Canadians have clearly learned something from Quebeckers about hedging their political bets. The Québécois love to maintain a studied ambiguity in their political choices, the better to keep all the politicians dancing to their tune. That pretty much sums up the outcome of Monday’s federal election too. The parties are going to spend the life of this parliament looking over their shoulders, desperately seeking guidance from a Sphinx-like electorate about what would be politically popular or at least palatable.
But those who remain fixated on the results of this election alone will be unable to see the larger tectonic shifts that it heralds when seen against the background of Canada’s recent politics.
The defining political fact of the last 16 years or so was the dissolution of the Mulroney governing coalition. The old Progressive Conservatives splintered in to the PCs, the Bloc Québécois and Reform. Vote-splitting thus led to three back-to-back Liberal majorities, a feat not seen since the days of Mackenzie King and St-Laurent.
No one except the Liberals could make a credible claim to being a national party. But in a dynamic society like Canada, such dominance must contain within itself the seeds of its own destruction. The last two elections have been about the slow, halting emergence of an alternative governing party.
First came the end to conservative vote-splitting. Monday’s election shows that that part of the job is done, as the new Conservative Party has now put back together that political base.
Monday’s election, however, is the harbinger of a new era of vote-splitting, this time on the Left. It cannot have been lost on Jack Layton and the NDP that they got one of their best popular vote scores ever by running chiefly against the Liberals, not the Tories. Their growth in seats was in the urban areas that are also now the core of Liberal support.
That’s not all. The election also revealed a whole new political landscape in Quebec. The old Mulroney coalition was unstable because of the extent to which it relied on the nationalist vote (remember René Lévesque’s “beau risque”?). They were always in it only for what they could extract for Quebec. That only became explicit, however, with the collapse of Mulroneyism and the emergence of the Bloc Québécois from its ashes.
But the collapse of the Liberal Party and the destruction of their brand in Quebec outside Montreal’s West Island now means that the federalist, rather than the nationalist vote, is looking for a home. The Tories have not got that deal sewed up, but it is theirs to lose. They beat the Grits in popular vote by a large margin in the province, and have ten Quebec MPs, many with great political pedigrees. The Tories now have a better claim to being a national party than the Grits. And the biggest loser of this election is the Bloc, which saw its hopes dashed of getting an absolute majority of Quebec votes. Federalists, still a majority in Quebec, now have a federalist alternative not associated with humiliating scandal. Far from being a threat to national unity, the Tories have pulled Canada’s fat from the fire.
The biggest obstacle to the progress of this emerging Conservative alternative is that in its current form it has never held power. That, combined with its roots in the old western populist Reform Party, has been the source of the Liberals’ most potent attacks. Two elections in a row, Canadians were poised to hand the Conservatives a strong minority, perhaps even a majority. Twice the Liberals have played on Ontarians’ fears of what an untried party with radical roots might do with such power, and Ontarians have blinked.
But this time around they were less scared than in 2004, and this time the Tories do hold power. Yes, they are in a weak minority in parliament and can only rule by accommodating other parties issue by issue. But all that means is that they will have to stick to the most popular parts of their program. More importantly, Canadians will have a chance to see that Conservatives can govern and the sky will not fall.
Even in a minority, being in government means that the power of initiative passes into the hands of the Conservatives. Now it will be Stephen Harper who will represent Canada on the international stage and at first ministers meetings. Tory ministers will present bills and budgets in parliament and defend them on national television. If they handle themselves well, they will be seen as competent and human — unpromising material for attack ads. And unlike Mulroney, Stephen Harper doesn’t want to control the Liberal patronage machine. He wants to dismantle it. If he does that while reforming the financing of political parties, this long series of baby steps will have been a quiet, incremental, and therefore deeply Canadian, political revolution.