This was the long, cold election only the true believers wanted. Like the visit of the cranky cousin who comes for the first fortnight of Advent and stays for Christmas, New Year’s and Epiphany, the election of 2006 seemed to go on forever. Still, a winter campaign that prom- ised to be shallow, predictable, nasty, unnecessary and inconsequential turned out to be substantive, surprising, civil, and instructive. Most important, it was decisive. Whether it is the most ”œconsequential campaign in a gener- ation,” as Maclean’s breathlessly declared two days later, is far from certain; in truth, we won’t know for a generation (the elections of 1958, 1984 and 1993 were also watersheds). We do know that the result on January 23 was unlike any anyone imagined when the writ was dropped on November 28; the general consensus then was that Paul Martin’s Liberals would be re-elected. When the ballots were count- ed, however, the country had a new government, a new prime minister, a former prime minister, a new official opposition, a new arithmetic in Quebec, and two bona fide national parties.
What did it all mean? Perhaps a Conservative renais- sance. Perhaps a realignment of national politics, Perhaps a Conservative interregnum.
It was an extraordinary result, largely because it gave most people some of what they wanted. It marked a change of government more than a change of direction. Eventually, if the election of 2006 is seen as a sea change in Canada’s political life, it won’t be because the parties promised it or the people demanded it. What they delivered was a shaded decision. Yet it is because of this verdict " as close to a political compromise as an election can produce in Canada " that many are encouraged. For all but the most fervent par- tisans (and maybe some of them, too) this election was sat- isfying. Indeed, you might even say that Canadians have reasons to cheer. Here are a few of them:
The Conservatives won. The election brings the Conservative Party to power for the first time since it was reduced to two seats in 1993. After three elections in which the Reform Party and the Progressive Conservative Party divided the right-of-centre vote, the new party has left behind the demons of its merger and reconstituted itself, looking and sounding much like it did under Brian Mulroney. It is back with new faces, new policies, new ideas, and some old ones, too.
Organization has paid off. Since 2004, the Conservatives have settled their differences, chosen a leader, formed a shadow cabinet, developed policy, and exe- cuted a winning election strategy. In less than two years, they became a legitimate government-in-waiting. They did what the genius of the parliamentary system allows: pre- pared themselves as an alternative to the status quo.
Had they lost, a twice-defeated Stephen Harper would have angrily decamped and his co-religionists would have turned on themselves in an orgy of recrimination and frac- tiousness with which Conservatives are familiar. They would have had to find another leader and the tension between Western Reformers and Eastern Conservatives would have re-surfaced. This wouldn’t have made for an effective opposition. As a team needs a coach, a government needs an opposition. A defeated Conservative Party wouldn’t have offered one. The election result saved the Conservatives from themselves.
The Liberals lost. Losing isn’t easy, but it was necessary here. Most Canadians, including many Liberals, thought that the Grits needed time in the penalty box. Winning a fifth con- secutive mandate " which has hap- pened only twice in Canadian history " wouldn’t have forced the exercise in self-criticism and self-examination this tired, divided party desperately needs. This isn’t about partisanship; it is about clarity, reality and democracy.
For most of its history, Canada has been governed by the Liberals. They have been managers of prosperi- ty, agents of moderation, and concilia- tors between French and English. Their competence, centrism and integrity as well as their ability to renew themselves, choose new leadership and recruit new loyal- ists is uncanny. It has made them the most successful political organization in the democratic world.
There are always dangers in such one-party rule in a country in which power is concentrated in the hands of the prime minister, what columnist Jeffrey Simpson called ”œthe friendly dictatorship.” Looking back, it may be that the sponsorship scandal was over- stated and that the corruption was nowhere near as widespread as it appeared. But all democracies need a change of government, and this coun- try, at this time, needed one more than most. And that’s what happened.
But what also matters is how the Liberals lost. They won a respectable 103 seats, a sizeable parliamentary caucus. They weren’t banished to the wilderness. They were dimin- ished rather than destroyed. ”œBloc poised to become the official opposition” the National Post gleefully declared 10 days before the election, reflecting a rogue poll. Yet there was fear in some circles that the party might be over. The Liberals would be humiliated and devastated, aimless and leaderless, reduced to the third party in Parliament, squeezed by the New Democrats (who gained seats) on the left and the Conservatives on the right.
Canadians clearly didn’t want that. If we’re going to put the Conservatives on probation, they reck- oned, we’ll send the Liberals to purga- tory. Let them reflect there. We’ll assess things in a year or two and let you know. If the Tories mess up, you can return from exile and resume your role as Canada’s Natural Governing Party. In other words, we’re keeping our options open.
Paul Martin understood this. He announced his intention to step down as leader on election night, sparing his party a wasting, internecine war. True, his successor will inherit a party mil- lions in debt, without a base in Quebec or in rural Canada. But he or she will have a strong big-city caucus, a cadre of former ministers, some new faces and a superior brand. It could have been worse.
It’s a minority government. This is important. Because Canadians wanted change but not dramatic change, they installed another minori- ty government. They chose a different party, of course, and they gave it a smaller mandate than the last one. The Conservative Party’s 124 seats (of 308 seats in the House of Commons) leaves them 31 short of a majority. This was less than the 133 seats the Liberals had in the last Parliament. Far from a ring- ing endorsement of a new govern- ment, this is respectful recognition.
Which is the point. Canadians refuse to give the Conservatives carte blanche. They have too many doubts about their leader and his social con- servatism. Polls suggest that outside Quebec, Canadians didn’t like the Conservatives much more in 2006 than they did in 2004. That’s why they gave Mr. Harper a qualified man- date and a lease on 24 Sussex with a diplomatic clause. They put the new government on trial, subject to review and recall. They wanted a minority government and, lo and behold, they got one! Voting is an inexact instru- ment of public opinion, but the sys- tem found a way to give them what they wanted.
Much as the Conservatives may chafe, a minority has its uses. Primarily, it will lower expectations of the new government and give it an excuse if it gets little done. All the Conservatives have to do is blame Parliament. It will also temper the instincts of their most conservative members, who will learn that their social agenda won’t fly with the more moderate voters of Quebec and Ontario who the party is courting. They will have to earn public trust and position themselves to win a majority the next time. It will test their ability to accommodate the opposition. And it will give their inexperienced cabinet and caucus an early baptism of fire, which isn’t a bad thing.
The West is in. It has been 48 years since a leader from Western Canada has served a full term in office. For more than a generation, the prime minister has come from Quebec. This wasn’t catastrophic, given the complexities of governing a country with two founding races. Ultimately, though, continuously having a leader from Quebec isn’t sustainable. As political power is shifting from the northeast to the southwest in the United States, it is shifting to the west in Canada. The election of the Conservatives, led by an Albertan, reflects the trend, albeit less advanced, in Canada. This is healthy.
Finally, the West will have one of its own in Ottawa. Prime Minister Harper’s cabinet will have representatives from the West, especially Alberta, where the Conservatives won all 28 seats. With representatives from British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and a gov- ernment sensitive its aspirations and sympathetic to its alienation, the West will have its strongest voice in Ottawa since John Diefenbaker’s Conservatives swept to power in 1958.
Of course, the West will come to learn that most Canadians still live in central Canada. It remains the country’s industrial heartland, attracting most of the immigrants, which is why it has the most clout in Confederation. That will not change soon. To a large degree, Mr. Harper will have to con- tour his agenda to the wishes of Ontario and Quebec, without which he cannot form a majority. That won’t be easy. He will have to make compro- mises that Westerners won’t like. But if he chooses to transfer federal pow- ers to the provinces, or to fix the fiscal imbalance with wads of cash, he may find a way to unite West and East.
The Conservatives showed in Quebec. With the collapse of the Liberals in what was once Fortress Quebec, federal- ists had nowhere to go when the cam- paign began. The Conservatives had no seats in the province; it had been a waste- land for them since Brian Mulroney resigned in 1993. His soft nationalist sup- port migrated to the newly formed Bloc Québécois, and his small ”œc” conserva- tive support went to the Liberals.
Today in Quebec Jean Charest’s Liberals are unpopular and the Parti Québécois hopes to win the next elec- tion and hold a third referendum on sovereignty before this decade is out.
The big fear among federalists was that the Conservatives would win with no seats in Quebec. This would have been a gift for the Bloc Québécois, which is keen to prove that federalism is dys- functional. And what would be a bet- ter demonstration of the two solitudes than a Conservative Albertan taking office without any support in French- speaking Canada?
Fortunately, the country dodged that bullet. Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, the Conservatives won 10 seats and 25 percent of the popular vote in Quebec, an efficient vote that deliv- ered 8 of its 10 seats in the Quebec City- South Shore region, the 418 belt. (For their part, the Liberals won 13 seats and 21 percent of the vote in Quebec). The revival of the Conservatives in Quebec, which happened without warning, is one of the sweetest notes of this dramatic campaign. It gives the government immediate credibility in the province and provides it with a clutch of cabinet ministers; it also gives the Conservatives a beachhead in the province from which to launch a frontal assault on the Bloc Québécois, who will be disoriented if the Parti Québécois loses the next referendum.
In the horserace of 2006, the Conservatives didn’t win in Quebec, and they didn’t place. But they did show " and that was good enough.
The Bloc Québécois lost support. For much of the eight weeks of elec- tioneering, Gilles Duceppe and the Bloc Québécois treated the campaign as if it were a victory lap. They would win more seats. They would win half the votes. They would crush the Liberals. They would test their lines for the next referendum. This will happen, prom- ised Duceppe, who was given a free ride by the media and the other party lead- ers unwilling to challenge him.
But something happened along the way. When the votes were count- ed, the BQ had lost three seats and seven points, well below the psychological 50 percent. On the morning after their reversal, Duceppe said all that it didn’t really matter. Rest assured, it did.
The BQ now has to deal with a new dynamic in Quebec " a prime minister from English Canada who is a devolutionist and won sympathy in Quebec for speaking its language, which doesn’t mean French alone. Harper has cabinet members from Quebec and is prepared to make a deal. Hell, give Charest enough money, powers and tax points, and he might even win re-election in 2008. This the BQ didn’t anticipate. Maybe it was their triumphalism that Quebecers resented. The BQ are the campaign’s losers.
Democracy won. First, voter turnout, which had fallen to an historic low of 60.9 per cent in 2004, rose to 64.9 per- cent. This is encouraging. One factor may be rising participation among young Canadians. Second, the pollsters were largely right, at least those in the field until Sunday, such as SES Research, which was dead on. Third, for the first time since the 1990s, Canada has two national parties again. The Conservatives and the Liberals both have seats in nine provinces (the Liberals were shut out of Alberta, the Conservatives in PEI). This is good for politics.
At the end of the day, this election could have been a disaster for Canada. It could have destroyed the Liberals, strengthened the Bloc Québécois, diluted federalism in Quebec and given licence to a party with little experience in governing. None of that happened. What emerged instead was a remarkable electoral compromise, unplanned, unpredictable but emi- nently workable, and quintessentially Canadian. Reason to cheer.