Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Canada’s Conservatives: A Troubled Political Landscape

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On November 25, Canadians went to the polls in four by-elections—two in Manitoba, one in Québec and one in Ontario.  The results were not dramatic, as they maintained the same distribution of seats in Canada’s House of Commons.  The Conservative Party of Prime Minister Stephen Harper kept its two Manitoba seats—albeit with highly reduced margins.  The Liberals, led by new leader Justin Trudeau, won both the Ontario and the Québec seats. 

What made news was the fact that the Liberals captured second place in the Manitoba contests, leaving the New Democratic Party (NDP) to ponder whether they are losing their hold as the alternative to the governing Tories.

Harper’s party is still mired in the Senate scandal from last spring, which involved alleged spending infractions by former Conservative Senators Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin—then part of the Conservative caucus. 

To the opposition parties, it’s the scandal that keeps on giving, as daily revelations dominate the newswires.  The prime minister is finding out the hard way the Watergate scandal lesson—the “cover-up” is usually more damaging than the “crime.”  Evasive answers, contradictions and improvisation have amplified what should have been an isolated case of misbehaving senators (since expelled from the Tory caucus) into a full-blown scandal.

Conservatives have suffered the blowback in recent national polls, and the by-elections results confirmed that the government is in troubled waters.  What may be encouraging to the government strategists, however, is that the Tory fall in the polls cannot really be attributed to the government’s major agenda item: the economy.  Rather, it is the scandal and how the government conducts its business in the light of the scandal that are the source of the current rejection.  With two years to go until the next election, there is plenty of time to adjust and recover—or so the Tories think.The opposition parties—including the NDP with official opposition leader Tom Mulcair at the helm and the Liberal Party under new leader Justin Trudeau—appear to be locked in a contest for the core Canadian progressive vote, along with that of voters disenchanted with the government’s performance. The Liberal party, once called Canada’s natural governing party because of its electoral dominance in the twentieth century, seems to benefit from its years as a government party and the arrival of its young, charismatic leader.  The by-election results could indicate a shift toward the third-place Liberals as the emerging alternative to the unpopular Tory government.

The NDP and Mulcair, on the other hand, have been an effective and competent opposition. Tom Mulcair is clearly becoming the most incisive and impressive opposition leader in modern times.  Since winning the leadership contest after the passing away of the iconic Jack Layton (who led the NDP to its first-ever second place finish in its history), Mulcair has been  methodically steering  his so-called “socialist” party to a modern, left-of-center progressive party—not unlike Britain’s Labor Party under Tony Blair.  If performance in the House of Commons were the primary guide for being prime minister, Tom Mulcair would be well on his way.

Meanwhile, Justin Trudeau has been dominating the national polls for months, and may be staging a Liberal electoral comeback in both of Canada’s central provinces, Ontario and Québec—which have been the source of previous Liberal national election victories.  While Mulcair has been dominant in the House, Trudeau is still learning the ropes of opposition.  What he has done effectively, however, is being on the ground, diligently traveling the country, doing fundraisers, and being successful in leading the political agenda outside the House: his views on legalizing marijuana, responding to Tory attack ads, promoting a more positive approach to the conduct of politics, and now, his by-election vote gain.

Judging from the post-by-election reactions, where both Mulcair and Trudeau sparred publicly, it is clear that the battle is on for the progressive vote.  Harper’s hope for a comeback is a continual split between those two parties vying for the same vote and the Tories recapturing the upper hand on the economic front—arguably the principal preoccupation of the Canadian electorate.

The NDP has to be concerned, as it has suffered some setbacks in recent provincial contests—in British Columbia, where it started out way ahead and lost at the end, and in Nova Scotia, where it was defeated after one term.  Liberals now believe that they have the momentum to replace the Tories, and recent polls would indicate as much (a November 28 IPSOS Reid poll of voters gave Liberals 35 percent, Conservatives 29 percent, and the NDP 26 percent of respondents’ votes).  With the Tory Senate scandal still topical, Tom Mulcair will try his best to curb any Liberal surge.

Expect the confrontation between Mulcair and Trudeau to be the feature to watch in Canadian politics in the coming months. The outcome may very well determine who becomes Canada’s next prime minister.


John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

Tags: by-elections, Canada, Justin Trudeau, Tom Mulcair
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