An election that changes nothing

59% of Canadians voted in yesterday’s federal election. That number looks pretty good by comparison with certain other nations:  but it’s the first time in Canadian history that the number has dipped below 60%.

Perhaps our election wasn’t as interesting as the American election. It was also the fourth election we’ve had in nine years:  in 2000, 2004, 2006, and now 2008. Canadians might be excused for growing tired of the whole exercise.

It’s Canada’s third consecutive minority government. Which means we’ll probably have another election a couple of years from now.

In fact, when you get right down to it, this election changes nothing.

MPs at dissolution
of Parliament
MPs after
this election
Conservatives 127 143
Liberals 95 76
Bloc Québécois 48 50
NDP 30 37
Green Party 1 0
Independents 3 2
vacant seats 4 0

The best line on CBC’s coverage last night came from Rick Mercer, who said that this election cost Canadian taxpayers $300 million, and none of the parties got what they wanted.

The Conservatives didn’t get the majority government they were chasing. They failed, again, to elect a single MP in any of Canada’s major cities (Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver). And they failed to supplant the Liberals as the main federalist party in Quebec. The Liberals won 13 seats in Quebec (one more than in 2006); the Conservatives won 10 (identical to 2006). If it’s possible to win the election and still go home sorely disappointed, the Conservatives just did it.

And the other parties?

The Liberals lost 19 seats. The Green Party wasn’t able to elect a single candidate.

The NDP gained a few seats, but they’re still in fourth place. They wanted to leapfrog the Liberals and position themselves as the alternative to the Conservatives, but it didn’t happen.

Only the BQ went home satisfied with their night’s work. They won two-thirds of the seats in Quebec, as nebcanuck pointed out earlier today. The BQ has limited ambitions:  they have no desire ever to form a government.

So:  $300 million and none of the parties is any better off.

Among the party leaders, the biggest loser is Stéphane Dion. The Liberals lost 19 seats. They received 26.2% of the popular vote — the smallest share the Liberals have received in Canadian history. Expect a convention to replace Dion sooner rather than later.

But let me go against conventional wisdom and say that I think the Liberal Party is in a good position to rebuild.

The Liberals are still a national party (albeit weakly represented in the three prairie provinces). They continue to have a solid base in the two most populous provinces, Quebec (13 seats) and Ontario (38 seats). The result in Quebec is noteworthy, because it demonstrates that the Liberals have survived the damage they suffered in that province a few years ago. I think the page has now been turned on the sponsorship scandal.

Moreover, the Liberals arguably have a stronger team than the governing party, given that Stephen Harper has insisted on muzzling his Cabinet ministers and running the government as a one-man show.

The way forward for the Liberals will not be easy. The party remains internally divided, and a leadership convention may produce a bitter contest between Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff. It’s also possible that formidable figures like Frank McKenna and John Manley might choose to compete for the Liberal leadership. The very strength of the Liberal team means that a leadership campaign could be bitterly divisive.

But let’s suppose for a moment that the Liberals find a path through this difficult process. The Party chooses a capable leader and unites behind that leader. Now consider that two-thirds of Canadians voted for a left-of-centre party — Liberal, BQ, NDP, or Green.

It seems to me that voters are just waiting for a viable, left-of-centre alternative to the Conservative Party. The NDP auditioned for that role but voters rejected the idea.

If the Liberals are able to get their act together, they will be in a position to attract 40%-45% of the national vote — just as they have done in the past.

In sum:  the Conservatives failed to get a jump on the Liberals in Quebec, and the NDP failed to get a jump on the Liberals in the rest of Canada. The election changed nothing. But despite appearances (a loss of 19 seats), the result may actually be good for the Liberals in the long run.

8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. nebcanuck
    Oct 16, 2008 @ 11:08:13

    That is, of course, if the Liberals can actually find a leader they’re willing to follow unanimously. The leadership void since Chretien has been huge, and those who are left are intent on splitting up the party between them. That’s really what Dion’s leadership victory showed — that supporters of Rae and Ignatieff aren’t willing to cooperate, regardless of the outcome.

    Perhaps Justin Trudeau can step in and fill some of the void. Perhaps one of the leaders will back down and allow the other a chance at gaining majority support within the party. But until something changes, the Liberals are in for a lot of muck — and expense!


  2. Zayna
    Oct 16, 2008 @ 13:53:47

    Really? Was voter turn out that low?


    I’m trying to teach my Daughter that voting matters but with results like this, it’s going to be a long haul.

    “Perhaps our election wasn’t as interesting as the American election.”

    Not meant as a critism of course, merely an observation, but as a Canadian who spends so much time blogging about the American election, you surely can’t be surprised by this?

    In any case, I’m disappointed that more people didn’t vote.


  3. Bill
    Oct 16, 2008 @ 15:56:05

    Justin Trudeau is like near beer, he looks like the reall thing but hasn’t got the kick (or spice)

    Bob Rae although qualified is not appealing to those on the fence and this is who the party wants to grab.

    Ignatieff would have been good but his wishy-washy follow the leader comment on CTV news the other day was too unbelievable. He gave away the fact that he wanted the job even before Dion has given up the reigns, which makes him unlikable to many.

    Gerard Kennedy would be a good choice but he dumped his supporters on Dion and associating yourself with Dion might not be good so I would go for…….

    Anita Neville if she can pull off a victory in a province full of Conservatives she can unite this messed up party GO ANITA !!!!


  4. Stephen
    Oct 17, 2008 @ 06:45:41

    The Liberal Party has been divided for as long as I can remember. Yet Liberals were pragmatic enough to work together for the sake of acquiring power.

    I’m not sure what went on before the Trudeau era, but the divisions you’re seeing today go all the way back to Trudeau and John Turner. Turner was Trudeau’s Minister of Finance. Turner resigned because he couldn’t work with Trudeau. Thereafter, Turner loomed in the background as the guy who would be the next Liberal leader.

    When Trudeau eventually resigned, and Turner won the leadership, Jean Chretien was bitterly disappointed. And Chretien had supporters within the party from day one. At the leadership convention, Iona Campagnolo introduced Chrétien as, “Second on the ballot, but first in our hearts.”

    Then, of course, we got into the Chretien/Paul Martin schism. It has now become a Rae/Ignatieff schism. There’s a direct line of descent from Trudeau/Chretien/Rae loyalists on the one hand, and Turner/Martin/Ignatieff loyalists on the other, with Turner/Martin/Ignatieff positioned somewhat to the “right” of the others.

    Yet somehow, the Liberals have managed to achieve victory through most of this era.

    I’m hearing that Bob Rae has done a terrific job of ingratiating himself among Liberal MPs. Perhaps the leadership contest won’t be as close as everyone assumes. Perhaps Rae will emerge a clear victor.

    Whoever loses, I think that person will leave politics. I don’t think either Rae or Ignatieff is going to wait around, playing second fiddle to the victor, in hope of a third chance. Two losses and you’re no longer a contender. That will make things easier for the winner, since the runner-up won’t be breathing down his neck.

    The bigger challenge for the winner is going to be fixing all the things that ail the party. Getting the finances back on a sound footing. Piecing together an effective ground organization. Crafting a platform that all the candidates are enthusiastic about. Getting the hundreds of MPs and party organizers to work together, singlemindedly, for the prize of electoral success.

    I think Bob Rae could pull it off. He has a lot of experience in politics, and both the charm and the brass knuckle resolve to unite the party.

    If Ignatieff wins, I think he will have a harder time finessing things. He would have to do it by dint of personal charisma and an Alpha Male personality. But I still think Liberals would ultimately unite under Ignatieff for the sake of victory in the next election.


  5. Bill
    Oct 20, 2008 @ 09:27:27

    We have been ignoring one candidate that might be able to pull of an alternative to Ignatief Rae vote.

    (besides Anita Neville)

    There has been talk that Ken Dryden may be throwing his hat in the ring (or rink).

    I like him because of his involvement in The school of Canadians studies at U of O. Having heard him talk he is not only politically able, but also knows Canada more that the other choices. Dryden seems to be more in tune with the west than either of the other candidates.


  6. Chris
    Oct 21, 2008 @ 19:57:17

    Just to add my two cents..

    Gotta luv the brits : “As you were, then…” – lol.

    This was buried in their “Americas” pages. Not surprising considering the voter turnout and the results of the election.

    I personally think the BQ were the only party to come out of this winners. They gained 2 seats and held the conservatives from gaining a foothold in Quebec. Of course Mr Harper shot himself in the foot on that front cutting cultural support and messing with the quebec youth system. Not the brightest campaign platform to have floating around uncertain voters in a relatively hostile province.


  7. Stephen
    Oct 22, 2008 @ 07:36:35

    • Bill:
    Oddly, I haven’t seen any mention of Dryden running. I’d expect him to, but so far he’s keeping a low profile.

    I’m glad to see that Justin Trudeau is staying out of it this time around. Maybe he’s got what it takes; maybe not. But he’s brand new to politics, and (like Sarah Palin) he doesn’t seem to have given public policy much thought until fairly recently. So let him learn the ropes a little, then we’ll see what he’s made of.

    • Chris:
    Your comment on the BQ makes sense. Duceppe retained two thirds of the seats in Quebec, and prevented a Conservative majority, which is all the BQ ever aspired to. So it’s a successful election for them — particularly since journalists were writing BQ obituaries when the campaign started.


  8. Trackback: Tenth To The Fraser » Blog Archive » Voting is hard!

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