When Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff triggered a federal election by bringing down Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s minority government in March, he called it “a historic day in the life of Canadian democracy.” It certainly was, though not in the way he might have hoped.
This week’s stunning election has completely rewritten Canada’s political map, and marks a milestone in the country’s history.
The biggest news is Harper’s long-sought majority government. Three consecutive victories is a substantial accomplishment in Canadian politics, and this win—the first majority for a Conservative leader in over two decades—is particularly noteworthy given the fragile beginnings of the Conservative Party of Canada in 2003. Jack Layton and the NDP have seized the title of official Opposition after running a picture-perfect campaign heavy on Layton’s personal appeal and light on traditional NDP policies. The Liberals, meanwhile, have been relegated to third-party status for the first time in history, and the Bloc Québécois, which many saw as a roadblock to coherent national politics, may now be a spent force.
The election was indeed a historic day for Canadian politics. But what does it mean for the country itself?
In his election-night concession speech, Ignatieff claimed we were all witness to “a polarization of Canadian politics.” Without the calming influence of his centrist party, the Liberal leader warned that the civility of our democratic discourse was in peril. Despite Ignatieff’s disastrous showing at the polls, his view that Canada is now a divided country, split between hard-right and hard-left political representation, has become a popular reading of the May 2 results. It is not accurate.
Rather than an abandonment of the middle for two extremes, this election reflects the culmination of a major political realignment in which the Conservatives and the NDP have both found a way to share the middle space, leaving little room for the former Liberal tenant.
A Conservative majority is unlikely to surprise many Canadians. This reflects both the familiarity of the platform and Harper’s assiduous moves to the centre. The middle-of-the-road 2011 budget and its deficit reduction strategy will be back, as will other signature Tory policies—anti-crime legislation, an end to the long-gun registry and a smattering of tax cuts for families. Nothing here can be considered particularly radical or unexpected.
It’s also worth noting that divisive social conservatism, on such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage, have been absent throughout Harper’s term, to the satisfaction of most Canadians. This is further evidence of the success the Prime Minister has had in taking his party deep into the centre of Canadian polity.
Layton has also modified his party in significant ways. The 2011 NDP election platform accepted balanced budgets, promoted tax cuts for certain businesses, abandoned attacks on Alberta’s oil sands and even called for more police officers to fight crime. This again shows deliberate respect for Canadians in the middle of the political spectrum.
The biggest question mark for the NDP will be the role Quebec plays in the future of the party. Layton obviously benefited from a massive abandonment of the Bloc Québécois by nationalist voters. The fact the party has committed itself to many sovereigntist ideals, including such things as a 50-per-cent-plus-one-vote referendum standard for separation, enabled this shift. With more than half its caucus now coming from La Belle Province, the NDP has undergone a fundamental realignment. Clearly Layton has an enormous task ahead of him in riding herd over a large and inexperienced group of rookie Quebec MPs of uncertain temperament and design.
As for the Liberals, they find themselves in an unfamiliar fight for relevancy. It is no longer enough to simply claim the fertile middle ground of Canadian politics as traditional Liberal territory. Two other parties have now shown an interest and ability in winning the attention of that political terrain. The next Liberal leader must find a way to muscle the party back into this crowded centre.
Amid all this furious political reshuffling, however, it’s important to remember that Canada remains the same moderate, temperate and prudent country it has always been. Voters haven’t scattered. The parties have converged.