A whole new Parliament

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Local experts face strange new world after federal election

It’s a whole new world in Parliament now that the election is over, say local observers, one that looks pretty good for Alberta.

Stephen Harper’s Conservative party won its first majority government in this week’s federal election, one that also saw the NDP attain official opposition status for the first time in history.

This is a great shift in the political landscape, says Chaldeans Mensah, chair of political science, anthropology and economics at Grant MacEwan University, one that reflects a more polarized electorate.

“It’s going to have a profound impact on Canadian politics going forward.”

So what happened?

The Conservatives won 167 seats in the House this week, including all but one of the seats in Alberta.

The party went into this election with a clear plan to reduce the deficit and keep people working, says former Conservative member of Parliament John Williams, and set out its details in a budget.

“I think Canadians recognized that and rewarded them with a majority.”

Vote-splitting between the Liberals and the NDP helped considerably, Mensah adds. The possibility of an NDP government may also have motivated more Conservatives to get out and vote.

The Liberals also indirectly helped the Conservatives by borrowing a lot of policy planks from the NDP, Mensah says.

“The Liberal Party had shifted way too far to the left of the political spectrum,” he says, and left a large group of centrist voters in the dust for the Conservatives to sweep up.

The party also entered the election poorly prepared, says Bob Russell, a long-time member of the Liberals in St. Albert. They had drained their accounts with elections and leadership conventions, and could not compete with the Conservatives’ attack ads against party leader Michael Ignatieff.

“It left an impression right across Canada,” he said.

The end result was a stunning defeat for the party, one that saw it drop to 34 from 77 seats in the House.

The Bloc Québécois lost all but four of its 47 seats, most of them to the NDP. After years of support for the Bloc with little to show for it, Mensah says, Quebec voters may have become disillusioned with them. Since the NDP were closest to the Bloc ideologically, they got their votes.

But why the NDP? Two words, say experts: Jack Layton.

“A lot of it had to do with leadership,” says Dave Burkhart, who ran for the NDP in St. Albert in 2008. “Layton came across as a stronger leader than Ignatieff.”

Quebec wanted change, Mensah says, and Layton pitched himself as that change. “People were voting for Jack.”

That support from Quebec propelled the NDP to 102 seats and official opposition status, and, Williams says, may have caused the slight rise in voter turnout seen across the nation.

And what about Elizabeth May, the first Green parliamentarian in Canadian history? Her win is a huge coup for the Greens, says Mensah.

“They have a beach-head in Parliament, and I think there’s potential for growth down the road.” They could even leech support from the NDP, he notes, as they appeal to the same voters.

And don’t dismiss the power of a single MP, Williams adds — the Reform Party started with just one as well, Deborah Grey, and went on to become a commanding force.

What now?

The Conservatives have the same pro-business stance as Alberta, Williams says, so they should be open to the province’s views. “I can see this as being nothing but good news for Alberta.”

Don’t expect any movement on climate change, transparency or cleaning up the oilsands, however, Burkhart adds.

The Conservatives cannot be seen as ignoring the opposition and pushing a hard-right agenda, Mensah says. “People are watching this time,” he says. “The question is: what will Stephen Harper do with a majority?”

Although Harper could theoretically do whatever he wants because he has a majority, Williams says he would do so at his peril. “It doesn’t matter if you have a majority or not. The people are watching, and they have the last word.”

The NDP have a lot of new, inexperienced MPs from Quebec, Mensah notes, which could create tension in their caucus. The party will have to prove it can deliver for Quebec without ignoring the interests of the rest of Canada.

The Liberals need to rebuild their policies from the ground up, he continues. “They need to remain a centrist party with strong economic credentials,” he says, and to stop trying to compete with the NDP. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they came back strong in the next election.”

As for Parliament, he continues, it could be a little less nasty this time around — without a minority, the opposition no longer has the ability or incentive to topple the government at any time.

“The amount of vitriol that the minority Parliament generated will be abated somewhat.” We could see some great policy debates, however, due to the great ideological differences between the government and the NDP.

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About Author

Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.