The centre cannot hold
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Tue May 03 2011. By Richard Gwyn, Columnist
On the election’s eve, the polling company COMPAS Inc. summed up its view of the campaign as: “Possibly the most bizarre, unstable, upside-down election since Confederation.”
That’s absolutely correct. A contest that began as one of the most boring on record, turned suddenly into one of the most exciting elections we’ve ever had. How this happened, remains — mostly — mysterious.
I myself have no definitive answers, but here will attempt to serve up some fresh speculative thoughts.
A secondary reason prompts me to do this. While readers of this column will know how the election turned out, I have had to write it before the ballot booths had even closed. This is a bit of a challenge, but here goes anyway.
Start with a cardinal fact about this election that, oddly, has been entirely overlooked. By all the conventional criteria, Stephen Harper should have not merely won but have done so with a comfortable majority.
This is because Canada today is in great shape. Economically we’re doing better than any other industrial democracy, except perhaps Australia, also rich in resources.
As well, an international poll has just found that the world over only the Danes are more contented with their circumstances than are Canadians (with the Swedes as happy as we are).
So why all the unease that has made voters so volatile through the election rather than simply reward the government in power, as was always done in the past?
It’s fear of tomorrow, more than discontent with today, I reckon. A fear, specifically, that our welfare state, created after World War II, is at risk, and that cherished programs like our health-care system are going to be shaved down and contracted to meet our reduced financial means.
The consequence has been a profound political change. For several decades now, it’s been almost impossible to distinguish between our two governing parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives.
On the one hand, a succession of Conservative leaders, from Robert Stanfield to Joe Clark to Brian Mulroney, were Red Tories, or centrists barely over to the right of the line. Liberal leaders were pretty much the same (perhaps Pierre Trudeau excepted). Thus, the spending cuts that have put our national finances largely into order were imposed by Paul Martin Jr., as finance minister under prime minister Jean Chrétien.
But, motivated by a conviction the welfare state needs to be protected, both for its own sake and because it’s become part of our national identity, people are reverting to the old-style, right-left, political division.
The astounding rise of the New Democrats is the product of this. Other factors are in play. Jack Layton has connected with Canadians as a Happy Warrior. In Quebec, boredom with the Bloc Québécois has been a big help. But the sudden elevation of the NDP to a major national party derives from a widespread sense it can be counted on to fight to preserve the welfare state.
One of the great handicaps of the Liberals has been to have been seen as too centrist. Again, other factors were at work. The Conservative TV attack ads — sad as it is to admit — effectively demonized Michael Ignatieff, thus destroying the political career of an exceptional individual.
But while the left was growing, the right wasn’t contracting at all. On balance, it probably grew, certainly so in the conviction of its members. Thus, although many Liberals, New Democrats and Greens told pollsters they might change their votes, very few Conservatives ever did.
A core truth about contemporary politics is that a good many Canadians are fully prepared to see the welfare state significantly reduced.
So we are back to old-style, left-right politics. Our debates are going to be a lot more impassioned, and angrier, than they’ve been in years. It’ll be less nice, even less Canadian. But it will be more real.
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