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5 things that changed in Canadian politics last night, and 2 that didn't

Graham F. Scott

Last night’s election was extraordinary in more ways than we would have thought possible a few weeks ago. Canadian politics has been shaken up in a serious, permanent way, and this election will be studied for years to come. As we start to digest the result and its consequences, there are some clearly identifiable changes and trends at work:

1. A Majority Conservative Government

This is crashingly obvious, but the 166-seat showing for the Conservative Party last night was more decisive than anyone expected five weeks, or even 24 hours, in advance of the polls. A Harper majority represents a true departure from any Canadian politics of the past; we are in uncharted territory. The loss of the moderating influence of a majority opposition gives the Harper conservatives truly free rein for the first time, and given this government’s conduct as a minority, we should expect a swift and substantial turn to the right. Need an example? Last night, with results still trickling in, Heritage Minister James Moore told the CBC that the government would move right away to abolish public funding for political campaigns. The Conservatives now have both hands firmly on the levers of power, and they are going to move. Fast.

2. The NDP Ascendance

The pollsters predicted a good showing for the NDP, but again, the idea that the New Democrats could take more than 100 seats would have been laughable as recently as a week ago. Yet here we are, Jack Layton bound for Stornoway with 101 NDP MPs at his back. Layton will make a skilled and energetic opposition leader, and will undoubtedly use his bully pulpit to solidify the NDP’s newfound national base. The “Orange Wave” phenomenon is, for many progressives, a silver lining of this election, but the grim irony, as every pundit observed last night, is that Layton has less leverage now as leader of the opposition than he had as leader of the third party in a minority government. This election has to be counted the NDP’s greatest success to date — but still a qualified one.

3. Twilight of the Liberals

There were plenty of factors that led to yesterday’s electoral result, but if you were looking for one doorstep to lay it at, the Liberal Party’s would be the one. Their unprecedentedly poor showing in the polls echoes, in sentiment if not in absolute numbers, the trouncing the Progressive Conservatives received in 1993; the added humiliation of Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff losing his own riding, and then failing to resign before resigning anyway, has shaken the party to its roots. Speculation about merging with the NDP is probably premature but no longer an outright joke. Rumours of the Liberal Party’s death are exaggerated; still, even contemplating such a thing would have been unthinkable a year ago. The Liberals pulled the trigger on this election — though, having found the government in contempt of parliament, it’s not clear they could have reasonably chosen otherwise — and their strategists must have felt there was a reason to do so. The fact that they were so terribly wrong is going to prompt plenty of Grit soul-searching.

4. The Smashing of the Bloc

The apocalyptic showing of the Bloc Québécois spells the end of the separatist movement at the federal level; it’s hard to see how it can be otherwise. Reduced from 47 to just four MPs, with their leader defeated in his own riding, and swamped by the NDP in Quebec, the Bloc is over as a parliamentary force. That’s important because the party since 1993 had been a spoiler, changing the electoral calculus necessary to take the House of Commons. That fourth party, wielding many more seats than its popular vote would indicate, had been a keystone of the minority government structure that has prevailed since 2004. Their decimation will change the math for every election to come. What this means for the sovereigntist movement in general is unclear, too — will it dampen the appetite for another referendum, or embolden the Parti Québécois provincially? Again, who knows? We’re off the map here.

5. The Greens Take the Field

As special-interest party the Bloc exits stage left, the election of Elizabeth May as the first Green Party MP ushers in a new parliamentary voice. This was an important symbolic win for May and for the Greens, and perhaps an important substantive win, too. Being the only Green in the house of commons will hardly make May a power broker, but it’s a foothold, and May is known for being an articulate rhetoritician; she’ll make hay from even the sliver of Question Period time this seat grants her. Whether that translates to growth for the Greens remains to be seen, but if that federal election campaign per-vote subsidy is taken away — now a near-certainty — the Greens stand to lose a big chunk of the funding that helped put May in her seat. Have they built a big enough party machine in the last few years (and can they continue to build it for the next four or five) to do it on their own?

6. The Pollsters Are Jokes

The 2008 election was bad enough for the pollsters, who saw their accuracy deteriorate markedly. This time around was even worse. While they all saw the Orange Wave coming, no major pollster predicted the Conservative majority; none grasped the extent of the Liberals’ crashing fortunes, and the utter collapse of the Bloc was barely on their radar. And the media, hungry for numbers, babbled every poll projection regardless. Susan Delacourt of the Toronto Star predicted that way back at the beginning of the campaign when she provided a lesson learned from previous campaigns: “All media will declare that they’re going to not report on polls in the same old way and will break that promise by Day 2.” Bingo.

7. Voters Still Aren’t Voting

Turnout increased a bit this election, bobbing back above 60 percent. But electoral participation remains at distressing lows. Some blame our antiquated first-past-the-post system; others disillusionment with partisan incivility; or perhaps it’s that Kids Today don’t vote in elections. Whatever the reason, it’s a discouraging trend, and more discouraging is that there is no indication that most of these factors will improve. Electoral reform is off the table; a Conservative government has no interest in proportional representation. The U.S.-style attack politics that has metastisized in Ottawa will continue; the Conservatives slathered it on thick and were rewarded with a majority, and that lesson will stick. Perhaps younger people can be enticed to the ballot box by a resurgent NDP, which has traditionally enjoyed their support. Yesterday’s slight uptick in turnout could be the start of an upward trend — or it could be a bump on the long slide downhill.

In any case, it looks like we have four to five years of a Conservative government during which we can contemplate all these questions — and many more besides.

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