Ottawa’s new power couple

Harper’s is the first majority to rely equally on Ontario and the West

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YearWinning partyWestOntarioQuebecAtlantic
1949ST LAURENT41566826
Reform/Cdn Alliance
Bloc Québécois

Here’s a little chart that might help to explain the significance of what happened Monday night. It breaks down every election since 1867 according to whether the winning party carried a majority (50% plus 1) of the seats in each region, as indicated by their party colours (white indicates no party won a majority ): The numbers show how many seats the winning party nationally obtained in each region. The years with shaded bars on them denote minority Parliaments.

Only very rarely – three times under Macdonald, twice under King, and once each for Diefenbaker and Mulroney – has a party carried all four regions. Usually majorities are won with majorities in two regions, sometimes three, with a smattering of seats elsewhere. Very occasionally – Borden in 1911, Chretien in 1997 – it’s been done with just one: Ontario.

No party has ever won a majority without carrying at least one of Ontario and Quebec. Before Chretien, only three majorities were won without Quebec (1891, 1911, and 1930). After Laurier, only King (1921, 1945) and Mulroney (1988) have won majorities without Ontario. Before Harper, Atlantic Canada voted with the majority in every election but five: 1896, 1911, 1968, 1988, and 1997.

I’ll be going into this in my piece in tomorrow’s Maclean’s, but for now you can see how the winning power blocks have evolved. In the early years of the Liberals post-Macdonald dominance, after Laurier took Quebec for the first time in 1891, their majorities were essentially based on Quebec and Atlantic Canada, with growing help from the West. Conservatives won with Ontario and Atlantic Canada under Bennett and Meighen.

The next watershed year is 1935, when King carried Ontario for the Liberals for the first time in 60 years. For the next 45 years, Liberal dominance was assured: win a majority of the seats in Quebec all of the time, and Ontario most of the time, and you will win a lot of majorities. In 22 elections from 1935 to 2006, the Liberals carried Ontario 15 times; on four other occasions, it gave the Liberals enough seats either to sustain the Liberals in power, or to hold the Conservatives to a minority. Looked at another way: before 1935, the Tories won 9 majorities. After, only 3: Harper is the fourth.

But over time the forces of opposition to Liberal rule began to amass. The West, which for many years after Laurier split its vote among a number of parties, was united under the Conservative banner by Diefenbaker in 1958. Conservative parties, whether in their Progressive Conservative, Reform, Canadian Alliance, or reunited Conservative guises, have dominated the region ever since. Indeed, the last time the Liberals carried the West was in 1949.

Worse was the loss of Quebec in 1984. It proved possible, just, for the Liberals to carry on winning majorities under Chretien largely by sweeping Ontario, with help from Atlantic Canada and whatever seats the Bloc left on the table in Quebec. But they were increasingly running on fumes.

And yet, as solid as the Tory lock was on Western Canada, they, too, could not win a majority so long as they were unable to carry any other part of the country, as they have been unable to since 1988.

But now all that has changed, with the addition of Ontario to the Tory column. This is an altogether new majority coalition: the West and Ontario, and only them, for the most part. Before Monday night, there had been only two majorities in Canadian history that did not include majorities in Quebec or Atlantic Canada: Borden in 1911, and Chretien in 1997. But both of those were essentially Ontario operations. This is the first to rely equally on Ontario and the West.

The Diefenbaker and Mulroney sweeps included both regions, of course. But because they were so broadly based, with such divergent interests and values, and because they flared up so quickly, they proved unwieldy and unstable. A nearer example is Clark in 1979. Yet even though he carried two-thirds of the seats west of Quebec, plus a majority of Atlantic Canada, Clark did not have enough for a majority. Today, that would be enough.

So the West is very much in. This is the first majority government, and only the third of any kind in our history, in which the West has more seats in the governing caucus than Quebec and Atlantic Canada combined. The Ontario half of the partnership, moreover, far from the hasty marriage of opposites that undid Diefenbaker and Mulroney, has been built slowly, over several elections, and on a coherent ideological base. These are, after all, historically the most prosperous parts of the country, the ones most likely to be attuned to a tax-cutting, growth-oriented agenda. Just possibly, this could prove to be a lasting combination.

Of course, the Tories can’t expect to take three-quarters of the seats west of Quebec every election. But even if they take no more than about 60-65% — typically, that means 40-45% of the popular vote, rather than the nearly 50% they won this time — it gives them a base from which to reach out to Quebec and Atlantic Canada. They don’t have to make the kind of extravagant pass that Mulroney made at Quebec: it would be enough to take 20 seats or so, plus 10 or 15 in Atlantic Canada to secure a majority most years— especially with the coming addition of 30-odd seats in Ontario and the West (which would still leave them under-represented). Win two-thirds of the seats west of Quebec, and you’ll win a lot of majorities.