Having led the Conservative party to a majority government, with the Liberal party lying bloodied and dying at his feet, Stephen Harper saw the breadth of his domain and wept, for he had no more worlds to conquer.
Twenty-four hours before Canada went to the polls, I went on BBC Radio International to explain to a very pleasant radio personality with excellent diction why Canada was having yet another election.
Now it’s one thing to go on the radio and blather about politics in Canada—the audience knows the cast of characters and it’s safe to assume they are somewhat familiar with our recent history. But when you go on BBC International, the audience is in the tens of millions worldwide and you have to bear in mind that the average listener is likely tuning in from a shantytown in Nigeria or a loft in Oslo.
How do you explain in a few minutes just what an accomplishment a majority would be for the Conservative party? How do you explain how Stephen Harper became the leader of a grassroots western-based regional party, a party that existed solely to give voice to individual MPs, and somehow transformed it into a national party so centralized in its power structure that no more than five of its MPs are allowed to speak in public?
And how in God’s name do you explain that the demise of the Liberal party would be a seismic shift on our political landscape? And really, did anyone have an explanation for the orange crush?
And why, my Nigerian friends may wonder, did the last-minute revelations of a visit to a sketchy massage parlour 15 years ago lead to increased support for the leader of Canada’s socialists, especially among separatists in Quebec?
How do you explain that Michael Ignatieff was shaping up to be a loser of Ben Johnsonian proportions, not for having cheated or for having lied but for having been vilified for doing too many things in his life and for having lived in too many places?
Yes, my Nigerian brother, in Canada, time spent at the Velvet Touch massage parlour is a positive, time spent at Harvard not so much.
And speaking of Quebec, why on the eve of the election was the most senior government cabinet minister in that province, the minister of foreign affairs, facing certain defeat at the hands of a part-time karate instructor, collector of medieval weapons and one-time member of the Communist party?
One assumes the phone lines at Immigration Canada did not light up that night.
Luckily, the conversation soon turned to something any person with a passing knowledge of democracy could understand no matter where they lived: election night. It was shaping up to be a barnburner and the host assumed correctly I would be glued to the results. “But,” she inquired, “is the rumour true that twittering about election results in Canada as they come in is a criminal offence?”
Yes, I was loath to admit, Elections Canada was attempting to succeed where Mubarak in Egypt and Ahmadinejad in Iran had failed. They were attempting to stop people from tweeting.
When the interview was over, I declined an offer to be interviewed the following night after midnight to report how it all turned out. This was a wise stroke of foresight. I know me. Why is that man yelling and why is there the sound of ice clinking in a glass?
The producer of the program wasn’t too disappointed. Canadian election results hardly warrant great international scrutiny, especially in the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death and sexy Will and Kate honeymoon updates.
By now we all know that on election night it was all over by 10:15 Eastern, with most networks declaring a Conservative majority.
For many Conservative voters, this was simply closing the deal on Stephen Harper’s promise of a stable government for the next four years; it was a vote for more of the same, please. For others, this indicates that Canada has finally taken a big step to the right, and they hope to see a very different Canada emerge.
All we do know right now is that the animal farm in Ottawa has changed dramatically. The once cocky and entitled Liberal, an animal that once roamed wild in the nation’s capital, has ceased to exist. In its place we have a population explosion of a new breed of NDPer. Not only have their numbers doubled, but they have gone from earnest to unctuous in one historic night. Very soon they will gather in Stornoway—Jack will play guitar, they will shake their lentil jars and plot the next once-impossible step. They have supplanted the natural governing party of Canada in opposition, next stop 24 Sussex Dr. God give me the strength to sit through any of those conversations.
And then there are the Conservatives: the staffers, the supporters, the MPs themselves. For them a majority is uncharted territory. This changes everything.
Liberals, even when in opposition, are always surprised when they meet someone who isn’t a liberal. They tend to believe everyone looks at the world the way they do, everyone is on the same team. Conservatives are the opposite. No matter how much success they achieve, they constantly believe someone is out to get them. Conservatives always believe they are swimming against the current, even when there is ample evidence to prove otherwise. This has served them well; it has allowed them to remain united and focused. The one ideological characteristic all Conservatives in Ottawa share is a complete loyalty to the authority of Stephen Harper and his quest for a majority. But along the way a lot of Conservatives have been told to sit down and shut up and wait for the big day. Now that it’s here, what now?
Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to relax, be more amicable, comfortable in the knowledge that the opposition’s power has been erased? I think we all know the answer to that. Or will Mr. Harper go to work and salt the earth, remove the subsidies to political parties, making it more difficult for the opposition to function?
And more importantly, will he be able to keep his own troops down on the farm now that they have seen the glory that is a majority?
All we can be certain of is that for the time being, with a comfortable majority in the House, Stephen Harper will do whatever the hell he wants. That’s what Canada voted for.
The more pressing question is, what will the Liberals do? The talk on election night, despite Harper’s historic victory, was all about them. In four years from now, on election night, will the Liberals be mentioned at all?
Some people, Liberals among them, say this is the best thing that could happen to the party. It’s been called tough medicine, the political equivalent of a bankruptcy protection that will force them to restructure and refocus.
But this is not just a train wreck for the Liberal party. This is Lockerbie. Yes, this is a plane crashing into a Scottish village. If you are a Liberal it must be very hard to imagine any good coming out of this.
But election results are not random events, they are not natural or man-made disasters; they are just that—results.
And the results are stunning. A Conservative majority, the rise of the NDP, the annihilation of the Bloc Québécois, the near death of the Liberals. We saw two national leaders get defeated and Elizabeth May win. In Quebec, a 19-year-old voted in his first federal election, for himself, and is now a newly elected NDP MP. Had he lost, he would have sought summer employment at a golf course.
We have had 41 federal elections in this country and one hopes the plan is to have many more. And if history has taught us anything it is this: we show up at the polls and at the end of the night governments may rise and governments may fall. For some of those running it will be the greatest night of their lives. Others will find themselves in the glare of TV lights wearing a smile while secretly cursing the day they considered public service.
And while we ponder the results and we study what happened, and speculate what it all might mean for Canada, it doesn’t hurt to think about what didn’t happen on election day.
No shots were fired, no cars were burnt, nobody was intimidated at the polling booth and nobody died.
And while that mightn’t make headlines on the BBC World Service, that’s exactly the way it should be. It’s why we are a nation worth voting for.