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May 5, 2011

Canadians realign the political landscape

Geoffrey Stevens

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It was quite a night! The new Parliament is going to be a very different place.

A majority Stephen Harper Conservative government. Jack Layton in Stornoway as the NDP takes over as the official opposition. The mighty Liberal party reduced to third-party status for the first time in history. And the separatist Bloc Québécois, dominant in Quebec for two decades, reduced to a tiny rump and losing its status as an official party.

The election did not a revolution make, but it effected a realignment that will alter national politics for years.

The impact is most dramatic in Quebec. The Bloc can no longer claim to be the legitimate voice of Quebecers in Ottawa. There is a new voice, a federalist voice, the New Democratic Party, to speak for Quebec and Quebecers. This does not mean separatism is dead — as Pierre Trudeau declared it to be, prematurely, back in 1975. But it does mean that Quebecers, weary of the tired sovereignist games, are once again prepared to explore a federalist route to Ottawa.

This is very good news for Canada and for Quebec.

The other good news in the election is that Canadians in all regions now have a real choice. With the NDP’s emergence as a truly national party, with support in all regions, Canadians are no longer limited to a choice between a blue door and red door. There’s an orange door, too, and it leads to a different place in terms of policy, priorities, leadership and attitudes.

The Harper campaign’s success was built in part on voters’ fears — fears that, as Stephen Harper kept warning them, they would be putting Canada’s economic recovery at risk if they did not elect a stable majority Conservative government. It was a blunt and not pretty message, but it worked.

Meanwhile, there was a certain grim desperation to the Liberal message. Its leader Michael Ignatieff fought valiantly, but he was never able to connect with the mass of the electorate. Part of the problem was Ignatieff’s inability to differentiate his party and its programs from those of the Conservatives. He seemed to be offering an inferior version of Conservative alternative.

The NDP seemed, at least, to offer a different prescription. Jack Layton preached hope and optimism that things could change for the better for Canadian families. He presented himself as a happy warrior, a leader Canadians to afford to take a chance on.

The NDP sweep in Quebec was something no one, including New Democrats themselves, dreamed was possible. But it fuelled the wave that swept into Ontario and west.

The Liberals suffered grievously from the vote splits on the left. Those splits made the Conservative gains possible, particularly in Ontario. They also destroyed the Liberals’ chances as voters unhappy with the Harper government moved to the NDP as a more effective voice of protest, as a vehicle for change.

The NDP promises to be tougher opponents for the Harper government than the Liberals were. Anxious to avoid an election, the Liberals voted with the minority Conservatives on roughly 100 occasions — including the three Harper budgets preceding the 2011 one. It is hard to imagine a Layton NDP opposition voting for a Tory budget or most other major legislation.

The Liberals will have to go into rebuilding mode. They take some comfort from history. They managed to rebuild and return following the Diefenbaker and Mulroney landslides of 1958 and 1984, respectively.

But the Liberals will not find it an easy task to elbow aside the NDP. It took the New Democrats the first 50 years of their history to climb all the way the big stage to become the official opposition.

They are not going to give up that stage easily.

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at

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