Political Hay

The Demise of Canada’s Liberals

The great party of Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau is left in smithereens under star intellectual Michael Ignatieff.

By 5.4.11

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What a watershed election in Canada. Wow!!! Have things changed in my home and native land.

First of all, Stephen Harper and the Conservatives finally get their elusive majority government. Having elected minority Conservative parliaments in 2006 and 2008, Canadians finally saw fit to trust Harper and the Tories with a majority of seats in Canada's House of Commons. It is the first time the Tories have won a majority government since Brian Mulroney was re-elected Prime Minister in 1988.

Secondly, the socialist New Democratic Party (NDP) had its most successful election in its fifty-year history. The NDP, led by Jack Layton, becomes Her Majesty's Official Opposition for the very first time winning more than 100 seats. Their previous high in seats was 43 during the 1988 federal election. Nearly sixty of those seats were gained in Quebec. These gains came mostly at the expense of the sovereigntist Bloc Quebecois, which was reduced from 49 seats to a rump of four, thus losing party status in the House of Commons. Among those casualties was its longtime leader Gilles Duceppe. To put it into perspective, the NDP won only one seat in Quebec in the 2008 federal election. In most elections, the NDP has been shut out in La Belle Province altogether.

Thirdly, the Green Party won its first ever seat in the House of Commons as its leader Elizabeth May was elected in her constituency in British Columbia.

But perhaps the biggest story of them all was the collapse of the Liberal Party. Once known as "Canada's natural governing party," the Liberals have been reduced to 34 seats. It is their worst showing ever. What a tumultuous tumble for a political party that for more than a century had every single one of its leaders serve as Prime Minister. These leaders included the likes of Wilfrid Laurier, MacKenzie King, Lester Pearson, Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin.

The streak would come to an end with Stéphane Dion following the 2008 election, when the Liberals fell from 103 to 77 seats. Dion resigned as party leader but his resignation wasn't to take effect until a Liberal Party Leadership Convention scheduled for May 2009. However, when there appeared to be an opportunity in late 2008 for the Liberals and the NDP to topple Harper's minority government, Liberal Members of Parliament (MPs) and party insiders who were unhappy with Dion's lackluster performance forced him out and Michael Ignatieff was chosen his successor.

Ignatieff, who has spent most of his adult life outside of Canada, had even less resonance with the Canadian electorate than Dion. Ignatieff owes much of his misfortune to his terrible political instincts. After all, it was Ignatieff who triggered this election in the first place having defeated Harper's Tory government on a vote of non-confidence over Canada's federal budget in March. His decision to topple Parliament perplexed me. I blogged about it here on March 25:

Now I could understand Ignatieff doing this if the Liberals were up in the polls by double digits and if he was the most popular leader in the country. But it seems to me that if half of all Canadians don't want an election a lot of them aren't going to vote Liberal. Now I realize that a week in politics is a lifetime. Harper could make a mistake and Ignatieff could capitalize. But unless Ignatieff becomes Prime Minister in the next 60 days or so then his political career is done.

Well, by night's end the Liberals lost even more seats under Ignatieff than they did under Dion and garnered less than 20% of the national vote. For the first time in Canadian electoral history, the Liberals have fallen to third place in the House of Commons. To add to the indignity, Ignatieff also lost his Toronto area seat. He was left with little choice but to resign as party leader the following morning. But don't feel too badly for Ignatieff. Don't be surprised if he is back at Harvard in six months time. Ignatieff's fate was probably sealed when he was lustily jeered at a hockey arena in Mississauga. Frankly, the Liberal Party would have done better if it had been led by Polka-Roo.

Given the magnitude of the Liberal debacle, one must ask if the NDP have supplanted them as Canada's main leftist alternative to the Tories. Or will the inexperience of many of the NDP's rookie MPs from Quebec shine through and alienate the party's traditional base in Western Canada? Of course, some of the new Quebec NDP MPs have scarcely stepped foot in their ridings. Such is the case with Ruth Ellen Brosseau, the party's standard bearer in Trois-Rivières, who lives three hours west in Gatineau and speaks precious little French. Brosseau, who works at a pub at my alma mater of Carleton University, spent a good part of the election campaign stumping for votes in Las Vegas. And let's not forget the four new MPs who are McGill University undergraduates. There's also the university student from Sherbrooke, who at 19 is the youngest MP in Canadian history. This could very well come back to haunt the NDP.

Nevertheless, Liberals will be asking themselves where they go from here. For starters they need a new leader. But whom will the Liberals embrace? Will they take a leap of faith and back Bob Rae, a former NDP Premier of Ontario? If Liberals are still leery of Rae after all these years, they could turn to a francophone with second generation lineage such as Dominic LeBlanc or Justin Trudeau, son of the late Pierre Trudeau. Or will Liberals fold in their tents and join forces with the NDP?

The bottom line is that the Conservatives have their majority government and the NDP are the official opposition. Both of them have Michael Ignatieff and the Liberal Party to thank for their good fortune.

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About the Author
Aaron Goldstein writes from Boston, Massachusetts.