Some years ago, the columnist and editor Michael Kinsley sponsored a contest to come up with the most boring headline. The winner was, “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative.”
Well, Canada held an election last Monday, and the result was anything but boring. It amounts to something like a revolution in Canadian politics and has lessons, I think, for those of us south of the border.
The headline story is that the Conservative Party of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has headed minority governments since 2006, won an absolute majority of seats, 167 of 308, in the House of Commons. It was a result practically no Canadian pundit or psephologist predicted.
Going into this election, center-right parties in the four major Anglosphere democracies were at the brink of but not quite fully in power. The British Conservatives formed a government with the leftish Liberal Democrats in May 2010, the Australian Liberals are in opposition by virtue of the votes of a couple of Outback independents, and American Republicans won the House of Representatives in November 2010 and are now forcing significant cuts in public spending.
In Canada, Harper’s Conservatives have already cut taxes and modified spending programs, but always with the tacit consent of the separatist Bloc Quebecois, or the left-wing New Democrats, or the long-dominant Liberal Party. Now they’re on their own, and we’ll see the results.
But the installation of a majority government by itself is not a political revolution. The biggest changes in Canada were indicated by the devastating defeats of two of the opposition parties.
The Bloc Quebecois was reduced from 50 seats to only four. Formerly it represented most of Canada’s second largest province. Now it represents a tiny rump.
French Canadian separatism has been a major force in Canada since Charles de Gaulle came to Montreal in 1967 and spoke the deliberately provocative words, “Vive le Quebec libre!” There have been two referenda in which the voters of Quebec rejected separatism by only narrow majorities.
Now it looks like separatism is as dead as de Gaulle. The vast majority of Quebec’s ridings (the Canadian word for districts) elected New Democrats, some of whom didn’t campaign and don’t speak much French.
Quebec’s Francophone voters seem to have decided to vote for a party that favors a European-style welfare state rather than one that favors a separate Quebec. The New Democrats won 58 seats in Quebec, enough to give them 102 seats in Parliament, enough to make them the official opposition party.
The third huge development is the humiliating third-place finish of the Liberal Party, the pre-eminent party in Canada since its first election in 1867. Liberals headed governments for 70 years in the 20th century and have provided most of Canada’s well known prime ministers — Wilfrid Laurier, William Lyon Mackenzie King, Lester Pearson and Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
They have been more of a nationalist, opportunistic party than a left-wing one. Public spending ballooned during Trudeau’s nearly 20 years in power, but the Liberals cut back spending sharply in the 1990s, when Canada faced a fiscal crisis very much like the one the United States faces today.
Liberals long boasted that they were the only party with backing in both English- and French-speaking Canada. Now they have little backing in either one.
They elected only 34 members of Parliament, and their leader, Michael Ignatieff, lost his own seat. Liberals hold sway now only in central Toronto, where Canadian media are concentrated, in Anglophone Montreal and in the economically lagging Atlantic provinces.
The Conservatives’ triumph offers a couple of lessons that may be relevant to U.S. Republicans. One is that smaller government policies, far from being political poison, are actually vote-winners.
The second is that a center-right party can win immigrant votes. Conservatives won 35 of 54 seats in metro Toronto, many heavy with immigrants. One tactic that seems to have worked was to circulate videos of Indian- and Chinese-Canadian Conservative candidates appealing for votes in their native tongues.
The simple message is that this is a party that likes and respects you. Republicans could do something similar, with Sen. Marco Rubio, Govs. Susana Martinez and Brian Sandoval, and Reps. Allen West, Tim Scott and Quico Canseco, all elected in 2010.
So Canada has moved from a four-party politics rooted in its own special history to a two-party politics more similar to ours. Nothing boring about that.