Election or Revolution?

It will be some time before we know what really happened in 2011

In the end, did the earth move in last year’s federal election?

This is the question with which Christopher Dornan begins his introduction to this study. Was it just another election or was it a political revolution? The question is intriguing, of course, but not one for this book, which is about the past and not the future. True, several contributors play around with it, but they do not know the answer any more than the rest of us. It all depends on so many factors.

Before I continue I must declare an interest. In 1984 I was teaching in the journalism school at Carleton University and, with a colleague, Alan Frizzell, a statistician, was introducing students to a new form of political reporting—the art and science of polling. In the election that year we polled for the national Southam Group of newspapers and also ran an ambitious study of newspaper coverage. We wound up with a mountain of data on the campaign and nowhere to publish it. There were no book-length studies of Canadian elections except the odd volume produced by an American academic in search of a specialty, so Frizzell and I decided to try to establish a series. We persuaded academics and journalists to contribute, and our first volume was The Canadian General Election of 1984: Politicians, Parties, Press and Polls. We were soon joined by political scientist Jon Pammett, who took over from Frizzell when he left. When I retired, my J-school colleague Christopher Dornan took over. The team of Pammett and Dornan have since produced a book after each election, a considerable feat, and a contribution, I am sure, to Canadian history. (This current volume has chapters on all the participating parties, as well as one on the role of digital media in the 2011 election campaign.) So I am well disposed to this book and its editors—but I do have critical points to make.

Returning to Dornan’s question, the critical unknown, of course, is whether the Liberal Party can recover from a devastating defeat. In her chapter on the Liberal campaign and the party’s prospects, Brooke Jeffrey, a political scientist at Concordia University, reminds us the party suffered a severe defeat in 1984, when an almost new Conservative leader, Brian Mulroney, easily overpowered John Turner, a survivor of the Trudeau era leading a divided Liberal Party. But the Liberals were still the official opposition, and nine years later they were back in power. So, can they do it again? The answer probably depends on what happens to the NDP. David McGrane, a political scientist at St. Thomas More College and the University of Saskatchewan, contributes an impressive chapter on the modernization and professionalization of the NDP under Jack Layton’s leadership: briefly, modern political marketing replaced ideology. But in my view the party’s rise from weak third party to strong second party was as much a matter of luck as smart -thinking.

The Conservative Party, or more accurately the Harper party, launched a blizzard of TV ads demonizing the new Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff, before the election campaign even began. He was portrayed as a carpetbagger who had returned after years abroad to serve his own interests rather than those of the voters: “He’s not in it for you.” It was an easy pitch to make because the Liberal Party had foolishly persuaded Ignatieff to return from Harvard after some 30 years abroad, with no experience in government or political leadership. And he was vain, of course, in believing he could jump almost immediately into the top job. Nevertheless, an advertising campaign of the type launched by the Harperites had been unknown in Canada until they used one to destroy the previous Liberal leader, Stéphane Dion, in the 2008 election. Political leaders in Canada had often differed sharply on issues, but debate was usually respectful. The success of the Conservative attack ads—based no doubt on U.S. experience—raises in my mind the question of whether such ads should be banned—if ever the Liberals or the NDP, singly or jointly, can survive such Conservative attacks and elect a reforming government. The alternative seems to be to repeat what we now see happening in the United States: parties racing to raise vast sums to pay for the war of attack advertising.

The successful undermining of Ignatieff had centre/left voters looking for an alternative, and there at the head of the modernized NDP was smiling Jack Layton, an immensely attractive personality. Many disaffected Liberally inclined voters would hardly have taken a second look at a more traditional and ideologically rigid New Democrat, but Layton caught fire, and that was a stroke of luck for the Conservatives. The opposition vote was split and in riding after riding the Conservatives squeezed through. True, they raised their share of the vote in every province except Quebec, as the statistical data in the book show, but not by wide margins: including their decline in Quebec, their share of the national vote rose by less than two percentage points to just short of 40 percent, hardly a great national victory, and even less a popular mandate for radical change—but enough to rule with an iron hand in a three-party House of Commons. This reinforces my view that it is past time for reform of the electoral system if we wish to become a democracy.

Peter Woolstencroft, who teaches Canadian and comparative politics at the University of Waterloo, contributes a well-informed chapter on the Conservative Party under Harper, the architect of its victory: “Indeed, only eight years after successfully merging the feuding factions of Canadian conservativism and five years leading a minority government, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has built the most formidable political machine in the country.” From 2004 onwards the machine ran a “permanent campaign,” and during the election last year it succeeded in defining the issue as a choice between “the stable, familiar, competent economic management of the Conservatives and the instability and economic ruin that would follow from a Liberal-led coalition backed by socialists and separatists.” In reality, the NDP had long before ceased to be socialist, and Ignatieff had rejected any idea of a coalition; he hoped to form a Liberal majority government. But such niceties did not prevent Harper himself and the party machine from endlessly repeating them.

There is, of course, a great deal more to the formidable, even frightening Harper machine, and it may turn out that it will eventually take a fusion of New Democrats and Liberals to offer a serious alternative. If so, and perhaps against expectations, the man smiling privately will be Preston Manning, the founder of the new and more right-wing conservatism in Canada. Few will remember that in 1967, Preston’s father and mentor, Ernest, longtime Social Credit premier of Alberta and later a senator, published a slim volume titled Political Realignment: A Challenge to Thoughtful Canadians, arguing that Parliament and government would work better if there were just two parties, a centre-right party and a centre-left party, to offer voters a clear choice. With Harper as policy advisor, Preston began to implement this idea by forming and leading the Reform Party, later the Canadian Alliance, to the right of the Progressive Conservatives. By splitting the conservative vote Manning gave the Liberals an easy ride through several elections but eventually, the PCs were so weakened that the Reformers were able to absorb them into the new Conservative, or Harper, Party. The same process may now be underway with the Liberals who are so weakened, or will be after one more disastrous election, that they will be absorbed into a new centre-left party.