From time to time, Canadian opposition parties accuse the government of giving better treatment – increased funding for local infrastructure projects, stronger support for local industries, greater satisfaction on immigration applications for family members, and so on — to ridings held by the governing party.
The governing party’s traditional response is to fight such accusations as forcefully as possible regardless of the truth of the matter. This is what happened when Conservative cabinet minister Tony Clement was accused of shoveling too much G8 money to his Muskoka riding last summer.
This familiar old parliamentary ritual exists because Canadian public opinion is overwhelmingly opposed to the appearance (and perhaps the reality) of special rewards for ridings which elect government MPs. As an indication of the maturity of Canadian democracy, this is a Very Good Thing.
However, like other Very Good Things (such as indoor plumbing, safety from bandits, and a life expectancy beyond 35) the people who live under its toasty magnificence can get so used to it that they forget how Very Good a Thing it is. Every now and then it is a good idea to share stories of faraway places which do not have this Good Thing. In this case we shall whisper about Singapore, the rich little country where I was born.
While campaigning during the island’s recent general election, an 87-year-old man named Lee Kuan Yew warned voters in the government-held constituency (i.e., district) of Aljunied that they would have “five years to live and repent” if they gave the six available seats to the opposition Worker’s Party.
A little background information: Lee Kuan Yew is the father of Singapore’s current prime minister. He is also the country’s founding deity. Lee the Elder
served ruled as prime minister from 1959 to 1990 before moving on to specially created ‘Senior Minister’ and ‘Minister Mentor’ posts in the cabinets of his two successors. In his worst election performance in 31 years as leader of the governing People’s Action Party, the party still won 77 out of 79 seats in Parliament.
When this brilliant and ruthless elder statesman used the word ‘repent’ to the voters in Aljunied, he was reminding them that the PAP is in the business of rewarding ‘loyal’ constituencies and punishing ‘disloyal’ ones. The two previous opposition strongholds, Potong Pasir and Hougang, were starved of infrastructure funding and other municipal upgrades for many years, at a time when other constituencies were enjoying the benefits of Singapore’s economic explosion.
When asked to explain his recent warning to opposition voters, Mr. Lee said “you must expect the PAP to look after PAP constituencies first.” This is a restrained and polished version of the answer he would have given 15 or 20 years ago, which would have been something along the lines of “if they wanted services from us then they should have voted for us.” When these tactics are used in Singapore, they are used openly because they are intended to serve as well-publicized deterrents to further dissent.
Now imagine the high holy hell which would break loose if Stephen Harper were to say something so aggressively unvarnished in a Canadian election campaign. Past and present Canadian governments have certainly used similarly partisan considerations when making policy decisions. But Mr. Harper would never do anything like this publicly because it would be too far outside the accepted political playing field.
The accepted range of political activity shifts as a democracy matures. Sometimes, tied up in our own worthy partisan disputes, Canadians forget that progress has been made. This is the Very Good Thing about the Canadian political landscape which I want to highlight.
Here endeth the reminder.
p.s. It looks like the Singaporean population is also shifting its accepted political playing field. Many voters reacted harshly against Lee Kuan Yew’s comments, and candidates from the opposition Worker’s Party won all six seats in Aljunied on May 7th.
Lee the Elder is still an MP, having won his seat in the only uncontested constituency in the country. But Prime Minister Lee the Younger has very politely removed his father from the cabinet for the first time since 1959.