The untold story of the 2011 election: Chapter 6

The morning after, the years ahead

The morning after, the years ahead

Jonathan Hayward/CP

Introduction: Politics turned over
How Harper got what he’s always wanted, Layton took centre stage, and Ignatieff and Duceppe were done in

Chapter 1: The first mistake
The seeds of Michael Ignatieff’s troubles were planted last fall, and by the Liberals themselves

Chapter 2: Not feeling the love
Harper was tightly controlled, Ignatieff loose and freewheeling. Layton? Just a guy most Canadians would rather have a beer with

Chapter 3: The velocity of indignation
The PM had problems: the auditor general kerfuffle, Bruce Carson, the folks kicked out of rallies. The Liberals railed, but the NDP stepped up.

Chapter 4: Turning up the heat
The leaders clashed predictably in the TV debates, but the election would soon turn unexpectedly on two key speeches: one by Ignatieff, one by Duceppe

Chapter 5: The orange wave rises
Years of quiet preparation in Quebec begin paying off for the NDP—Layton’s rivals wake up to a new reality

Chapter 6: The morning after, the years ahead
What do Harper and Layton have in common? An understanding of what works in Canadian politics in the Twitter age­—patience and determination.

To read the entire article now, pick up the latest issue of Maclean’s at your favourite newsstand.


Chapter 6: The morning after, the years ahead

In the end, Stephen Harper’s party won 167 seats and 39.62 per cent of the popular vote. The players in the Conservative war room betting pool guessed low. But then conservatism is sometimes associated, even by conservatives themselves, with pessimism: it holds that human nature is not perfectible on this Earth, and that it rarely does any good to sit around hoping for the best. Harper marked his victory by receiving congratulatory calls from Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron. The laconic accounts of these calls from Harper’s spokesman mentioned that the current shooting wars in Afghanistan and Libya, where Canada still has soldiers risking their lives, were among the subjects of conversation. Silver linings always come tucked into clouds.

At its worst, Harper’s pessimism about human nature hurts the country and discourages his own government’s political staff. They believe they are doing good work for Canadians. They would like to say so. The layers of threat and secrecy Harper has relied upon feel silly to them. Harper has pursued free trade with Europe without talking about the merits of trade with Europe. He wants to redefine Canada’s border relationship with the United States a lot more than he wants to explain what that would entail.

The budget he will now use his majority to pass listed, but did not describe, more than $2 billion in cuts to government spending. On many days during this campaign, a bored reporter could amuse himself by seeking an explanation for those very considerable cuts from incumbent Conservative cabinet ministers or senior staffers. Not a peep. Now we will all find out. The two drafts of Sheila Fraser’s G8 audit that leaked during the campaign were not the final draft. Now we will get to see the final draft. What the French call “l’usure du pouvoir”—the wear of power—will continue.

But here’s the thing: it doesn’t wear down Stephen Harper. He has been Prime Minister for five years and he just won his biggest victory. By the time Brian Mulroney had been prime minister for this long, he had already won the last election his party would ever win. Three Liberal leaders have broken their careers on the assumption that Harper would soon wear out his welcome. Now Jack Layton has taken their place. A proper regard for the lessons of history should discourage the New Democrat from triumphalism.

So it was fitting that the mood was far from celebratory at Layton’s news conference in Toronto, on the afternoon after the election. Many of the questions centred on the inexperience of his new crop of MPs, particularly the cluster of university students who won seats in Montreal. Layton tried to direct attention toward the more experienced individuals among his many rookie caucus members.

“It’s a diverse group,” he said. “We have a former member of Parliament. We have a former cabinet minister. We have a former deputy grand chief of the Cree of the James Bay Nation. We have the first Innu lawyer from the community in the north of Quebec. We have an expert in international law. And, yes, we have some young people. But you know, young people got involved in this election in an unprecedented way. I think it was very exciting. I think we should see that as something to celebrate, not something to criticize.”

Asked how he hoped to consolidate his election breakthrough in the face of a Conservative majority that’s likely to govern as the Prime Minister sees fit, Layton suggested he would somehow marshal progressive forces outside Parliament. “It’s a question of working with people all across the country,” he said, “and applying as much pressure as we possibly can to the Harper Conservatives.” He added that Harper has an “obligation and an opportunity” to work with him and others outside the Tory ranks.

Later, an NDP campaign strategist acknowledged that the learning curve for rookies will be steep. “Of course some of these people will need to learn to deal with the national media, with the various agendas that are at play sometimes. There will be mistakes. We’ll learn from them and move on,” the strategist said.

Already the NDP is making quick decisions about the challenges it can tackle and the ones it must ignore. The strategist said Layton will be happy to let others interpret the significance of his breakthrough for Quebec provincial politics. “That’s not our battlefield. It’s up to Mr. Charest, Mme. Marois and Mr. Deltell”—Jean Charest, Pauline Marois and Gérard Deltell, the leaders of the main provincial parties in Quebec—“to fight it out.”

Indeed. This should be the biggest lesson everyone draws from Duceppe’s failed attempt to save his bacon by dragging Ottawa into Quebec’s provincial fights. Quebecers have decided, this year at least, that they don’t like politicians who do that. The Parliament of Canada has enough work of its own.

The Bloc will probably not fold up shop completely; it may well revive some day. Quebecers have demonstrated in election after election that they are prone to mood swings, and they may swing back to the flag-waving plague-on-all-your-houses stance the Bloc trademarked. If that happens, it will not be an unmanageable problem. Canada managed it for 21 years.

The Liberals are in big trouble. Their best thinking got them here: every choice the party has made since 2002 drew a wide consensus within a party that thought it was good at winning. In June 2002, the overwhelming majority of the party thought it was an excellent idea to side with an heir apparent, Paul Martin, against Jean Chrétien.

In 2006—this is the part Liberals are likeliest to forget—the party brass took care to organize a very long leadership race with a low threshold for participating, so a lot of candidates could take their time debating ideas. The product of that eminently laudable process was Stéphane Dion. It is revisionism to say Liberals knew immediately they had made a mistake. Most of them left the Montreal convention centre giddy. Most who disagreed thought the party should have preferred Michael Ignatieff.

Liberals should not hurry to crown their next saviour. In fact, any Liberal who pops up next week with a one-election comeback plan should be keelhauled. We know now what works in Canadian politics in the Twitter age: patience, humility and determination. Harper and Layton became leaders of their respective parties, the dying Canadian Alliance and the negligible NDP, 10 months apart in 2002 and 2003. They then proceeded to do some losing. They were denied the false comfort of predecessors’ triumph. Michael Ignatieff hired dedicated young staffers and spent a year boning up. It did not get him much better results than Jack Layton won in 2004, after he had spent the same amount of time doing the same thing. Layton kept going. Ignatieff’s successor will start again from zero. Liberals should look for someone who will not pretend to be doing anything else.

Even then the party may not survive. The Progressive Conservative Party of Canada fought a competitive and well-financed leadership campaign in 2003—three years after the last election it ever contested. That’s life.

This Parliament’s other newcomer reinforces the lesson that dedication pays. Elizabeth May has not had an easy time of things, jilted by voters in Ontario and Nova Scotia in earlier runs, and by the TV networks during this year’s leaders’ debates. Finally the Green party leader camped out in Saanich-Gulf Islands until the voters there realized she would simply stay if they did not send her to Ottawa. Now she has a chance to remind Canadians that her message is bigger than herself, if it is. If any of this Parliament’s accidental MPs start to wonder whether this life is worth it, they should talk to May, who worked harder to get her seat than just about anyone. That alone makes her a welcome addition.

Finally, this election left homework on the plates of the capital’s political reporters, if we care to do it. Too many of us spent an ungodly amount of time complaining about Harper’s cap on the number of questions he would take—and then conspiring, in an absurd little morning huddle, to waste limited opportunity by asking Harper question after question about polls, process, and hypotheses. The man’s career is becoming a significant chunk of modern Canadian history. A greater effort to understand why he wins would not be a sign of journalistic weakness.

But enough shoptalk. Stephen Harper asked for a strong, stable, national majority Conservative government and that is what he has received. What happens next is up to him. It would be foolish to believe he is done surprising us.

With Colby Cosh, Josh Dehaas, Stephanie Findlay, Tom Henheffer, Jason Kirby, Kate Lunau, Martin Patriquin and Chris Sorensen


The untold story of the 2011 election: Chapter 6

  1. Actually, I think silver linings are around the edge of the clouds, not tucked into them. They are proof of the sun still shining and promising to appear shortly.

  2. Are you saying that E. May's constituents voted for her just to get her out of town?

  3. You've missed your calling, Paul. This is the most amusing line of the year:

    "Finally the Green party leader camped out in Saanich-Gulf Islands until the voters there realized she would simply stay if they did not send her to Ottawa."

    By the way, I believe Elizabeth May's exclusion from the debates served her well.

    • I agree. I think her constituents voted for her partially out of rebellion when she was excluded.

  4. Agreed on the funny. Not sure about the debates; the only difference was that she imposed her unbearable, humourless ideologue thing on one riding rather than the whole country.

  5. Also, this…

    Finally, this election left homework on the plates of the capital's political reporters…[Harper's] career is becoming a significant chunk of modern Canadian history. A greater effort to understand why he wins would not be a sign of journalistic weakness.

    …is bang-on, and I would hope that the more reflexively snide Harper-bashing members of the PPG are appropriately berated by their organizations (I'm looking at you, Wherry). But they won't be.

    As a professional culture, you tend to have the Apocryphal Pauline Kael problem – when few or none of your close acquaintances vote Conservative, you just can't understand why anyone would, or who such people might be. That shows, and is resented by the voters you're dismissing.

    • Wherry's lost his snide side re the PM since E-day — watch the CPAC/Maclean's special, and you'll notice its absence.

      2011 is a game-changer — people are realizing, both in the press gallery and in the general public, that this is no accidental PM. (They still may not like it, and that's their right; but they now get that something big is happening in Canada.)

      • No. The haters are still haters. They’re just hanging their heads a little bit right now. What choice do they have? As Paul Wells put it, they’re “stacking up like cord wood”.

  6. The problem is, the reflexive attitude of Liberal supporters is to claim that the country is getting stupider, but in the next breath claim that the only people who vote Conservative are angry old white male gun owners, etc. Guess what: anyone who makes that latter claim and actually believes it . . . they're the stupid ones.

    • I’m fairly young (not so young anymore), not white, and voted Conservative in the last four elections.

      So what the heck. If they still think that — I think that fewer do, after last Monday — that’s great. The Conservatives can keep on eating their lunch. I think they’ll wise up, and possibly sooner than I’d like.

    • I’ve been stating that same message for weeks. John Manley nearly said as much in his interview with the CBC. He said that the Liberal big wigs still believed – against all evidence – that they remained the natural choice for Canadians, and that a return to power was their birthright, and certainly Canadians would see things their way sooner or later.

  7. Paul, I always look forward to your post-mortem pieces. Well done. Generally, you manage to look at things with a reasonable amount of objectivity and long-term perspective, and that puts you in the upper tier of Canadian political journalists.

  8. I wonder if Paul Martin had a do-over. Would he still resign or take his chances on gaining confidence in 2006. I suspect he would have done the latter. How much worse could it have been?

    • Martin’s credibility took such a hit in the 2006 campaign he was a lame duck and he knew it. The one feather in his cap was that he was a “fiscally conservative Liberal”, a reputation which he went out of his way to destroy when he started cozying up to Layton and Hargrove. The last remnants of his credibility were thrown away with his Hail Mary pass during the English debate, in which he challenged Harper to support a Constitutional amendment to remove the Nothwithstanding clause from the Charter. He made a desperate, pathetic fool of himself, and even the previously friendly press corps turned on him.

  9. Maybe there is another book "Right Side Way Up".

  10. Enjoyed your reflections Paul.

    "Layton suggested he would somehow marshal progressive forces outside Parliament. “It's a question of working with people all across the country,” he said, “and applying as much pressure as we possibly can to the Harper Conservatives.”

    The Union talking heads are already flapping their gums and predicting dire happenings.
    Bob Rae was on the radio last week "Canadians don't want this government, bla, bla…". Harper maintained his "I will accept whatever mandate the Canadian people give me" all through the campaign – he at least has humility.
    May – where do you start? She is reminicent of former BC NDP leader Carol James – shrill!!!!

  11. PMSH never fails to surprise the PPG. He is like a Master Chess player always 3 moves ahead of his opponents.
    This CPC majority will be his legacy and personal stamp on permanent change in federal politics. It will be a VERY interesting four years.

  12. One thing about this election. I don't think Harper represents a new Canada. I think that he represents the Canada the establishment has wanted since the mid-seventies. Every paper in English Canada except the Toronto Star endorsed Harper this election, just as they had in 2008, and just as they had in 2006, indeed just as they almost did in 1988 (a couple were neutral then). Only the conservatives' collapse in 1993 prevented them from doing the same in the nineties. Harper's "genius" such as it is, is that after 18 years in public life, he finally decided he would do what Brian Mulroney did in any situation. Whether it was inflation in the seventies, free trade in the eighties, or the deficit in the nineties, the establishment has always got what it wanted. It's solution to regional discontent has always been that it's the fault of those Big Nasty Liberals, and decentralization has always been their panacea. Only the PQ's election in 1976 prevented Clark from winning a majority government. Turner, Martin, Dion and Ignatieff may look like weak leaders. But by any standard they were more qualified than Clark, Day or Manning, or even Mulroney. Mulroney may look more charming than Turner, but that wore away quick. Had he not championed free trade he would have been a one term prime minister. Harper and Kenney may have been able to do more with more money, but that's not the root of the problem. Conservatism's main advantage in Canada, as in the rest of the world, is that it represents the rich. That's why the world economy could nearly disintegrate three years ago, and the conservative policies and parties responsible for it would only be temporarily inconvenienced. (It's also why a bigoted, reactionary, infinitely self-pitying rag like Alberta Report could create it's very own political party, and one its reporters could became this journal's editor.) For the first seventy years of Confederation, the wealthy could pick and chose which of the two similar parties it could back. After 1939 a Keynesian consensus gave the Liberals the upper hand. After the crisis of Keynesianism the establishment has been looking for a competent conservative party. And now they've got it.

    • Your entire thesis is undercut by the fact that, prior to the recent campaign finance reforms, the leading recipient of CORPORATE donations to Canadian federal political parties was perenially . . . The Liberal Party of Canada. A lot of wealthy people also vote Liberal, as demonstrated, e.g., by the fact that Rosedale has for the most part been a Liberal riding over the years. If your thesis of the Conservatives being the party of the rich had any real validity, Vancouver Quadra, one of the wealthiest ridings in the country, would not have gone Liberal in every single election since 1984.

      • Not that convincing, since in 1993, 1997 and 2000 there were two conservative parties, and corporations will support a party if it’s clear they are going to win. The conservatives would do better in wealthy ridings in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa if their electoral appeal wasn’t based on scapegoating them for Alberta’s problems. And despite the fact that the conservatives didn’t win a seat in Toronto in six straight elections, three of Toronto’s four dailies regularly support them.

        • That’s sweating details. The historical ties between Canadian elites, large Canadian corporations and the very rich on the one hand and the the Liberal Party on the other are well known (Desmarais, Power Corp and Chretien anyone? Paul Martin and Canada Steamship anyone?). To say, or even imply, that the CPC is “the party of the rich” and the LPC is not, is pure BS and flies in the face of the facts and the historical record.

          • That attitude is part and parcel of the Liberal belief that only they represent real Canadians. Manley admitted as much on CBC. Which is why I’ve always been a John Manley fan. He seems to have been inoculated against Liberal arrogance and entitlement. Probably why they rejected him as a leadership candidate.

        • And Harper banned corporate donations in 2006. So if the powers that be were such an advantage to him, why would he shut down the remaining loopholes left in Chretien’s political finance reform?

    • There are too many holes in this theory to count. For instance:

      “Whether it was inflation in the seventies, free trade in the eighties,
      or the deficit in the nineties, the establishment has always got what it

      The ‘establishment’ wanted, and got, inflation? the deficit?

      • That was my question too. The establishment wanted inflation??? That commenter was far too bitter over the election results, and blinded by his own ideologies, to write a coherent post.

    • The establishment wanted inflation in the 70s?

      As for the rest of it, get a clue. The Liberals lost because they lost most of their supporters. Nothing in their platform appeals to anyone anymore. Dusting off that old childcare canard that’s been around since 1984 at least shows how completely out of ideas they are.

  13. The real significance of the federal election‏‏–it seems to me that reporting and comment on the recent federal election has missed something very important indeed. The true divide in the country, as it was in the 2008 election but even more so now, is between Québec and the Rest of Canada (RoC, once quaintly known as English Canada). The Conservatives in Québec this year won 16.5 per cent of the popular vote and only six seats out of 75, that is eight per cent of them.

    In the RoC the Conservatives won 48 per cent of the vote (almost a majority, in a contest with three other serious parties) and 167 of 233 seats, that is a thumping 72 per cent of them. The difference with Québec could hardly be more pronounced.

    The clear fact is that the Conservatives are dominant at this point in the RoC while barely a force in la belle province. Moreover the Conservative government plans to add 30 new seats in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia to reflect those provinces' increase in population. Most of those seats will be suburban ones, just the sort of seat very likely to be picked up by the Conservatives. So it seems probable that their dominance in the RoC will increase; meanwhile it is hard to see any great breakthrough for them in Québec in light of the three most recent federal election results there.

    So the true great Canadian political divide looks well set only to widen further. Meanwhile the PQ looks well positioned to win the next provincial election. The separatists are certain to take great encouragement from the Scottish Nationalists winning a majority government–and from the SNP's immediately announcing a referendum on independence will be held during their term in office. Events are not necessarily proceeding to the advantage of a united Canada.

    The thistle and the fleur de lys entwined? Want to bet on the "Maple Leaf Forever"?


    • This assumes that the CPC doesn’t govern well for all Canadians, including Quebec.. . . . . .

    • Remember, the Conservatives are at heart rabid decentralists. Decentralization is the one card the feds can play to woo the soft nationalists over to the federalist side.

      You are quite right about the electoral divide we saw last Monday. This is the first ever majority government that does not require a single seat from Quebec. They won six, but even had they lost them, they’d still have their majority. And with 30 additional seats going to points west of Quebec, that isn’t going to change anytime soon.

  14. ” … this election left homework on the plates of the capital’s political reporters …”

    So why didn’t they/you fix it immediately? The anti-Harper media campaign was obvious to the electorate – vitriolic lectures from Milewski, a weeping Susan Delacourt at Ignatieff’s resignation announcement, and a fawning Layton defender Rosemary Barton (how did you feel when your visit to a whore house was revealed just days before the vote? … or some such) to name just but a few.

    Why did reporters cover up the story on Layton being caught naked by a cop in that whorehouse? After all, the question as to what Harper did with the sacramental communion wafer received at a funeral was made into headlines of national importance.

    Harper’s on a higher intellectual plane than the pipsqueaks that make up mainstream media, and they can’t outwit him.

    You all chose to be partisan and thus missed your opportunity. SUN TV has arrived and provides us with material suppressed or not touched by MSM. So you are left fighting over a declining share of the market. You deserve it.

    • If you think that Paul Wells is part of that media consensus, you clearly haven’t been reading his work.

      Suggest reading “Right Side Up”.

      • Read it a few years back.

        When it came to a choice between solidarity to his profession and a sympathetic understanding of the reasoning behind Harper’s modus operandi, he went with the boss’s flow.

    • Was Susan Delacourt actually weeping? Do you have a Youtube link? I would pay to see that. I don’t doubt she weeps every time she writes one of her anti-Harper screeds in the Star, but I never thought she’d be so vapid as to do it in public. Reporters at the very least must feign objectivity, no?

  15. As Wells states, “a greater effort to understand why Stephen Harper wins would not be a sign of journalistic weakness.” Mr Wells would do very well to summon up the courage to make this effort himself. His windy, six-chapter account of the campaign offers precious little to explain why 48% of Canadians in the ROC chose to vote Tory this time around.

    • so you are saying that, Quebec aside, the ROC voted 48% in favor of the CPC?

      Is that by province, or by % of vote?

      • By vote percentage.

  16. I had an A-ha moment:

    “the Green party leader camped out in Saanich-Gulf Islands until the
    voters there realized she would simply stay if they did not send her to

    That explains it. I had been wondering since the election. :)

  17. John Manley’s comments in an interview with CBC:

    “I have to say some of the powerbrokers in the Liberal Party that controlled power right through to a week ago basically always thought there was a right that that party had, [as] the natural governing party, to resume office and to restore entitlements.”


    I hope every Ignatieff apologist reads that interview and memorizes it. This election was about a lot more than the Conservatives’ negative ads running Iggy into the ground, despite the bragging of the Conservative war room goons. Five years from now, Ignatieff, Rae and the rest of the Liberal big wigs will probably still be scratching their heads wondering what went wrong. Manley already knows what went wrong, and isn’t afraid to say it.

    This hard-headed, realistic, tell-it-like-it-is approach is exactly why I would love to see John Manley as leader of the Liberal Party. It is also why he has no chance in hell of ever become the leader of the Liberal Party.

  18. Excellent article. It has been years since I have bothered to read Macleans – I may have been mistaken.

  19. As journalists are frequently criticized for providing weak coverage, they are too frequently unacknowledged when they provide truly brilliant coverage. Your “Untold Story of the 2011 Election” was my crack last weekend (I had my wife put our son to sleep, even though it was my turn, just so I could continue to read the story). I think you have truly presented a brand of journalism that ought to be imitated. Thank you for this long-form coverage. I loved it. More.

  20. I can only echo the latest comments posted here. This is an article in the finest tradition of Canadian journalism—frank and fair-minded, treating all its subjects with dignity. Our dailies, if they want to stay alive, should take note: Canadians are desperate for a return to real investigative journalism. Good for you, Macleans.

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