Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A sea change in Canadian politics: Four good outcomes and thoughts about what drove the changes

Several  good things happened in Canada in yesterday's election, but they are tempered by important risks. There were also several fascinating lessons.

Here are the four good things:
  1. We will have a majority government. I am not happy that it is the Conservatives, but Harper is right when he says a stable majority should be good for the economy. I hope the Conservatives can hold off on doing too much damage to democracy, the environment and social programs (see my recent post for my list of fears).
  2. The separatist Bloc Quebecois is essentially wiped out, at least for the next four years. Massive losses were predicted, but this massive? We have entered an era where all bets are off regarding the future of Quebec. Quebeckers will now look to the NDP to represent their interests. Will the NDP be up to it? Perhaps, but they have to be careful of gaffes with so many rookies. In the past, inopportune comments by various politicians have angered Quebeckers and stirred up separatist sentiment. It is ironic that the long-term future of Canadian unity could be in the hands of an opposition party that has so little history in Quebec.
  3. The Green Party finally gained a beachhead in Parliament. I am delighted that Elizabeth May was elected, despite the Green Party doing worse overall nationally. Her regular voice in parliament will be welcome; it will be nice to have a woman as one of the party leaders too. I look forward to having her in the debate next election – it would be much harder to exclude her now. May's victory follows recent victories in the UK and Australia by Green MPs, and shows that environmental consciousness can finally have some impact in parliamentary elections, even in a first-past-the-post system. With a Conservative Majority, however, there is no immediate possibility for greater gains that might be possible with proportional representation.
  4. Canadians have demonstrated that massive change is possible. Capacity for change in a democracy is good since it puts the government on notice that they had better be careful. If we can have this much change, most of it occurring in the last week of the campaign, it is clear that the tide could turn in one of several  directions in the next election. If Jack Layton's medical issues means he is unable to continue beyond the next election, those NDP gains could all be reversed. The Conservatives now will have nobody to blame for anything that goes wrong, and an awful lot could in our world fraught with environmental risks, and living next to a near-bankrupt neighbour (the US).
I think from this election we learned that three things really count: Charismatic leadership, groupthink, and right wing populism.

Charisma propelled Jack Layton and Elizabeth May to their successes. Both are excellent speakers and are attractive to the electorate. Michael Ignatieff has great policy depth, but I think he was 'handled' to defeat. Staying 'on message' in the debate was part of the cause of his defeat. We should look to other charismatic leaders to trigger major changes in future elections: Justin Trudeau will one day lead the liberals I feel sure. Stephen Harper is not a charismatic leader, but he doesn't need to be: He can count on groupthink and right wing populism.

Groupthink propelled the total transformation of the Quebec political landscape. As more and more people started to think of dumping the BQ,  the NDP meme swept the province, even though with deep thought it really doesn't seem logical to put your future hopes in the hands of so many inexperienced candidates. Similarly as more and more people developed negative attitudes to Michael Ignatieff,  this too swept across many areas. This was clear from some of my contacts in southern Ontario. Ignatieff said many good things in this campaign. I think the scale of his defeat was caused simply by the same groupthink phenomenon – people listening to their friends and passing on the meme, without a deep understanding of the  consequences.

And right wing populism kept the Conservative base strong.

The pollsters got it really wrong on several counts: They got the NDP numbers right, but a Conservative majority, the scope of Liberal defeat, the size of Elizabeth May's win and the scale of the wipe-out of the BQ were not predicted. The pollsters were just not tuned in to the rapidity of changes in the thinking of Canadians.


  1. Another factor that led to the Liberal collapse I think was resentment at being told repeatedly by the L's in general and Ignatieff in particular that they are the only alternative. Canada may be dominated by two parties but the L's don't have a permanent right to be one of them. I know that influenced my own thinking. My conservative friends have long been frustrated with Harper because he's too centrist for their tastes. Let's hope that continues! I don't think we'll see the Conservatives turn into rabid tea party style idealogs.

  2. The Bloc may be wiped out - but that is because Quebekers don't like "establishments".. Especially establishments who are not bringing new ideas to the table. Its a place that has a great punk with a tie attitude. They love to give ideas a shot. I wouldn't say separation is dead - but definitely the flavour of what they are presenting to the silent majority isn't working.

  3. I have added additional commentary related to this on my May 5th post, which can be found at http://tims-ideas.blogspot.com/2011/05/on-minority-and-majority-governments.html