The federal election in Canada this month changed the political landscape beyond recognition.
After two successive minority governments, conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper won his long-sought majority on a low-tax deficit-cutting plan and crime agenda, winning 166 seats out of a total of 308.
That in itself was quite a feat but the jaw-dropping results on election night provoked a seismic shift in the representation at the House of Commons, Canada’s lower chamber.
For the first time in history, the New Democratic Party (NDP), a social-democratic left-leaning party, became the official opposition in the House of Commons, replacing the Liberal Party of Canada which scored its worst political performance in history. The NDP grabbed 103 seats, up from 36, beating their own 1988 historic breakthrough of 43 seats. The Liberals dropped to 34 seats from 77, and the Conservatives gained 23 seats, dominating every region except Québec.
Now, two weeks later, we can reflect on what to make of all this.
It seems Canada was due for a change.
In the province of Quebec, the orange revolution, so-called after the official color of the NDP, turned out to be anything but a “mirage,” as had mocked pro-independence Bloc québécois (BQ) leader Gilles Duceppe.
It was nothing short of a tsunami. The orange revolution swept Quebec, dislodging the once mighty separatist Bloc québécois. Under leader Jack Layton, the NDP went from one Member of Parliament to 59 overnight. The BQ, which only runs candidates in Québec to sit in the Commons, was reduced to four seats from 47. In British Columbia, the Green Party was also able to win its first seat ever.
After a hesitant start (coming out of surgery for a hip replacement), there was no stopping Jack Layton. His cane and his fight against prostate cancer resonated with voters. This was especially true with Quebeckers who were seduced by his smile, his positive attitude and his resilience. An early poll showed “Jack” (referred to affectionately by les Québécois) was the leader with whom people most wanted to have a beer.
His message of “Who do you trust” to negotiate a new federal-provincial health deal was appropriately fitting.
“You know where I stand. You know I’m a fighter. And I won’t stop until the job is done,” Layton said repeatedly in publicity ads that ran in French and English across Canada.
Layton also promised to “fix” Ottawa and to get results for pensioners, the military and Canadian families, and to hire more doctors. Born outside Montréal, the Toronto-MP made overtures to Québec saying he would extend the protection of the French language in federally-regulated corporations in Québec and would push for mandatory bilingual judges at the federal Supreme Court of Canada.
The results left politicians in Québec shaking their heads.
After 20 years in politics, a distressed Duceppe, the Bloc leader defeated in his native Montréal, quit on election night, saying “the people had spoken.”
The annihilation of the party created in June 1991 to promote an independent Québec, left supporters searching for answers. Pollsters say the results are not a left-right issue nor an outright rejection of Québec’s quest for independence but mostly, a call for a refreshing change. Still, la raison d’être of the Bloc is being questioned.
The Liberals’ humiliating defeat shocked prominent Liberal MPs across the country. The party lost more than half of its seats, going from 77 to 34. The Liberals did poorly in Québec, electing only seven out of 75 seats. The Tories had to settle for five seats and lost three ministers including Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon.
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff—the former Harvard professor wooed by the party establishment to take the party to new heights after another disappointing defeat during the 2008 election—quit the following day after losing in his native Toronto. “The Old Professor”, as he put it, was almost immediately snapped up by the University of Toronto where he’ll teach politics and international relations in the fall.
After an inspiring start, Ignatieff’s message to voters “to rise up” against the Harper government’s perceived anti-democratic ways, failed to register with election-wary voters. Canadians have had to go to the polls four times in the last seven years, a fact Harper was quick to capitalize on. He reminded citizens that only a majority government could turn things around and that an unstable Liberal or NDP-led minority coalition government with other parties would lead yet to another election.
The Harper government was found in “contempt of Parliament” for refusing to disclose the cost of crime bills and corporate tax cuts to opposition MPs. More preoccupied with the state of the economy, that argument did not win over voters, admitted Liberal Party President Alfred Apps.
The Liberals now have no leader at all. Former Canadian astronaut Marc Garneau who survived the onslaught in his Montréal riding, announced he was running for the position of interim leader but that process has not been spelled out.
Once Parliament is recalled, it will be a different ballgame altogether.
For Harper, it will be business as usual. He campaigned on his budget which has yet to be passed. Some of his few promises will only kick in once the deficit has been eliminated, in 2014 or so. He was ridiculed for making long-term promises that may never materialize, but voters bought into his main message to elect a national, stable, majority Conservative government to anchor Canada’s economic recovery.
For the Liberals, the new configuration in Parliament means they will have to settle for third party status in the House. They will no longer get the questions off the top during the daily televised Question Period, hence, less visibility, and less profile.
The Bloc québécois is off the radar screen. Because it has less than 12 seats in the House of Commons, it is no longer recognized as an official federal party. The four Bloc MPs will have to settle for seats at the back. They won’t have the opportunity to ask questions during Question Period.
As for Jack Layton, his historic breakthrough is a golden opportunity to showcase the party’s positions but it will be hard to deliver on his promises.
The orange wave brought in a slew of young enthusiastic but inexperienced newcomers from Québec. It will be quite the juggling act for Layton to appease his francophone Québec wing and his MPs from the other mainly English-speaking provinces while maintaining a show of unity.
*Huguette Young is an AQ Online contributing blogger based in Ottawa, Canada.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.