Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Left punch -- to Michael Ignatieff's jaw

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I gave the Conservatives 133 seats in the office pool Monday night. I lost.

I was so far short of the NDP's remarkable tally that I should have saved my measly buck.

Coming into election day, I was prepared to be amazed by the will of the people. They didn't fail me on that point.

I figured, like most, the Liberals would get their comeuppance, but the rout eluded me.

It was, in short, historic. Unparalleled.

Last night, Canadians revealed how tired they are of what's left of the natural governing party of Canada. (And of separatists, more soundly trounced by the surging NDP).

Even in 1984, when Brian Mulroney's Tories stormed the country, the Liberals got more seats. And never has the party of Wilfrid Laurier -- Canada's oldest registered party -- sunk so low in the electorate's esteem. Punted beyond official Opposition territory, into a political wilderness where Michael Ignatieff will get pushed under, or at least off, the bus if he doesn't jump of his volition.

It is difficult to lay this rout on the lingering discontent with a party that used the public purse to better its political fortunes in Quebec -- it's hard to find in recent years a worse, more cynical betrayal of public trust than the sponsorship scandal. But was that on the minds of the electorate Monday? Did it really surface in the opinion polls that took the left turn midway as Canadians awoke to the promise-you-anything pitch of an avuncular Jack Layton? Nope. Not on the radar.

The party fumbled badly in choosing Stéphane Dion. And Michael Ignatieff failed to connect with the people, never managed to beat back the spectre of being here for a visit, in it for himself. Was it true? We'll see in a year or so.

But even more obvious is the fact that none of the opposition parties capitalized on the many opportunities to pin the Conservatives to the wall.

Despite their warnings the Tories were arrogant, and authoritarian, and the many instances in which the party proved itself contemptuous of Parliament, Canadians are getting comfortable, thanks anyways, with their stewardship.

Four years under a Tory majority proved not to be so scary a deal. Quebec, where fortunes can be won and lost, opted out and went its own way. But Ontario, where so much of the recession's deep sting lingers still, bought into the Tories' trump card, that right now is not the time to invest, once again, in a minority government.

The Liberals have a huge reconstruction before them and the lay of the land gives them a good four years to attend to their troubles.

There can be no talk of a coalition government. The Liberals are down and the Bloc all but out. No threat of non-confidence.

The Tories are positioned to prove themselves now. They have the opportunity to thoroughly dispel the slag they've got a hidden agenda, a smear campaign that haunted them throughout their rise out of the West from a grassroots populism that bested the progressives of central Canada.

Canadians voted for a little peace and a few years of stability.

But with a left punch, voters served notice that they see the NDP as a viable alternative. Jack Layton and his strategists will be working over now and we can expect they will become tempered as the party edges a little more to the right, putting the soft Conservative vote in their sights.

The Liberals have suffered a stunning rebuke and it will be a tough slog to reposition themselves as the centrist default for a country that has historically straddled the line.

But neither can the Tories now govern as though they are untouchable. Canada has shown itself to be more open to possibilities than ever before. If Jack Layton discovers the "third way" of Tony Blair's Labour Party in England, mimicked by Gary Doer's NDP in Manitoba, Canadians could slide into a whole new comfort zone.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2011 A12

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