“Politics,” as Michael Ignatieff graciously acknowledged last night, “offers hard lessons we all must learn.” This is not only a hard truth for defeated politicians and for those who still invest hopes in the political process. It is also the case for prognosticators of the political scene. It’s not so much the conservative majority that was unexpected last night, but the evening’s accompanying storylines. For who would have predicted even a few days ago that the Bloc would be so thoroughly defeated in Quebec? At the campaign’s start, who would have thought such a historic breakthrough for the NDP was possible, particularly inside Quebec? And who would have believed a party with as many high profile candidates as the Liberals would suffer such a devastating setback? Indeed, Canada’s political landscape has shifted. The wave of change inspires its own set of questions. With the Bloc effectively eliminated, what is the future of Quebec’s sovereignty movement? How should we understand the Liberal Party’s dreadful showing? How might the conservatives govern now that they’ve finally won their long sought majority?
The rout of the Bloc Party is, to be sure, a blow to Quebec’s sovereignty movement. Gilles Duceppe lost his seat and immediately resigned as party leader. The Bloc now have only 4 seats. To suggest, however, that the election results presage the demise of the sovereignty movement is premature at best, pure folly at worst. As the political analyst Allen Gregg remarked last night,
the Bloc’s presence in Ottawa represented a “safety valve” for Quebec voters, particularly those ambivalent about sovereignty. That safety valve has now been eliminated. Their near sweep of the province notwithstanding, it is easy to imagine the NDP’s surge in the province as tentative and potentially short lived. After all, some of the NDP candidates to win last night don’t even speak French; others didn’t even campaign in their own riding. Astoundingly, one winning candidate was in Las Vegas for much of the campaign. The learning curve for the party as a whole in Quebec and their representatives in the House of Commons will be steep. It is easy to imagine the mood that gave rise to the NDP’s strong showing ultimately shifting. That sort of scenario could manifest itself in a renewed push for sovereignty.
The Liberals suffered from the conservative’s relentless attack ads. The attacks on Michael Ignatieff were especially appalling, but ultimately effective. The liberal leader lost his own seat and has also just resigned as party leader. One of the election’s ironies is that Harper’s ambition for a majority was fuelled by his unrelenting attacks of Ignatieff’s personal ambition. To pursue a career outside of Canada, to teach at Harvard, to engage in worldly affairs as Michael Ignatieff has spent his working life doing and then dare to return to Canada and aspire to govern is a form of elitism that Canadians can do without. This was the essence of Harper’s attacks on the liberal leader. Considering much of the country’s love for Pierre Trudeau, it is perhaps strange and more than a little sad that such a strategy worked so splendidly. As one liberal candidate lamented, “the hatchet job on Michael Ignatieff is complete.”
Yet we should caution against attributing the liberal demise to simply conservative attacks. Another source of the Liberal party’s misfortune last night is perhaps less obvious. The Liberal strategy was to position themselves in the center of the political spectrum, in the expectation that enough Canadians would have an aversion to any party too far to the right or too far to the left. But in a very crucial sense, the Liberals were the victims of the move to the center of the political spectrum among all the major parties. In addition to their unrelenting attacks on the Liberals in particular, the conservatives were determined to allay any lingering fears of a conservative majority. They did so largely by presenting themselves as competent managers of the country’s finances and targeting particular ridings where liberal or NDP incumbents were vulnerable. But they also promised annual 6% funding increases to medicare, thereby effectively eliminating health care as a point of vulnerability for the party.
Similarly the NDP has long recognized the need to challenge the notion that the party is comprised of “socialists” who would radically reshape the country if it was ever in a position to govern. Jack Layton deserves a lot of credit for recasting the party’s
image. By the mid way point of the campaign he no longer scared people; on the contrary, his energy in the face of illness and his relentless optimism finally resonated beyond the party’s core constituency. But that was made possible by a platform best characterized as progressive but hardly sweeping. To be sure, there are some crucial differences between themselves and the conservatives, but those differences are not as wide as many may think. Among the major planks in their platform was a promise to quickly address the doctor shortage in the country’s rural areas and reversing the conservative’s last round of corporate tax breaks. This is hardly the stuff of a revolutionary platform! Indeed this was campaign marked by the utter absence of competing visions for the country. Differences between the parties were ones of degrees. The combined effect of these subtle shifts in strategy and mood was to deliver a conservative majority despite a relatively minor increase in popular support for the party and for Harper in particular.
How then can we expect a Harper majority to govern? It used to be that conservatives won on the basis of a rural/urban split. They won many rural ridings but were often shut out of the
country’s biggest urban centers, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Not so anymore. Outside of Montreal, the conservatives now have seats in urban areas as well. This sort of realignment
could precipitate important changes in the way the country is governed. The more dramatic changes will likely be with respect to areas of social policy dear to Harper’s heart. Thus there will be nothing stopping him now from proceeding with changes to the criminal justice system. Bigger prisons will be built, sentences for various types of offenders will be harsher and
rehabilitation will become a less vital element in the treatment of prisoners. The long gun registry will be ripped up and thrown away. The party’s expectation may very well be that these types of measures will not damage their standing in urban centers. Economically, the conservatives will likely be more cautious. However, their promise to increase annual investments in medicare, eliminate the deficit in a few years and implement further tax cuts will eventually dictate hard choices be made. When that happens, Canada may begin to feel like a much different place.