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Earth-shattering? Not even close

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The May 2 election results were indeed historically unusual -- especially the NDP's winning of an unprecedented 58 seats in Quebec from the previous lone seat the party had held since the last election in 2008. The apparent demise of the Bloc Québécois and the humbling of the Liberals from 77 seats to only 34 are equally as notable.

But the attempt by many pundits to declare politics in this country now has been transformed forever ignores 144 years of Canadian history. Consider several of the following sweeping statements read and heard during the past few days:

"The Liberals are finished as a national party." It is true that the Conservatives' success owes partly to their slight shift to the middle of the political spectrum, which enabled the party to attract a sufficient number of right-wing Liberal voters. Moreover, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's declaration that he aims to work hard to maintain that majority for many elections to come likely means he will not do anything politically foolish to alienate those voters.

Nevertheless, both the Liberals and the Conservatives have been beaten badly before and have rebounded. The Lester Pearson Liberals were thrashed in 1958 by Conservative John Diefenbaker. They were thrashed again in 1984, when John Turner took a beating from Brian Mulroney and the Conservatives. Within about a decade in both cases, the Liberals were back in power with majority governments.

Likewise, the Conservatives lost badly in 1921 and 1949, and in 1993 were reduced to two seats. In the latter instance, it has taken 18 years of reorganizing and rebuilding for the party to claim another majority government. In short, it can happen.

"The NDP's win in Quebec means the end of the Quebec sovereignty movement." Is the Bloc finished? Time will tell. In nearly every election since Wilfrid Laurier's day in 1896, French-Canadians in Quebec have tended to vote as a unit, delivering a large number of their 65, or now 75, seats to the one party that best represented their nationalistic interests. Until 1980, that was the Liberal party, which for a variety of reasons, could always count on winning a sizable majority of seats in the province. The loss of that decisive guarantee, first with Brian Mulroney in 1984 and 1988 and then with the arrival of the Bloc Québécois after 1993, has dealt a big blow to Liberal fortunes. How to win back some of those supporters will be a question the party will have to figure out if it is to regain its stature in Ottawa.

In this election, Quebecers were tired of Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe's ineffectiveness. Enamoured of "Smiling Jack," they decided in a remarkable example of groupthink to try another party. Yet, as University of Ottawa historian Pierre Anctil has pointed out, in going full tilt for the NDP, the province's voters "chose a party that has never been in power, and therefore never caused Quebec any grievances." Quebec nationalism arguably remains strong and vocal, as it has in various forms for more than a century.

Clearly, many Quebec sovereigntists have taken a chance in supporting Jack Layton, and a desperate one at that. How else to explain the election of 27-year-old Ruth Brosseau the new NDP MP for the predominately French-speaking riding of Berthier-Maskinongé, who does not speak French very well and who took an earlier planned holiday to Las Vegas near the end of the campaign, but beat Guy André, the incumbent Bloc candidate, by 5,816 votes.

Or, the election of Pierre-Luc Dusseault, at 19 years and 11 months old, the youngest person ever elected to the House of Commons, who took the riding of Sherbrooke from the Bloc's Serge Cardin, who had held the seat since 1998. A politically active student at the Université de Sherbrooke, Dusseault was supposed to work at a golf course this summer; now he is a Member of Parliament who will be paid $157,000 a year.

However this plays out, Layton has an uphill battle to prove to Quebec that he is their champion. As the leader of the Opposition in a majority Parliament he will not be able to reopen the constitutional talks or advance Quebec's interests in a concrete way. That will be in the hands of the Harper government. It remains to be seen if Quebec's love affair with the NDP is anything but a one-night, or, more accurately, four-year, stand.

"The Conservative victory means that the 21st century will belong to them, and that Canada is headed for a two-party system split between the Tories on the right and the NDP on the left; somewhat the situation that has existed in Manitoba politics for many years." Harper no doubt hopes this is the case, which he believes will be to his advantage because more Canadians tend to identify with the middle-right than with the middle-left on the political spectrum.

Again, much depends on Harper's ability to maintain support in the West and, more significantly, much of Ontario. Winning 73 of Ontario's 106 seats, a gain of 22 seats and most at the expense of the Liberals, was the major contributing factor in delivering to him his majority.

History teaches political fortunes rise and fall and sometimes rise again. Voters can be impulsive and fickle. Nothing is written in stone and it would be a mistake to regard the results of May 2, 2011, as earth-shattering or permanent.

 

Now&Then is a column in which Allan Levine brings a historical perspective to the major events of today.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 7, 2011 J11

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