Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Road Ahead

So here we are, then, after one of the longest election campaigns in recent Canadian history, with a Conservative minority government facing a Liberal opposition which has staved off complete collapse, the Bloc Quebecois weakened somewhat, and the NDP strengthened a little.

How did we get here? What happens next?

Governments tend to become tired and accident-prone after a decade or so in office. Unless their opposition is severely divided or completely inept, the incumbent government is usually not able to resist an inchoate but growing sense in the public mind that it has been in power long enough and that it's time for a change.

To some extent, each of the major parties' election strategies succeeded and failed.

The Conservative strategy of putting forward a well-defined centre-right policy platform, and regularly releasing parts of its platform, allowed Stephen Harper and the party to define the debate before the Liberals could define him.

If he had had only anger at corruption and Adscam to run on, as the Liberals were hoping, all of the subsequent Liberal gaffes and mid-campaign scandals would still not have been enough to win.

People want change, and they hate corruption, but they still need some reason to be for a change in government. The Conservative five-point platform gave them enough of a reason.

The Liberals prevented a complete collapse with a re-run of its 2004 fear campaign, which did shift enough soft votes in the Toronto area away to save seats. But by then, Stephen Harper had made himself enough of a known quantity to reduce its effects significantly.

The "hidden agenda" card has been taken out of play. However, the Liberals will be able to point to an actual record and attack it, with some cogency, at the next election.

Equally, the "corruption" card will be taken out of play for the Conservatives as Liberal scandals recede in the public memory. But if it handles government well, it can point to its record and run on it.

The Bloc Quebecois still stands athwart either major party's hopes for majority government. But for now, its position has become more precarious. The Liberals hoped that the Tories would run on nothing but Adscam and people would tire of it. Instead, the Bloc did, and when Tory promises to respect provincial jurisdiction and work to correct the fiscal imbalance struck a chord with voters, it had nothing to counter with to keep soft nationalist voters in the fold.

The NDP won more seats, returning to its position as the populist voice in British Columbia previously held by the Reform/Alliance parties. But it finds itself with less influence as a result of proving itself ready to sell out to the Liberals to hold off the Conservatives at all costs. It never misses the opportunity to miss the opportunity to squeeze out the Liberals' left flank. Unless the NDP holds firm against Liberal blandishments, it will always find itself used, abused, and thrown away.

Where next?

Yes, the Tories hold only a thin minority, dependent for survival on brokering deals on an issue-by-issue basis.

But at this point, the Liberals will not be willing to bring down the government until after the party has selected a new leader and replenished its coffers. Even if the Liberal party distances itself entirely from the corruption of the past couple of years, it will still need to stand for something and not just against the Tory government. Running on a vague platform of defending Canadian values just isn't going to cut it if the economy should remain reasonably healthy and the Tories appear to be governing halfway competently.

The Bloc may itself be looking for a new leader, now that Gilles Duceppe has failed not only to produce the clean sweep he was expected to, but also has to fight a Tory federalist threat it never saw coming.

The NDP must now figure out how to exercise influence in this Parliament. Although it is the Tories' least likely ally, on issues such as the proposed Federal Accountability Act, the GST cut and lower-class income tax breaks, it could be a source of support.

But all of this is to extrapolate today's situation over the next 18 months.

The Conservatives could prove to be incapable of managing a minority government and making the necessary compromises without compromising themselves in the bargain. Stephen Harper's track record of exceeding low expectations will be put to the test as never before.

The Liberals could remake themselves so well that everyone will forget what a disaster they were just a short time ago. Paul Martin's quick departure may help the Liberals reunite after a long civil war between the Chretien-Martin factions, or it could instead lead to a proxy war between its left and right wings.

The Bloc could find new purpose fighting the Tories as vigorously as they have the Grits. And the NDP could find new ways of making itself irrelevant.

For all of the problems that the new Conservative government will encounter, it is well to remember that its election itself represents a fundamental change in the Canadian political scene.

For the first time, a politician whose career was one of rising through the ranks of Western conservative protest parties has become Prime Minister.

The Conservative Party is not the Progressive Conservative Party of old, an Ontario party with a Western wing. It is a party whose Western wing will be equal to, if not predominant over, its Ontario wing.

Canadian political power will now revolve around two axes: the old Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal axis, and the new Western axis.

The old political deals that made up Confederation will have to be adjusted to recognize the reality of a West that is as powerful as Ontario or Quebec.

A new political order is taking shape. It will not do so overnight, and there will be some reverses along the way.

But the old Confederation is making way for the new.

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