The coming Tory majority

Conservatives could rule more than half the country by next fall. What’s behind the blue surge.
The coming Tory majority
Jacques Boissinot/CP/ John Woods/CP/ Pawel Dwulit/CP

David Alward is not the planet’s most impressive politician. The New Brunswick Conservative leader lacks the emotional fire of his Liberal rival Shawn Graham. He’s 50 years of age, and looks exactly 50. His French could best be described as the “your dad reading sarcastically off a cereal box” kind. His opposition to last year’s attempted sale of NB Power assets to Hydro-Québec had economists gnashing their teeth in frustration. His post-secondary education was earned at Bryan College, the evangelical institution in Dayton, Tenn., named for William Jennings Bryan after he fought the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial” in the town and died there. (The college’s Center for Origins Research still flies the banner of young-Earth creationism today.)

But on Sept. 27, Alward did something no one has done in New Brunswick since Confederation: he held a governing party to just one term in office, beating Graham in a landslide. He had started the campaign with his party behind the Liberals in voter intentions, and his personal ratings even further back. But the pollsters’ voter-satisfaction numbers hinted that New Brunswickers hadn’t forgiven Graham for the NB Power deal.

“We had an unbelievable, spectacular summer in Atlantic Canada, and people just weren’t paying a lot of attention to political issues,” says Don Mills, president of Corporate Research Associates. Halifax-based CRA predicted a Tory win with a week left in the campaign, and its “rolling poll” of New Brunswick voters was very close to the final vote share (49 per cent for the Tories, 34 per cent for the Liberals). “The Liberals spent that time on a traditional pre-election strategy, trying to pave everything that wasn’t moving,” recounts Mills. “The Conservatives disappeared. They were election planning behind the scenes.” Graham was caught off-guard by Alward’s surprisingly credible performance as an alternative premier. “The Liberals tried to run on future promises in the hope that voters would forget about the past. Alward didn’t let them.”

The fortunes of Conservatives in Canada’s provinces briefly reached a new ebb last summer when New Democrat Darrell Dexter took over as Nova Scotia premier. That left just two nominally Conservative provincial governments, in Alberta and Newfoundland. It’s still a slightly eerie landscape for those who grew up watching Pierre Trudeau square off against no fewer than seven Conservative first ministers during the constitutional repatriation fight. Nowadays the Conservative brand is genuinely competitive in seven provinces, although the Saskatchewan Party’s leader, Brad Wall, emerged from the PC side of the red-blue merger that formed his party, and Jean Charest’s Conservative past is well known.

But Alward could represent the start of something big. He brings the number of Conservative-blue provinces to three out of the seven. Barring some apocalypse, three of the remaining four will hold elections on legally fixed dates within the same week next year: P.E.I. on Oct. 3, Manitoba on Oct, 4, and Ontario on Oct. 6.
Robert Ghiz’s government in Prince Edward Island will probably survive, although Ghiz, like the ill-fated Graham, is a second-generation Liberal dynast who has some political problems with electricity generation (in Ghiz’s case, a imploding plan for expanding windpower production). But beginning on the morning of Oct. 4, 2011, the Conservatives have a clear chance at pulling off a Manitoba-Ontario bank shot.

Manitoba PC Leader Hugh McFadyen’s debut performance in 2007’s election was not auspicious. His rash promise to bring the Jets back to Winnipeg got him razzed by opinion-makers, his star candidates struggled, and his personal riding visits seemed to do little good. Gary Filmon-era minister Jack Reimer, who had held down a southeast Winnipeg seat forever, dismissed a TV personality drafted by the NDP to run against him as a “prop”; the prop whupped him. Premier Gary Doer had, for the fifth consecutive time, raised the NDP’s seat total.

But before long, Doer had quit provincial politics and absconded to Washington to become ambassador to the U.S. In the vacuum he left behind, hydroelectricity is again a key issue. Manitoba needs a new hydro line to connect Winnipeg and other cities in the south to new generating capacity in the north. The existing north-south lines share a corridor, leaving Manitoba industry and homeowners vulnerable to natural disaster. Manitoba Hydro proposed to run “Bipole III” more or less straight north-south through the boreal forest east of Lake Winnipeg. But Premier Greg Selinger’s NDP government intervened to protect caribou habitat, insisting on a more costly route lurching west through farmland and almost grazing the Saskatchewan border.

Increasing anger over that choice may hand McFadyen the defining cause he lacked in ’07. A late-August Angus Reid poll had the PCs ahead 49 per cent to 34 province-wide, with more than half (52 per cent) of voters agreeing with the statement: “It is time for a change of government in Manitoba.” One month later, Probe Research had the Conservatives ahead 42-40; the two polls differ most significantly within Winnipeg, with the NDP possibly getting a bounce in Probe’s later count from Judy Wasylycia-Leis’s mayoral campaign.
“Selinger and McFadyen are both in a situation where their political lives are probably at stake,” observes John Loewen, a Winnipeg entrepreneur who has been both a PC MLA and a Liberal MP. “The New Democrats can no longer call on Doer’s political capital. Hydro will be the hot button, and it will get hotter as the province runs deficits and the feds look at cutting back transfer payments.”

The third of the three battles for a Conservative revival is already well under way in Ontario, where polls say the race is Tory Leader Tim Hudak’s to lose. Hudak’s PCs began to pull roughly even with the governing Liberals about this time last year. But an Angus Reid poll taken Sept. 21-22 of this year was full of evil portents for Dalton McGuinty and the Grits. Hudak leads in voter intention 41 per cent to 29, despite feeble levels of name recognition, and Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats are strong on the left at 22 per cent. Seventy-one per cent of voters declared the government to be on the “wrong track” overall; 65 per cent described its recent economic management as “poor” or “very poor.”

While McGuinty has taken steps to resist the fussy-paternalist “Premier Dad” label the Conservatives borrowed from the media and slapped on his forehead, support is mixed at best for his recent policy choices. The harmonized sales tax, whose impact he was thought to have avoided better than B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell, is called the “right thing to do” by just 19 per cent of voters. (Here again hydro turns up; Ontarians’ bills are now subject to the provincial portion of the HST.) McGuinty’s poorly designed eco fees, withdrawn three weeks after their July 2009 introduction and mothballed officially on Oct. 12, found just 27 per cent support. But on the liberalizing side, his thumbs-up to online gambling got only 29 per cent backing, and even the legalization of mixed martial arts split the electorate evenly (52 per cent to 48).

These lowlights from one poll don’t include older McGuinty hangovers like the eHealth scandals and the dithering over the “Supercorp” merger of Crown energy, gaming, and liquor assets. The Liberals signalled strongly at their annual general meeting last week that they are prepared to run from behind. Speeches by McGuinty and campaign co-chairman Greg Sorbara revealed the plan of attack: make the recession an asset and link Hudak to the Harris government at every possible turn.

Indeed, even though the highest post Hudak occupied under Harris was culture and tourism, they’ve retrospectively rebranded it the “Harris-Hudak government.” Hudak, said McGuinty, represents “a legacy of closed hospitals, countless school days lost to strikes, fired water and meat inspectors, and shortsighted schemes that have taken years to undo—and they did all that in good times. Now imagine what they’d do in lean times.”

Historian Michael Bliss thinks the nascent Conservative resurgence in the provinces may reflect the anti-establishment mood visible across the continent; he notes that Rob Ford’s strong showing in polling for Toronto’s mayoral election suggests that no place is safe for establishment candidates. “I was reading the paper this morning,” says Bliss, “and thinking—if McGuinty goes on accusing Tim Hudak of being Mike Harris, Hudak may well start to say, ‘What’s so bad about being Mike Harris?’ ”

David Alward’s New Brunswick victory certainly wasn’t a win for conservative or laissez-faire ideology—a conservative would have taken Hydro-Québec’s money, and with grovelling thanks—but it certainly reflected a populist, throw-the-bums-out collective temper. If it lasts, it could facilitate the Manitoba-Ontario double in fall 2011 and leave Canada with five provincial Tory governments representing nearly 20 million Canadians.

But after that, Conservatives have more to lose than they have to gain. Danny Williams will face Newfoundland voters, probably very confidently, on Oct. 11. But the most comfortable PC bums of all, the ones in Alberta’s legislature, face new Wildrose Alliance foes on the right and will probably become eligible for tossing sometime in spring 2012.

Read Colby Cosh’s follow-up article “Two appendices to ‘The coming Tory majority'”