The West is in and Ontario has joined it

How the election led to an unprecedented realignment of Canadian politics

A new power couple

Photograph by Chris Bolin

Democracy, great and terrible as the sea: unknowable, implacable, irresistible, destroyer of parties, deliverer of others, humbler of leaders, elector of bricklayers and assistant pub managers. Tremble before it, and stay out of its path when it moves.

Five parties were picked up, shaken out and tossed aside by the voters in this astonishing election, but of all the many implications one is fundamental: the Conservatives are now in a position to replace the Liberals as the natural governing party in Canada, as dominant, potentially, in the 21st century as the Liberals were in the 20th. This isn’t just a victory, the first Conservative majority in a generation. It is (at least under the terms of the current electoral system) a realignment. Simply put, the West is in—and Ontario has joined it.

The temptation, looking at the wreckage of the Liberal and Bloc Québécois parties and the meteoric rise of the NDP, is to compare this election to 1993, which shattered Brian Mulroney’s old Conservative coalition into its Bloc and Reform party fragments. But it’s much more consequential than that. In retrospect, 1993 changed very little. It handed power to the Liberals, but it did nothing to alter the long-term dynamic of Canadian politics: the remorseless shrinking of the Liberal base.

Once, under William Lyon Mackenzie King, Liberals governed with a majority in every region of the country. But they lost the West to the Conservatives in 1958, and never recovered. They lost Quebec in 1984, and have never really recovered there, either. The collapse of the Conservatives in 1993, and the splitting of the vote on the right that ensued, allowed Jean Chrétien to eke out three more majorities, largely on the strength of the Liberals’ near-total dominance of Ontario. But it did nothing to enlarge the Liberal base: neither the West nor Quebec rejoined the fold.

By contrast, this election looks a lot more like 1891, when Wilfrid Laurier established the Liberal dynasty in Quebec, the foundation stone of Liberal governments for nearly a century; or 1935, when King added Ontario to the Liberal column. Now Stephen Harper has at last recaptured Ontario for the Conservatives, and in so doing has created a new governing coalition, unlike any that has gone before: the West plus Ontario.

Quebec and Atlantic Canada (Laurier and King), or Quebec and Ontario (Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau) we’ve seen. Conservatives sometimes put together majorities out of Ontario and Atlantic Canada (Bennett) or Quebec and the West (Mulroney). But Ontario and the West? That’s new. They have voted together before, of course, but the combination has never previously been enough to produce a majority on its own. But as the population has shifted westward, so has the centre of gravity of Canadian politics.

It is likely to prove more durable than previous Conservative governments, if only because it has been so long in the making. This is not like the sudden sweeps of John Diefenbaker and Mulroney, born of the collapse of previous Liberal governments, only to collapse of their own internal contradictions. This is one that has been built slowly, election after election, through defeat and victory.

The Conservative dominance of the West is the single most established fact in Canadian politics, a dynasty now in its sixth decade. And it has only grown more pronounced over time. On Monday night, the Conservatives won 54 per cent of the vote in Manitoba, 56 per cent in Saskatchewan, 67 in Alberta, and 46 in B.C.: an astounding 55 per cent average across the West—nine points higher than they averaged in 2004.

But meanwhile the same growth has been occurring in Ontario. Conservative parties won two seats in Ontario in 2000, 24 in 2004, 40 in 2006, 51 in 2008, and now 73—the first time the Conservatives have carried Ontario since 1984. Not only did the Tories take most of the seats in rural Ontario, but they also took 32 seats in the Greater Toronto Area, propelled by rising support among immigrant groups. Overall the Tories took 44 per cent of the vote in Ontario—12 points higher than in 2004.

What does this mean? It means the West, having spent most of the last 53 years in opposition, is now firmly installed in power. And it now has Ontario as its partner. This is the new axis of Canadian politics: the West begins at the Ottawa River.

Ontario’s decision is more momentous when you think of what it has endured of late. For much of the campaign, Ontario was very much in play. It had been through a harsh recession, and had become for the first time a “have-not” province, dependent on federal equalization payments. There was a real question as to which way it would turn: to the parties promising an expanded role for government, or to the party promising to cut taxes and spending.

That it chose the latter suggests the greater durability of this coalition. The Diefenbaker sweep was based on cultish enthusiasm and the machinery of Maurice Duplessis in Quebec; Mulroney cobbled together two mutually antagonistic political movements, western populists and Quebec nationalists, united only in their loathing of Ottawa. By contrast, this is based on a real affinity of ideology and interests. For all the attention paid to the Tories’ inability to get over 40 per cent in the polls nationally, the greater truth is this: they have 50 per cent of the vote in two-thirds of the country. As it turns out, that’s enough.

And as the population continues to shift westward, it will be more than enough. At the next election, there will be 30-odd more seats in Ontario and the West, based on the redistribution bill the Tories introduced in the last Parliament; and in elections after that, more still. Add to that the coming abolition of party subsidies, as promised in their platform, and the Conservative grip on power looks secure.

AND YET it all could have turned out much differently. The Tories ran a frankly miserable campaign, aimed entirely at holding on to their existing base, but with little obvious appeal to the uncommitted. Though their strategy was sound, and their platform contained some interesting proposals, their message was presented in an oddly sullen tone: paranoid of the media, spiteful of their opponents. Indeed, until the last weekend of the campaign they appeared to be losing support, not gaining it. They benefited enormously from the disarray on the left: first the collapse of the Liberals, then, at the end, by the shocking rise of the NDP.

To be fair, the Tories were in part responsible for both. It was Harper who successfully framed the election as a choice between the stability of a Conservative majority or another “reckless coalition” of the Liberals, the NDP and the Bloc—the enduring legacy of the December 2008 fiasco—putting the Liberals in a box from which they struggled the whole campaign to escape.

To voters frustrated with the political impasse of the last several years, Harper said: only the Tories could win a majority, while the Liberals, behind by a dozen points or more in the polls at the start of the campaign, could not. Voters who were comfortable with a Conservative minority, but wary of giving them a majority, were told that the former option was no longer available to them: a Conservative minority would surely be defeated in the House at the first opportunity. After all, was that not what had precipitated the election: the withdrawal of confidence by the other three parties?

As much as Michael Ignatieff tried to evade that logic, it proved ineluctible. If he wanted to govern, he had to leave open the possibility of doing so with the support of the NDP, at least. But in so doing, he allowed himself to be tied rather too closely to the other parties, at least for centrist voters’ taste: the more so in view of the Liberals’ disastrous decision to abandon the centre, in favour of a marked appeal to the left.

I’ll concede there was a certain logic to it: steal voters from the NDP, knock them out of contention early, and drive up Liberal numbers to within striking range of the Conservatives. Then appeal to voters to give Ignatieff a majority, rather than Harper. There was just one problem with it. It couldn’t possibly work.

The Liberal platform was just left enough to put off voters to their right, without persuading anyone to their left. It came off as what it was: a strategy, rather than a philosophy, feeding doubts about the sincerity and authenticity of the man promoting it, already planted by months of Tory attack ads. Add to that Jack Layton’s powerful personal appeal, and NDP voters had little reason to switch—the more so given all the talk of post-election alliances. After all, if the Conservatives could win the election and still be tossed from power, what reason had they to heed appeals to vote Liberal to “stop Harper”? Quite the contrary: better to give Jack a strong bargaining position in the negotiations to come.

All that the Liberals leftward deke accomplished, then, was to leave the Tories in absolute possession of the centre-right: the only party promising to cut taxes and spending, while four parties promised to raise them—the only party, indeed, that seemed particularly concerned with creating wealth, rather than redistributing it. Yet as much as the Liberals ceded the economy to the Tories, neither could they lay claim to any other issues in the public mind: the NDP owned health care and accountability, the Greens the environment. (As one pollster put it, about the only issue Ignatieff polled strongest on was foreign policy. Ouch.) And as the Liberal campaign began to stall, the opening was left for the NDP to make its move.

In a way, the NDP message was the flip side of the Conservatives’. Where Harper offered a majority as the solution to seven years of partisan bickering and brinksmanship, the NDP offered another: kick everybody in the shins: Conservatives, Liberals and, in Quebec, the Bloc.

And yet, as protest votes go, it was peculiarly sweet-tempered. The strategies of the other parties seemed aimed at forcing voters down one chute or another, with strident appeals to fear. You have to vote Conservative, Harper told them, to stop the coalition. You have to vote Liberal, Ignatieff told them, to stop Harper. You have to vote BQ, Gilles Duceppe told Quebecers, to defend Quebec from federal depredations. The faces of all three men scowled out at Canadians from campaign ads and the televised debates.

And along came Layton, with his courtly manners and perpetual smile, asking them, in effect, “Would you like to vote New Democrat?” That seems to have been all there was to it. There wasn’t much that was new in the NDP message—its policies remain the same frumpy mix of dirigisme and populist business-bashing they have always been—but neither was there the same negativity. To compound the oddity, here was a protest against “politics as usual” being led by a 25-year career politician. Yet in today’s sourpuss politics, Layton’s old-school vibe came off as positively radical. Imagine: a candidate who actually seemed to be enjoying himself, as if he liked people.

Voters in Quebec, weary of the Bloc and positively alarmed at the prospect of another referendum—for above all Quebecers prefer not to have to choose—were the first to respond, vaulting the party into first place in a province where it had only recently climbed above 10 per cent of the vote. That got the attention of left-of-centre voters in the rest of Canada, accustomed to being told they were “wasting their votes” if they opted for the NDP over the Liberals. Before you knew it, the NDP had doubled their vote nationwide.

There’s never been a surge to match it. Soon the Liberals found themselves whipsawed between the NDP and the Conservatives. As the NDP climbed in the polls, left-wing voters abandoned them in favour of the NDP, the better to “stop Harper.” Then, as the NDP started to draw within a few points of the Conservatives, right-wing Liberals decamped for the Conservatives, especially in Ontario, in order to stop the NDP. That late shift seemed to catch the pollsters unawares, but it was probably on the order of two to three percentage points, pushing the Tories over the top and cratering Liberal support.

THE RESULTING carnage—the Liberals gravely wounded, the Bloc mortally so—leaves as much altered on the opposition side as on the government’s, but with much less sense of its durability. The kind of sudden ballooning in support the NDP enjoyed has been seen before, especially in Quebec: it rarely lasts, not least when so much of it is attached to the personality of the leader. Quebecers have been shifting their support about wildly in recent years, without evident regard for ideological consistency: it’s the left-wing NDP now but it was the centre-right Coalition pour L’Avenir du Québec earlier, and the further-right Action Démocratique du Québec before that. The best that can be said is that the Quebec vote is in play.

The NDP will now have to cope with the challenges of success. It has done the country the singular service of dispatching the Bloc. Now it must manage the expectations aroused by its own strident appeals to Quebec nationalism, without alienating either its new-found followers in Quebec or its traditional base elsewhere in the country. At the same time, as the second party in an emerging two-party system, it must adapt to the rules of a very different political game.

Does it sharpen the divisions between itself and the government, in hopes of forcing the remains of the anti-Conservative majority into its camp—but at risk of yielding the centre ground to the Tories? Or does it pitch its tent for the centre, and risk being dragged to the right as the Conservatives remake Canadian politics in their image?

But the Liberals’ dilemma is much more acute. Indeed, it is existential. The party needs time to debate its future direction—but in the meantime, the Conservatives and the NDP will be tearing into its support on the right and left. Should it, as some on the left of the party are urging, opt for a merger with the NDP—assuming the NDP has any interest in such an alliance—it will find itself deserted by many of its centre-right supporters. But if it tries to carry on, crippled, adrift, and deprived of a substantial part of its funding, it risks bleeding support, even some MPs, to the NDP.

If it is to survive, it will have to make the case for the continuing relevance of a centrist party in Canadian politics. If all that being a Liberal means is to be a little less conservative than the Conservatives, a little less progressive than the New Democrats, the party may find itself meeting the same fate as the British Liberal party. But if it is bold enough to redefine the middle—to outflank the Conservatives on some issues, and the New Democrats on others, while claiming ownership of issues like democratic reform, or the need for a strong national government, capable of defending the national interest against the provinces, it may yet hope to rise again. Look on it as an opportunity, Liberals: it’s not as if you’ve got anything to lose.

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