Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Election Watch '06: Swing to the Right

Stephen Harper should enjoy his moment in the sun. For a guy who’s the next Prime Minister, his government is not in a good spot.
His minority is more tenuous than the previous Liberal government. Consider that Harper’s Conservatives won fewer seats than Martin’s Liberals won in the previous election. Clearly, Harper was hoping for a majority and major breakthroughs in Ontario and Quebec. Heck, he did worse than even I thought he would. While there was some progress for them in Quebec, the Liberals held a lot of their ground in Ontario, winning the popular vote there and denying Harper his majority.
In fact the Conservatives won no seats in the country’s three biggest urban centers, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. There’s a decidedly urban/rural split to the Conservative vote. Could this be the start of a deep American-style polarization?
The Liberals showed surprising strength considering they ran a bad campaign and were plagued by scandals. While they suffered in Quebec, they fared better than expected. And thanks to Martin’s resignation, the Liberals will have a new leader facing Harper, possibly making Harper look like yesterday’s news.
The Bloc suffered the most. Expecting to do well, they lost seats and votes. Worse for them, the Tories established themselves as a federalist alternative in Quebec, and with the defeat of the Liberals, the Bloc’s biggest campaign issues, the Liberal party scandals in Quebec, are now off the table.
Even the NDP had some bad news to go with their good showing. Despite gaining a number of seats, they fell two seats short of holding the balance of power.
Where can Harper hope to gain support in the inevitable 2007 election? He won the West; the only place he can gain support is in Ontario and Quebec, and when he starts sucking up to Central Canada, he’ll lose the West. It’s a time-honoured Tory tradition. As Hugh Segal noted on the CBC last night, “When the Liberals are in power, the West votes Conservative. When the Conservatives are in power, the West forms a new party.” Both the Reform and the Bloc Québécois were born out of the self-destruction of the last Conservative government. (And let’s also remember that the last Conservative government, possibly the most corrupt government in Canadian history, ran, like Harper, on being fiscally responsible and promptly had a decade’s worth of the largest deficits in this country has ever seen. But I digress.)
Stephen Harper could be the 21st century version of Joe Clark, a brief Tory minority while the Liberals re-invent themselves. In order to win central Canada, he will have to stick to Ontario-friendly progressive issues (whatever few the Tories have) and abandon (or postpone) the more contentious right wing nut case items of his agenda. Even if Harper wins a majority next time, his days are numbered. He will continue to pander to central Canada as he must to maintain power, the West will feel alienated and the Conservative coalition will implode like it always does, setting the stage for another generation of Liberal rule. For good or ill, it is the natural order of things.
And Harper isn't helping himself by saying things like he “will start rebuilding this country.” Memo to the PM: the country isn't broken.
If Harper thinks he has a mandate for massive social change, he is woefully mistaken. He barely has a mandate to change the stationary.
Obviously, Canadians were weary of giving Harper a full mandate. They remember that if Harper had been PM three years ago, we’d be trapped in a dumb and awful war.
Canadians wanted to spank the Liberals. And they did. They also did not want to give Harper and his neo-con cronies free reign to run the country. And they didn’t.
There’s not a lot of good news to go around after last night’s election. Perhaps the worst news of all is that Stockwell Day might actually be prime material for a cabinet post.

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