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Friday, May 13, 2011

O, Canada…has voted! (In case you missed it.) And it matters.

Julian Lee, MPA

To the casual outside observer, it looks like the Canadian federal elections on May 2nd didn’t produce much change; after all, Stephen Harper is still Canada’s Conservative prime minister, as he has been for four years. But look a little closer, and you will observe something of a sea change.

The center-left Liberal Party—long dubbed Canada’s “natural governing party” due to its 69-year reign in the 20th century—was decimated, earning only 34 of parliament’s 308 seats, its worst showing in history.

The Liberal Party leader, former Oxford, Cambridge, and Harvard intellectual Michael Ignatieff, was long better-known in his adoptive home countries of England and the US than in Canada before he returned after 30 years to enter politics. The Conservative Party never ceased to attack his foreign residence and his supposed elitist arrogance; the Canadian electorate proved sufficiently parochial to buy the message. It didn’t help that Ignatieff seemed unable to communicate what he stood for. Adding insult to injury, he failed to regain his seat in parliament.

Into the left-of-center vacuum stormed the social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP). Led by the affable, energetic Jack Layton, the party achieved the unthinkable: in Quebec, it dethroned the separatist Bloc Québécois, which since 1993 had a stranglehold on the sovereigntist left vote there. The Bloc plunged from 49 seats to a mere 4, which enabled the NDP to be become the second-strongest parliamentary force for the first time in history.

In another first, in Mr. Harper’s third successive electoral victory, voters have endowed him with a parliamentary majority. Granted, only 39.6% of ballots were cast in his favor, but in Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system, a minority of votes can give you a majority of seats.

The big deal: Changing values

As I mentioned, all of this amounts to a sea change in Canadian politics. With his new-found majority, Harper will no longer need to rely on compromise in order to push through his agenda. Though in his acceptance speech, he promised to “be the government of all Canadians,” his record to date casts some doubt on that claim. Harper has consistently ignored the views of groups that do not form part of his power base even while forming a minority government.

More importantly however, this election points to shifting Canadian values. The political left has been outraged by Mr. Harper’s autocratic style of governing: he suspended parliament when a parliamentary investigation into the abuse of Afghan detainees transferred from Canadian custody became uncomfortable for his government; he slapped a gag order on bureaucrats, barring them from speaking to the press without his office’s authorization in order to control his government’s messaging; and his government was the first ever to be found in contempt of Parliament for withholding costing information for several big-ticket expenditures. Yet none of these episodes gained traction with an electorate that was focused on an economy that was humming along better than in most developed countries.

The Liberal Party used to be able to count on the immigrant vote, but that has shifted to the Conservative Party. Whereas immigrants used to be predominantly European and settle in the east, they now come mainly from Asia and more of them go west. This development has gone hand-in-hand with an economic shift: Canada’s Ontario- and Quebec-based manufacturing base has been in decline for years, whereas western Canada has done well with its natural resources, services, and Asian outlook.

As the economy has gone west, so has politics. Stephen Harper hails from Alberta, often nicknamed “Canada’s Texas” by Easterners not only for its oil wealth and cattle ranches, but for its small-government, conservative political bent. His power base lies there, but crucially, he has convinced many in the former Liberal heartland of Ontario that his vision of more a limited government is the way of the future.

The Canada that emerged on May 2nd is questioning the role of government and the social-democratic state it built during the 20th century. This is the most important lesson from this year’s elections. It will take the left-of-center parties years to adapt to this new reality.

A Conservative future?

But it won’t just be smooth sailing for the Conservatives. Their party is still more conservative than the average voter and will have to avoid the temptation to govern roughshod and alienate newly-acquired supporters. The NDP will have to learn how to be an effective opposition with a large caucus of neophytes, while representing Quebec for the first time and probably moving to the center in an effort to widen its appeal. As for the Liberal Party, it will have to pick up the pieces and start rebuilding its identity from scratch.

As the two leftist parties figure out their new roles, it would be unsurprising if Canada were in for more than one Conservative term. That would suit Mr. Harper well. By his own admission, his goal is to shift Canada permanently rightward, positioning the Conservatives as Canada's new “natural governing party."


  1. This is very clear and interesting. Is it your sense that the NDP is more "liberal" (in the American sense) than the Liberal party? Harper is clearly in a stronger position than before, but what is his opposition after?

    Also, while I assume that Canada will not act forcefully to reduce carbon emissions, for many reasons, but my sense is that in Canada, even the Conservatives don't doubt that climate change is real. Is that accurate?

  2. Do you think there will be an effective movement to unite the left in opposition to the Conservatives?

  3. Very well written Julian.

    Jacob: Regarding your question if the Conservatives believe that climate change is real. Actions speak louder than words, and Harper is a true 'politician', so his words need to be taken with some very large grains of salt.

    When it comes to Climate Change, Harper is Canada's George W. Bush. He comes from oil country and only cares about the economy, without thinking about the long term effects of externalities that will affect the economy.

    Basically, He says that they truly care about Climate Change and are taking strong, decisive action... but in reality, they MIGHT believe that Climate Change is happening, they very likely do not take it seriously and do not think it will have the impact predicted by scientists, and he certainly does not think (or at least care) that Climate Change is being caused by human actions.
    Simply put, with Harper in charge, our progress on this urgent matter will be mostly ineffective baby steps at best, and regressive at worst.

  4. Jacob, the NDP is definitely more liberal than the Liberal party. They would most easily be comparable to the left fringe of the Democratic party. The Liberals are really quite centrist by Canadian standards, though that would easily place them in the middle of the Democrats.

    I agree with most of Mitchell's assessment. You are right, a good number of Conservatives acknowledge the reality of climate change, and there aren't many who openly doubt it. Politically, that would be unfeasible. The government so far, however, has done virtually nothing to address the issue, which is a good indication of the priority that it accords the issue. Its current line is to wait for US action. I would add, however, that Canadians as a whole are also very complacent when it comes to climate change (and, for that matter, as outlined in the article, on a number of other issues as well).

    Andy (Dad!), I am not sure that such a movement is in the offing. At this point, the NDP probably feels emboldened and would see little reason to merge with a weakened Liberal party. Many voters chose the NDP over the Liberals because they no longer believe in the Liberals (in their current form). Jack Layton stood for change. I would imagine that he is hesitant to risk alienating those voters by merging with a party that has little to offer to him at this juncture. That said, it could also be strategic to negotiate out of his current position of power.