Election 2011: A Realignment of Historic Proportions?

Andrew Perez

By all accounts, it was expected to be a status quo election, and one that would produce an almost identical result: a third consecutive minority Conservative government. The punditocracy and media establishment – confident Canadians would remain apathetic – had already begun to chime in on final seat counts before the opposition had even lined up to defeat the government in late March. But what transpired on the evening of May 2nd, 2011 was the antithesis of a status-quo electoral outcome; rather it amounted to a structural realignment of the Canadian political order. On May 2nd, Canadians turned their backs on more than a century of centrist elite accommodation, exemplified by the Liberal and Progressive Conservative parties. Instead they opted for a Parliament where the populist right would face off against the populist left.

With his impressive electoral triumph in May, Stephen Harper has completed a remarkable reconstruction of the Canadian political landscape – and in doing so – has brought his political career full-circle. In the course of less than a decade, Mr. Harper transformed himself from leader of the once- bankrupt and demoralized Canadian Alliance party to a third-term Prime Minister, buttressed by a sizeable majority government. The once-powerful Liberal and Progressive Conservative parties that built this country are now either eliminated or marginalized. Breaking a seven-year monopoly on minority rule, the electorate delivered Mr. Harper – the most Conservative prime minister in Canada’s recent history – a strong, stable, majority government. But in the same breath, progressive voters overwhelmingly rejected the once-dominant Bloc Québécois and Liberal parties, instead lending their support to the NDP, the country’s most left-leaning party. The net result: less common ground between the Conservative government and NDP opposition than there has been between any previous federal government and its official opposition.

The new dynamics have ushered in a landscape that leaves the centre of the political spectrum – where most Canadians reside – formally unrepresented. To be sure, Mr. Harper and Mr. Layton will both market their respective parties as centrist entities, worthy of support from a broad swath of the electorate; the question, however, will hinge upon whether each party’s political rhetoric will match the substance (or lack thereof)  of their policy proposals. Thus far, it would appear the Conservatives and New Democrats are reluctant to surrender their more ideological tendencies. For instance, the recent Canada Post labour dispute played into the hands of both parties’ more ideological wings. Armed with a caucus of rookie MPs, the NDP launched a resilient 48-hour filibuster only to see the majority Conservatives legislate Canada Post employees back to work.  If this trend persists – whereby both leaders placate the more ideological factions of their respective parties – it will become increasingly problematic to avoid the polarization of our politics.

So what exactly do the events of May 2nd teach us about Canada’s political parties? To be fair, one has to journey back about five years to gain a genuine appreciation for the changes that have been afoot. To begin, negative television advertisements work. They have become a fixture of Conservative Party politics in Canada; the plethora of character assassinations launched against Liberal leaders Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff framed these two men for Canadians before they could adequately   frame themselves. But that was not all: the negative ads were reinforced by a state-of-the-art Conservative fundraising machine which effectively mobilized the party’s base to incessantly doll out money. The Conservatives bet on the fear card and it worked wonderfully.

Second, the “Blue Tory” agenda of the Conservatives propelled progressive-minded voters to endorse an entirely different agenda, choosing not to support the more-centrist Liberals, but to express confidence in a decidedly left-wing party. In essence, a large swath of the 60 per cent of Canadians unhappy with the Conservatives opted to support the party least like the Conservatives: Jack Layton’s New Democrats. In short, Mr. Layton was successful in convincing enough voters that the NDP – not the Liberals – were the real alternative to Mr. Harper’s agenda.

Third, the events of May 2nd must be viewed under the lens of Mr. Harper’s prime political motive – the defeat and eventual destruction of the party of Pearson, Trudeau, and Chrétien. In fact, in his first major speech following the election, Mr. Harper declared: “the long Liberal era of Canada has faded like disco balls and bell-bottom pants, as the country turns more conservative in outlook.” Speaking to almost 900 staunch Tory supporters at his annual riding association Stampede barbeque, the prime minister’s true political motive was on display –  that is the complete and utter destruction of the Liberal Party. Indeed, this steely resolve to eliminate the Liberals has allowed Mr. Harper to make wedge politics – not policy – the hallmark of his first five and a half years as prime minister.

Fourth, as historians will highlight, Quebec political nationalism remains a driving force in the Canadian political narrative. In a post-Trudeau era, the party that appeals most directly to Quebec nationalism is the party most likely to sweep the province. Quebeckers moved en-masse to Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives in 1984 and 1988 and then voted overwhelmingly for the Bloc Québécois for almost a 20-year period (1993-2011). Most recently, la belle province became smitten with Mr. Layton’s NDP, with its promise to give more autonomy to Quebec, reopen the Constitution, and allow Quebec’s language laws to trump the Official Languages Act. The result: the leader-centric NDP steamrolled the province in a historic victory, picking up 58 new seats.  The Bloc Québécois and Liberal parties were mere casualties along Mr. Layton’s path to Stornoway.

A final lesson to be learned on the topic of political parties and the most recent federal election is that of vote-splitting. By virtue of five years in power, the Conservatives were effectively able to engage in massive spending on programs and advertising, excessive message control, and almost complete policy freedom. But armed with the power of incumbency, the Conservatives still only managed to garner 40 per cent of the popular vote, increasing their vote share only slightly from their 2008 result of 38 per cent.  How then did the Conservatives win a majority government?  Put simply, Mr. Harper’s coveted majority was facilitated by New Democrats, who clawed back just enough Liberal votes in Toronto-area  districts to allow for the Conservative candidate to come up the middle in several tight three-way races. All told, the Conservatives won 32/47 Toronto-area ridings, nabbing virtually every one of them from long-time Liberal incumbents.

So what does this all mean for the once-entrenched Liberal Party?  Having been replaced by the New Democrats as the Official Opposition, the Liberals are now a mere parliamentary rump, relegated to the far corner of the House of Commons. The centre-left in Canada is divided, and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. The NDP – emboldened by historic electoral gains – has signalled its main goal will be to replace the Harper government in 2015, and not to formally merge with the Liberals. And while Mr. Layton’s New Democrats are entitled to revel in their remarkable gains, they must acknowledge that much of their electoral triumph was no more than a stroke of luck. The fact remains that in English Canada, the NDP did not finish strongly, especially in light of the Liberal collapse.

Thus far, the Liberals have done well to anoint Bob Rae as their interim leader. A consummate politician, Rae is media-savvy and possesses the smarts to ensure the party garners its share of news coverage over the coming months.  As for the rebuilding effort, there are those who will say the Liberals must go back to the drawing board and begin a long, gradual rebuilding process that could span the better part of a decade. They forget, however, as Globe & Mail columnist Lawrence Martin points out, that political fates can change on a dime. Had it been Mr. Ignatieff – and not Mr. Layton – who had struck a chord in the French-language debate, it might have been the Liberals passing the 100-seat mark on May 2nd.

It is worth recalling that Mr. Ignatieff worked to rebuild the party over a two and a half year period. He spent an entire summer touring every nook and cranny of the electoral map, meeting with everyone imaginable. But his efforts did not pay dividends – no genuine rebuilding or party renewal transpired. One can only speculate as to whether his chances might have been bolstered were the party to have devoted more funds for personal attacks launched at Mr. Harper and his government.

As Mr. Rae embarks on his summer-long rebuilding tour – much like Mr. Ignatieff endeavoured to do last summer – Liberals would be wise to consider that the NDP’s historic gains could just as well be reversed in 2015. Mr. Layton has no shortage of challenges rubbing up against his feet – chief among them – the task of unifying a caucus characterized by various disparate interests. Moreover, he must  present his party as a centrist entity to the Canadian people – a task that may prove impossible. At some point, a plurality of Canadians will grow tired and weary of Mr. Harper’s brand of conservatism – and when this point in time inevitably arrives – the electorate will be ripe for a centrist alternative. If given the incentive, centrist voters will return to the Liberal-fold: that incentive will involve a serious-minded and ‘messy’ rebuilding effort, the right policy – and unquestionably – the right leader. In this context, the Liberal era is far from over; rather it has only just begun its quest for revival.

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