Blogs & Comment

The election that mattered

When parliament resumes, it will feature a strong Conservative majority held to account by a solid NDP opposition—an outcome that a month ago would have struck almost everyone as preposterous.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper gives the thumbs up as he arrives on stage following his majority win in Calgary, Alta, Monday, May 2, 2011. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)

Let no one ever again say that elections do not matter. Until two weeks ago, most pundits were still predicting that Canadians would return to Ottawa a parliament pretty much the same as the one that had just been dissolved. Yet another minority government, yet more instability, yet another election in a year or so.

So much for pundits.

When parliament resumes, it will feature a strong Conservative majority held to account by a solid NDP opposition—an outcome that a month ago would have struck almost every Canadian as preposterous, had they been asked. Well, on May 2, Canadians were asked. The answer is nothing short of astounding.

It remains to be determined just how things changed, when, and why. In particular, discovering why the voters turned so ferociously on the Liberals and the Bloc, while embracing the polarizing views of the Conservatives and NDP, will help us understand just how much of a realignment of our politics this is. For now, we can identify four major themes that will carry this parliament ahead.

1. The return of majority government

By the end of the Chretien years, a strange idea took hold amongst the intellectual class and certain elements of the electorate, namely, that in a majority government, Canada’s Westminster-style democracy was an elective dictatorship. The received wisdom was that what we really needed was a minority government, that would force those in power to listen to the opposition, collaborate, negotiate and otherwise make parliament work in a more collegial fashion. That never came to pass. Instead, Canada has suffered through seven years of directionless government characterized by increasing centralization of power in Ottawa and even less accountability. Despite what parliament’s critics have argued, that is a direct consequence of minority rule. Majority rule will bring a healthy mix of stability and accountability to Ottawa.

2. The demise of ethnic politics

For almost twenty years, the single most destructive element in federal politics has been the presence of the Bloc Quebecois. Formed as a short-term party aimed at advancing the interests of Quebec separatists, it soon morphed into a place for Quebec ‘nationalists’ of all stripes to park their votes. That is, it became a de facto ethnic voting bloc, which is absolutely toxic in a democracy. Quebecers, to their everlasting credit, appear to have finally accepted the limitations of that gambit, and have realized that it harms Canada while doing nothing to advance Quebec’s own interests.

That said, Jack Layton’s success in Quebec is largely attributable to the promises he has made—explicitly and implicitly—to Quebec. Layton has handed a hostage to fortune in Quebec, and he will be under pressure to deliver an appropriate ransom. It will be up to Stephen Harper to decide whether to play along—Canada could very well be soon headed to a new round of mega-constitutional negotiations.

3. The triumph of cynicism

Notwithstanding their atrocious showing at the polls, the Liberal party’s decision to take down the government was grounded in a matter of high principle: the ongoing and visible contempt of Stephen Harper and his ministers for Parliament. While the Liberals failed to frame that contempt as a corresponding contempt for Canadians, that does not change the fact that the government was found in contempt of parliament, and was subsequently rewarded for that behaviour by the electorate.

The Tory contempt for democracy, and for the electorate, extended into the election campaign. From the ongoing untruths about the “coalition of socialists and separatists” to Harper’s refusal to take more than four questions a day from the press, to his supporters’ disgraceful habit of shouting down journalists, the Conservative campaign was a tightly-run triumph of deeply cynical political messaging.

4. The Liberal existential crisis

Even taking into account the above, the Liberal party is not on the verge of destruction because the prime minister was mean to the media. The party is suffering through a profound existential crisis. Just what has this Liberal campaign been about? At the start, it was about standing up for democracy—when it wasn’t about corporate taxes. Then there was the family pack—a thoroughly innocuous group of policies, with gusts to good sense. Finally there was the “rise up!” speech, which was pretty obviously a mid-campaign Hail Mary that might have worked better if the ground for it had been prepared in a more thoroughgoing manner. Every political campaign needs a story, and the Liberals simply did not have one.

But that is only because the Liberal party does not have a bigger story to tell about why it exists and what it is for. That existential crisis has been building for twenty years, and it has finally come to a head. For forty years, the party had two well-defined wings: the right-wing Bay Street Liberals and the left-wing faction based in Quebec. For the most part, the Quebec faction got to lead, but the Bay Street Liberals kept them honest, and kept their anti-Americanism and anti-business instincts from getting out of hand. The Bay Street Liberals have been sitting on the sidelines for two elections now, to the point where it was not clear what distinguished the Ignatieff Liberals from the Layton New Democrats.