Wednesday, May 04, 2011

A Newish Canada

I don't keep up with Canadian politics like I used to, but I was interested to see the continued implosion of the Liberal Party in the recent election. The Liberal Party was once the most successful political party in the Western world, having dominated a G7 nation for the overwhelming bulk of the twentieth century. One of my favorite political jokes used to be that the difference between politics in the U.S. and politics in Canada was that U.S. politics was dominated by two large, corrupt, barely distinguishable parties, while Canadian politics was dominated by one large, corrupt, barely distinguishable party. Like most political jokes, it was ruined by a political upset, when the Conservatives installed Harper in 24 Sussex Drive.

Since then Harper has held on tenaciously, but it hadn't seemed that the Conservative regime would last long, being held together by fragile alliances. But now the Conservatives have, for the first time, a clear majority, with 167 seats. The Bloc Quebecois has been nearly totally swallowed up, down to 4 seats; and the once-mighty Liberal Party is limping along in third place with 34 seats. In effect, the Liberals were eaten away from both sides: the anti-NDP people defected to the Conservatives, people on the anti-Conservative side defected to the NDP. And what's really remarkable is how the NDP has benefited from the collapse of the Bloc and the Grits, having become the opposition leader with an astounding 102 seats. This from a party that was almost swept from the federal scene in 1993 after a massive route that left it only nine seats.

I have to confess, I honestly didn't think Jack Layton was competent enough to take advantage of the times the way he has. Indeed, I'm a bit impressed he lasted this long, since I wasn't expecting it. I remember looking at the field of candidates for NDP leadership as Alexa McDonough stepped down and liking every single one of them -- I'm not a huge fan of NDP politics, but many NDP politicians are quite charming -- except Layton, who manages to carry around the air of trustworthiness of a used car salesman or ambulance chaser and who can't seem to say or do anything without saying or doing it obnoxiously. Very American political style, actually. But Layton, despite not even having a seat in Parliament at the time, eventually beat the extraordinarily likable Bill Blaikie for the role. And he's managed to hold on. Perhaps that's what the NDP needed, after all. On the other hand, I remember Blaikie at his retirement bemoaned the fact that the quality of parliamentary culture had declined as people increasingly devoted themselves to "character assassination, simulated indignation, and trivial pursuit" rather than real debate. And while Layton isn't the only culprit by any means, simulated indignation is even more a part of him than his mustache is.

It's very likely the fear of NDP dominance that led to the entrenchment of the Conservatives. So I suppose the real question is: Are the Conservatives the Liberal Party of the twenty-first century? That would be a feat that would be hard to pull off. On the other hand, it still isn't clear that NDP can play opposition well enough to take the 24 Sussex from the Conservatives (this would depend, for instance, on keeping Quebec happy, because if the BQ recovers, the NDP can look forward to nothing stronger than a weak minority government on occasion, and also depends on Harper's ability not to push his newfound stability too far). It's a new season in Canadian politics; it is extremely unlikely the Liberals will ever recapture their former position, and thus it's a Conservative vs. NDP Canada. And that means Canada has entered a phase of parliamentary politics most Western parliamentary democracies entered long ago: the dominance of Labor-left over Liberal-left.

On the other hand, it's hard to see how this would significantly change the dominant issues of Canadian politics, either.

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