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Opinion

The political landscape is a-changing

Nothing is certain as election looms

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair (left) and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

ADRIAN WYLD / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair (left) and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/6/2015 (1515 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The closer we get to a federal election, the more likely it seems Canada's conventional political wisdom will be turned on its head.

Last year, the federal political narrative was focused on the resurgence of the federal Liberal party under leader Justin Trudeau. The Liberals led in most opinion polls, and although reaction to his policies was mixed, Trudeau appeared destined to bring the Grits back from the brink of extinction.

A Liberal revival would be consistent with the traditional ebb and flow of federal politics. The Liberals have governed the longest and the most, interrupted by brief and colourful episodes of Conservative rule. It made sense this fall's election would be another battle between Liberals and Conservatives.

For the NDP, only two scenarios seemed likely, both based on the idea it had grown as much as it ever would in terms of support.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/6/2015 (1515 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The closer we get to a federal election, the more likely it seems Canada's conventional political wisdom will be turned on its head.

Last year, the federal political narrative was focused on the resurgence of the federal Liberal party under leader Justin Trudeau. The Liberals led in most opinion polls, and although reaction to his policies was mixed, Trudeau appeared destined to bring the Grits back from the brink of extinction.

A Liberal revival would be consistent with the traditional ebb and flow of federal politics. The Liberals have governed the longest and the most, interrupted by brief and colourful episodes of Conservative rule. It made sense this fall's election would be another battle between Liberals and Conservatives.

For the NDP, only two scenarios seemed likely, both based on the idea it had grown as much as it ever would in terms of support.

The NDP could maintain its level from the 2011 election — which saw it become the official Opposition for the first time — but inefficient support and vote-splitting with Liberals meant no more room to grow.

A Liberal revival would be consistent with the traditional ebb and flow of federal politics

Or the NDP could sag once again and retreat to its traditional distant third-place niche.

My, how things have changed.

This spring, the Liberals began to slacken and lost their first-place showing in most opinion polls. At first, the Conservatives were the main beneficiaries of this trend. But without warning, the NDP turned this equation on its ear.

The NDP win in the Alberta provincial election suddenly raised the possibility Canada's perennial third-place party was ready to break new ground. After what seems like a matter of weeks, the NDP is leading not just in terms of overall public opinion, but also in key markers such as second-place support.

In other words, the NDP is not only leading but is also showing the greatest opportunity for growth. But that is not the only thing that makes the next election potentially so unusual.

Traditionally, when the NDP surges, the Liberals suffer. This time, however, the Conservatives have slid to third place in most polls.

Most worrisome for Tories is the fact they are now the least likely to grow their vote. The Tories have, in general, the lowest second-choice voter support. And although Prime Minister Stephen Harper competes well when voters are asked who is best qualified to lead the country, he has by far and away the highest negative response from voters.

Those negative responses are, in some respects, the least surprising aspect of the Tory slump. Last week, former Tory MP Dean Del Mastro arrived at a bail hearing in handcuffs, the consequence of being found guilty of breaking election laws. Del Mastro is appealing his one-month jail sentence, but the damage to the Tory brand is irreversible.

For those of you keeping score at home, that is three consecutive elections where Tories have been found cheating election laws. Add a criminal trial for former Tory senator Mike Duffy, and you've got reason enough for voters, even diehard Tory voters, to begin doubting Harper's leadership.

Taken together, these are strong suggestions we could see a precipitous decline in what was previously considered to be a rock-solid base of support for the Conservative party. That is something no one saw coming. And something that will change election strategies.

For example, prior to the current Tory swoon, the two opposition parties had fairly simple game plans in Manitoba that focused on recapturing lost seats.

All of the Liberals' attention is focused on repatriating three long-held ridings lost to the Conservatives in the last nine years: Winnipeg South, Winnipeg South Centre and Saint Boniface.

The NDP was dedicated to recapturing Elmwood-Transcona, lost to the Tories in 2011.

A glimmer of New Democratic hope lived in a handful of other ridings with strong second-place showings, including Kildonan-St. Paul and Winnipeg North, now the lone Liberal seat in Manitoba.

A collapse of Tory support, however, opens up new scenarios for both the Liberals and the NDP that could not be imagined a few months ago.

Outside of Winnipeg, Tory pluralities have been so huge — Conservative candidates on average captured about two-thirds of all votes cast in five of six rural Manitoba ridings — it is still hard to imagine either the Liberals or NDP finding much success. And that takes into account the remarkable showing by the Liberals in a 2013 byelection in Brandon-Souris, where Tory Larry Maguire received only 44 per cent support and beat Liberal Rolf Dinsdale by fewer than 400 votes.

Still, we know from past elections such as the 1993 "Red Wave" — in which the Jean Chrétien-led Grits swept dozens of non-traditional seats — if the Tories continue to nosedive, and one opposition party can break away from the other, even hardcore Conservative seats could be in play.

The current NDP surge, and the surprising erosion of support for the Conservatives, certainly sets the stage for one of the most uncertain federal elections in recent memory.

Will Trudeau recapture some of his recent past glory? Can New Democrats translate national support into actual seats in areas of the country — the Prairies, Ontario and Atlantic Canada — that have traditionally shunned them?

Will the Conservatives find an antidote for the brand damage done by the mounting scandals?

Everybody loves a cliffhanger. And that's exactly what we have unfolding right now.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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History

Updated on Monday, June 29, 2015 at 6:40 AM CDT: Changes photo

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