For the first time in Canadian history, the Liberals were neither the Government or Official Opposition, leaving room for the Conservatives to manage a majority and the NDP to come second. (The final results came out to be with a 60% voter turn out: Conseratives 40%, New Democrats 30%, Liberals 20%, Quebecois 6%, Greens 4%, with the Conservatives just getting a majority of the seats).
Historically, seismic political realignments have had their epicenter in the province of Quebec. This was no different in this election.
In 1896, after the hanging of Louis Riel, the Liberals won 49 out of the province’s 65 seats. Quebec became a Liberal stronghold for much of the ensuing century through the 1980 election in which the party won every seat in the province but one. If the Liberals dominated Quebec and performed well enough elsewhere, a majority was often within their grasp.
The Liberals’ stranglehold over Quebec ended amid Pierre Trudeau’s response to the 1980 referendum on sovereignty-association, which was to patriate a constitution that Quebec has yet to sign for failure to have its special status enshrined, among other reasons. Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives took 58 seats in Quebec in the 1984 election, having included Quebec nationalists in his “grand coalition”.
When Mulroney’s coalition fell apart after the failure of Meech Lake, the Bloc Quebecois under former PC cabinet minister Lucien Bouchard took 54 seats in the province and won a majority of the province’s seats in every election through 2008.
This time around, the NDP took 58 seats in the province. There are a few lessons we can take from this. First, Quebecers are willing to experiment and take big leaps. Another example of this was their embrace of the ADQ in the 2007 provincial election, propelling a minor third party into official opposition status. This is much less the case in other regions of the country, such as Atlantic Canada where voters are much more traditional. (This explains why the Liberal Party, despite their historic defeat, managed to keep most of their seats in the Atlantic region.)
Yet if the ADQ example is to be noted, however, we can learn as well that the surge of parties in Quebec is not necessarily durable. In 2008, the party was relegated back to third party status.
The NDP have been chosen by Quebecers to represent their interests in Ottawa. The party might have a difficult time balancing Quebec’s needs with the necessity to move closer to the political centre. The latter would be the party’s only hope of forming a government one day.
A second lesson is that, Quebec’s vote of confidence in the NDP proves that the province believes that its interests are best served within Confederation. The popularity of Francois Legault’s theoretical provincial political party, which is polling at 40 percent, also confirms that Quebecers want to move past the federalist-sovereigntist debate which is represented by the Liberal-PQ divide. However, Quebecers gave their support to the NDP not only because the party represents its left-wing values within Canada.
Jack Layton clearly bought into NDP Deputy Leader Thomas Mulcair’s vision that Bill 101 should trump the Official Languages Act. This is particularly alarming, seeing as the Parti Quebecois – which may form Quebec’s next provincial government — wants to extend Bill 101 to post-secondary institutions.
We are likely entering a new political era in Canada-Quebec relations. Quebecers do not buy the Liberal Party’s line that only it can act as a solid bridge between Canada and Quebec, and most Canadians do not care as strongly about national unity as they once did. The former has been exploited by Jack Layton’s consistent message of an asymmetrical federation while the latter has been understood by Stephen Harper’s concept of a weak federal government and loose federation.
The Liberal Party, however, believes in a strong federal government. It is an anathema for the party that created the Official Languages Act to see it trumped by Bill 101. If the Grits want to ever succeed in Quebec again, they will have to do it through the aggressive promotion of socially progressive values and not through something similar to the NDP’s capitulation to Quebec’s view of “sacred provincial jurisdiction”.The Tories have been making gains in Canada’s most populous province in every election since the party’s reunion in 2003. If the key to Quebec is social progressiveness, the key to Ontario is fiscal responsibility.
The marked split between the vote between Ontario and Quebec is also new and seems to have at long last broken the Laurentian region or Ontario-Quebec axis.
The rise of the NDP was most pronounced in Quebec, but it was also noticeable in other parts of the country. For instance, in the 416 area code, the party won eight seats in this election. Yet the Conservative gains were not exclusively due to vote splitting between the Liberals and the NDP. Rather, the Tories managed to convince many traditional “blue Liberals” to vote for them in order to stop the NDP surge.
If the Tories were to be held to a minority and the NDP were to gain official opposition status, it was conceivable that the NDP could form a government. With the bad memory of the Ontario provincial NDP government of the 1990s headed by Bob Rae in the back of the heads of many blue Grits, many decided to bite the bullet and vote Tory. (The Conservatives’ consistent targeting of ethnic communities in the 416 and 905 area codes also contributed to their rise in Ontario.)
The elections also show a very large swing to the West, with the Conservatives managing to finally capture Western Canada from BC to Ontario.
As John Ibbitson of The Globe and Mail pointed out, “the Canadian parade is heading â€¦ from European to Asian,” and Harper was able to capture it. There was also a major split between the current economic winners and losers in Canada with respectively Alberta, interior BC, and Toronto suburbs voting Tory, while the BC north coast, inner Toronto, Ontario nickel belt, and rural Quebec voted NDP, as was analyzed by Patrick Brethour of The Globe and Mail.The decimation of the Liberals and the destruction of the Bloc Quebecois have led many to believe that we have now entered a two-party system. Yet whether Canada has experienced a full political realignment similar to that of Great Britain after World War I, in which Labour (UK) replaced the Liberals (UK) as the primary “progressive” party, remains to be seen.
With both Gilles Duceppe and Michael Ignatieff losing their seats and later resigning, an unknown has emerged to either partyâ€™s future leadership and whether they can recover given how important the party leader truly is (as proven by Jack Layton at the helm of the NDP). Further compounding the unknowns is the renewed interest in a Liberal-NDP merger.
If anything, this election proves that people’s votes are flexible in the country’s most populous provinces. Many are calling the NDP’s rise a mere protest vote, similar to that of the Ontario NDP in 1990 or the Quebec ADQ in 2007. In both cases, the party that won the hearts of many voters experienced a crushing defeat in the ensuing election.
We will not know whether or not we have experienced a true political realignment until the next federal election. If the Conservatives fail to govern adequately from the centre of the political spectrum or if the NDP are punished by Quebec voters for failing to deliver in Ottawa, a need for a centrist alternative might arise.
Quebec’s embrace of the NDP combined with the fact that the Conservatives have won a majority government without Quebec for the first time since R.B. Bennett means that Confederation remains fractious and polarized. Canada’s future many well lie in the hands of those who are able to unite Ontario and Quebec with the rest of Canada.