Alfred Apps, president of the Liberal Party of Canada, went on CBC’s Power and Politics Tuesday, May 3, 2011, to call for a period of reflection for the party, after it was reduced to 34 seats, and third place in the House of Commons.
He said something curious: “I don’t buy for a minute that there’s been a fundamental realignment here.”
I think this is classic example of how an intelligent, greatly accomplished person can succumb to cognitive dissonance.
One never knows what will happen in politics, but one often thinks one does. People in the Ottawa bubble often express unwarranted certainty about events, creating a kind of group think that is comforting, since it creates a shared reality, even if it later turns out to have been baseless. When that happens, everyone just quietly forgets their earlier certainty and adopts a new consensus.
A classic example is the near universal belief that Paul Martin would win a massive majority government after he took over the Liberal party.
I remember, with some embarrassment, scoffing at some optimistic claim from NDP national director Brad Lavigne over beers, I think on the night of the budget lockup. I think I may have been a bit pompous about the impossibility of Jack Layton becoming prime minister or leader of the Opposition. Sorry, Brad.
I was not as certain as many of my colleagues, though, about the grim fate facing the NDP going into this election. The conventional wisdom was that they were fools to vote against the budget, and would be punished by angry voters.
Similarly, Ottawa was full of people before this election, as before the 2006 election, predicting that nothing would change.
It’s one thing, though, to fail to predict an event that has yet to happen, and another to fail to accept it after it has, which I think is the case with Mr. Apps.
On April 25, I described what was happening as a realingment in column I wrote for The Chronicle Herald.
A week later, which, as they say, is a lifetime in politics, I think it accurately portrays the shift that was taking place in our political system and the reason it was happening.
My Twitter headline for it was: #elxn41 could lead to permanent structural realignment:
The Bloc Quebecois brought out Jacques Parizeau for a speech to rally the sovereigntist base in Montreal on Monday.
“It has been a strange campaign,” said Parizeau, as sharp and wry as ever. “For a while, the problem consisted of knowing whether a coalition consisted of a mortal or a venial sin.”
It has been unlike other campaigns, and there is reason to believe the outcome will also be different.
As the last week begins, the polls show two significant shifts taking place: one an extension of an existing trend and the other without precedent.
In Ontario, polls show the Conservatives poised to continue a decade-long pattern of gains.
In 2000, in Jean Chretien’s last election, the Liberals won 51 per cent of the vote in Ontario, which was good enough for 100 of 103 seats.
In 2004, Stephen Harper’s newly merged party took 24 Ontario seats with 31.5 per cent of the vote, pushing Paul Martin’s Liberals into a minority. In 2006, the Tories took 40 seats, with 35 per cent of the vote. In 2008, the Conservatives won 51, with 39 per cent of the vote.
Step by step, Harper’s team has moved in from the white, Protestant countryside, which by long tradition gravitates to the Tories, toward the multi-hued suburbs of Toronto, where significant numbers of immigrants and their children are embracing a modern Conservative message that has been carefully calibrated for them.
The Liberal MPs of the GTA — many of whom won their seats in the days when winning the nomination battle was the real challenge — are now running scared, fighting to hold formerly safe turf.
The most recent polls show Conservatives in the 40s, which would be good enough for a Conservative majority.
Voters in Quebec, in contrast, have mostly turned their backs to Harper’s stern warnings, shocking everybody by warming up to Jack Layton.
After a strong French-language debate performance, Layton’s party is now leading the Bloc Quebecois. With his folksy Montreal street French and a policy book that has been carefully shaped over the years to reduce friction with nationalist Quebecers, Layton can now hope for a real harvest of MPs on Monday.
He has been preparing the ground for years. With little hope for immediate gains, he worked hard to make the NDP electoral effort in Quebec more than symbolic. The first seedling to sprout was the election of Thomas Mulcair, giving the party, for the first time, a talented bilingual spokesman.
Then, in the middle of this campaign, a Parti Quebecois convention adopted aggressive policies on language and sovereignty, reminding Quebecers that Pauline Marois is likely to be the next premier.
In the debate, Layton’s positions on just about everything but the future of Quebec lined up with Duceppe’s, and suddenly he had serious momentum among francophone voters, to the point that Duceppe brought out Parizeau to firm up the support of the base.
Parizeau’s appeal is unlikely to resonate with voters who have already decided to vote NDP, and Duceppe looks really rattled, so it seems likely the NDP will win seats in Quebec on Monday, although their candidates are green and they have no machine.
These developments in Quebec and Ontario are terrible news for the Liberals. Some national polls now show the Grits behind the NDP. I don’t believe, given the weight of tradition and the power of incumbency, that the NDP can surpass the Liberals on election day, but who knows?
As the election began, I thought Michael Ignatieff had a good chance of connecting with Canadian voters. Until the debates, when he failed to make a persuasive case for a Liberal government, it looked like his energetic and free-wheeling rally performances might give Canadians cause to reconsider him, setting up a momentum-building redemption narrative.
Instead, in the final days of the campaign, voters on the left are evenly divided between the Liberals and New Democrats, which is ideal for the Conservatives, since strategic voters may not know how to vote to block a Tory majority.
Preston Manning’s father, Ernest, dreamed of a political realignment in Canada, with a right-wing party and a left-wing party, rather than two parties of the mushy middle.
The goal of the movement, for decades, has been to squeeze the Liberals. By framing this election around the question of whether a coalition is a venial or a mortal sin, Harper is moving closer to realizing the Manning dream.
Of course, I don’t really know whether this is a permanent structural realigment of the Canadian political system. The NDP will have to raise its game if it is to negotiate around the many obstacles in its path. In particular, I think the party needs to take policy formation more seriously. The costing in the NDP’s most recent platform seems to have arrived via Unicorn Express from Candy Mountain. The party must be more rigorous if it is to present itself as a government in waiting, in part because it is tough for left wing ideas to get a fair hearing from the right-leaning bank economists who serve as de facto referees in our economic arguments.
The NDP also has a tremendous challenge in managing the brutal nationalist political realities in Quebec. In a sense, their real competition there is Pauline Marois’ Parti Québécois, who will be hoping to show that Gilles Duceppe was right when he said that NDP would always side with Canada against Quebec.
But as Harper sets about implementing his majority agenda — which is likely to involve deep cuts to federal spending — opposition to those changes should coalesce around Layton’s NDP, no matter how many teenagers he has in his caucus.
If it does, then the NDP will be ahead of the Liberals as we head into the 2015 election, and Mr. Apps will have no choice but to buy it.