Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Politics shifts right, heads west in 'new' Canada

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There's nothing like a good political conspiracy book to fire up political junkies.

For the record, this is not a political conspiracy book (the authors use the term "polite provocation"). But hard-core members of what Torontonians Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson label the "Laurentian elite" will likely view it that way. Those who feel it's their divine right to rule react harshly when their power is threatened.

They should resist overreacting. Acting upon the authors' advice might save some of their power and influence.

Bricker is the CEO of Ipsos Global Public Affairs and has been with the Ipsos-Reid Corp. since 1990. Ibbitson is chief political correspondent for the Globe and Mail.

They argue the Laurentian elite is composed of the political, economic, media, cultural and academic leaders who have run Canada for most of its history. They hail from the St. Lawrence River watershed -- mostly Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal -- and belong to the "Laurentian Consensus," which assumes it runs Canada and knows what's best for it.

But their long run is over, Bricker and Ibbitson write, and the official end came May 2, 2011, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservatives won a majority government.

The authors argue Harper's majority came from a new, and permanent, alliance of conservative western voters combined with suburbanites and mostly Asian immigrants in the Greater Toronto Area and its suburbs (traditionally Liberal voters).

These Ontario voters no longer identify with the big government, nanny state ideals of those who live east of Canada's new dividing line -- the so-called "Ottawa River Curtain."

Suburban Ontario voters feel economically threatened, are afraid of crime and are tired of sending their tax dollars to prop up Quebec and the Maritimes.

They view fast-growing Western Canada as their natural partners in ensuring a prosperous and secure future for themselves. (The authors never say whether Manitoba, a huge net recipient of federal transfer payments and equalization, ought to be considered as symbolically east of the Ottawa River Curtain.)

The Laurentian elite won't like the "new" Canada. They prefer the old model with its obsession with pleasing Quebec and uniting the country through national projects such as railways, roads and social programs. To them, Harper and his Conservatives are illicit barbarians who will be thrown out once Ontario voters wake up.

They shouldn't hold their breath, the authors argue. The West is the future, and since power follows wealth, no political party that ignores this new reality will ever rule Canada again. As a result, The Big Shift is permanent. So get used to it, Laurentian elite. Your time is up.

As for so-called progressive parties such as the Liberals and NDP, Bricker and Ibbitson offer limited hope. The Liberal party, the natural home of the Laurentian elite, is in big trouble. The NDP, which the authors argue has a brighter future, will have to somehow adopt the values of The Big Shift, albeit with a more progressive bent, in order to beat the Conservatives.

Manitoba gets several mentions. Former Ontario Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla, a Winnipeg native, is a poster child for the decline of the Laurentian elite. Manitoba is praised for its low unemployment rate and success at attracting and retaining immigrants, which the authors view as critical to Canada's future.

Longtime Winnipeg Free Press columnist Frances Russell is cited, and harshly criticized, for suggesting Canada's national unity is in danger as federal power is shifted to the provinces. "What rubbish," they write.

But why they never mention Russell is a Winnipeg writer is strange. Is being from Winnipeg irrelevant to Bricker and Ibbitson? Are they afraid to admit the Laurentian elites might have substantial support in the West?

That plays into the weakest aspect of The Big Shift -- underestimating how quickly voters in the West and Toronto suburban region could turn against right-wing thinking, especially if there is another recession or another Quebec sovereignty referendum. Bricker and Ibbitson are optimists about Canada's future, but the future is never certain.

That said, the authors know their facts and subject matter -- not to mention statistics. It's tough to disagree with much of what they write.

For a contrasting view on the Canadian progressive movement, and one that is sympathetic to the Laurentian elites, read Paul Adams' 2012 book, Power Trap, which sets out a path for progressives to take back power in Ottawa.


Greg Lockert is a Free Press copy editor and Faith page editor.

The Big Shift: The Seismic Change in Canadian Politics, Business, and Culture And What It Means for Our Future
By Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson
HarperCollins, 284 pages, $28

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 2, 2013 A1

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