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Canada shows Australia the future of politics

By Greg Barns and Randall White - posted Friday, 6 May 2011


Canadians went to the polls on Monday this week in their fourth general election in seven years. Conservative leader Stephen Harper, a minority prime minister since 2006, was looking to secure his first majority government, and he did just that. The Conservatives now have 167 seats in the 308-seat Canadian House of Commons.

The most surprising story of the election was the rise of the left-of-centre traditional third- party New Democrats (or NDP) to the status of official Opposition. They have supplanted the once all-conquering Liberals - "natural governing party" of Canada for much of the past century, led by such great postwar Canadian prime ministers as Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau .

The New Democrats under former Toronto municipal politician Jack Layton have won an astounding record 102 seats. What makes this feat even more curious is that 58 of these seats are in the French-speaking majority province of Quebec, where the once-dominant "sovereigntist" Bloc Quebecois took an equally astounding mere 4 seats (compared with 49 in 2008).

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In the so-called "rest of Canada" outside Quebec the NDP has won only 44 seats. In 2008 it won 37 seats all told - just one in Quebec and 36 in the rest of Canada. So outside Quebec in 2011 Jack Layton's party has only actually won 8 more seats than last time. The NDP is celebrating its enhanced status and prestige in Ottawa. But it still has much work to do if wants to seriously take on the Conservatives in four years time, all by itself.

Meanwhile, probably the biggest question raised by the election is what drove Quebec voters to opt so overwhelmingly for a party headed by a former Toronto municipal politician, when their voice in Ottawa had been led by the sovereigntist Bloc Quebecois for some two decades?

The short answer is that, after two failed referendums on "separating" from the rest of Canada (well, sort of), in 1980 and 1995, the people of Quebec have at last decided to dabble in federal politics again. En masse, they have switched their vote from the soveriegntist or separatist social democratic party to the federalist social democratic party.

The federalist social democratic NDP also has a history of being open to a "two Canada" view of Quebec's place in the confederation, maybe - and a Quebec-born-and-raised leader, albeit an Anglo one who now lives in Toronto, but still speaks "joual" or Quebec street French. Quebecers - "the first people to call themselves Canadians" - have a long history of leading the rest of the country around this way politically. And now they've done it again.

You could also say that Quebecers are at least experimenting with assigning the role the Liberals once played in federal politics on behalf of Quebec to the NDP. And Canada-wide, the Liberals and the NDP have switched places. The Liberals now have 34 seats with just under 19% of the popular vote - which is about where the NDP used to be.

Why did the Liberals, led by Michael Ignatieff, an at least internationally celebrated Canadian public intellectual who returned to his homeland after some 35 years in such foreign places as the United Kingdom and the United States, do so badly?

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Here you could also say that, Canada-wide, increasing numbers of non-Conservatives, faced by a more aggressively right-wing Conservative government than Canada has been accustomed to, have switched to a more aggressively left-wing party.

This trend started in Quebec very strongly, but spread to the rest of the country in a weaker form. On one preliminary estimate, one result has been that without left-wing "vote-splitting" between Liberals and New Democrats outside Quebec, the Harper Conservatives would have won a mere 151 seats, four short of a bare majority.

Finally, it is true enough as well that the Harper Conservatives did slightly increase their share of the popular vote, all by themselves. The old neo-con Stephen Harper, schooled by Australia's John Howard and his staffers in his early minority government days, has become a more centre-right politician over the past five years, focussing on economic management.

In the end there are those who believe that neither the rising New Democrats nor the falling Liberals will finally be able to slay the new Harper Conservative majority government dragon on their own. It will not be easy. But competing with this new creation may ultimately require still further realignment on the Canadian centre-left.

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About the Authors

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

Dr Randall White is the author or co-author of a number of books, including Ontario 1610-1985, Fur Trade to Free Trade, Global Spin, Toronto Women, and Ontario Since 1985, and Is Canada in a time warp?

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Greg Barns
All articles by Randall White

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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