taxation; the other favours a sharply reduced role for the federal government, with lower taxes and (necessarily, though rarely admitted) correspondingly reduced social services.

Any American presidential election matters to Canada, as every twitch and grunt of Trudeau's proverbial elephant affects Canadian political realities. There are a few issues of particular importance to Canada at stake in the upcoming election.

The first is the Keystone pipeline, with its economic benefits and environmental costs. Barack Obama deferred approval of the pipeline, which would carry oil from the Albertan oil sands into the American heartland. A re-elected President Obama might or might not eventually approve the project, but a President Mitt Romney certainly would.

A Republican victory in November would thus be a big win for the Albertan petroleum industry. While there are undoubtedly immediate economic benefits to be had from improved markets for a Canadian product, the expedited development of the oil sands which would result from the Keystone project would likely also reignite the domestic political debate over whether the Canadian economy is overly reliant on resource extraction.

More generally, a strong U.S. economy helps Canada by increasing American purchases of Canadian exports and creating a stable regional environment for economic investment. It's unclear that either presidential candidate would be able to lead the American economy to a full recovery in the next four years.

But economists, including Republicans, tend to agree that the stimulus bill that Obama fought for (and Romney continues to oppose) has made things better than they would otherwise have been.

Obama's bailout of the American auto industry allowed GM and Chrysler to avoid catastrophic layoffs. Employed people spend money on goods, services, and tourism. Particularly in the Rust Belt of the American Northeast and Midwest, some of that spending inevitably flows into Canada, whether through international trade or individual purchases.

Romney wanted to "let Detroit go bankrupt."

During the campaign, Romney has been talking tough on Iran while sweet-talking Israel. A President Romney would be less likely to prevent an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. If major conflict erupts as a result, it may be impossible for the United States -- and Canada -- to avoid direct involvement.

A Romney presidency would likely coincide with continued Republican control of the House of Representatives, and perhaps that party's takeover of the Senate (though Todd Akin may have managed to "shut down" the latter possibility).

Such a scenario would produce a United States that tilts sharply to the right on both economic and social matters. The door would thus be opened for Canadian politicians who lean in the same direction to argue that a similar rightward shift here is necessary to maintain competitiveness and compatibility.