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NDP’s Orange Crush storms Quebec’s body politic

June 2011

They are young and inexperienced, but they are idealistic and energetic. They believe they can make a difference and they have a lot to learn.

We are talking about the big surprise of the federal election: the New Democratic Party’s unprecedented sweep of Quebec, going from one, Thomas Mulcair’s Outremont seat, to a total of 58 of 75 Quebec MPs.

For example, in the west end, two 27-year-old teachers, Isabelle Morin and Lysane Blanchette-Lamothe, won in N.D.G.-Lachine and Pierrefonds-Dollard respectively. They defeated solidly entrenched incumbents Marlene Jennings, first elected in 1997, and Bernard Patry, a family doctor elected in 1993 after serving as mayor of Île Bizard.

Clearly, Quebecers voted massively for something new, rejecting the two traditional parties as well as the Bloc Québécois and its promised one-horse gallop out of the Canadian federation.

Only their strong personal following allowed two incumbent Liberals to retain their seats. Irwin Cotler won in Mount Royal on the basis of his tremendously active lifelong commitment to human rights and social justice. In Westmount, Marc Garneau won by only 600 votes, based on near-universal admiration for the former astronaut and former head of the Canada Space Agency, who has a PhD in electrical engineering.

Many Quebecers were fed up with the continuing round of elections ending in minority situations where the balance of power was held in part by the Bloc Québécois. That option was seen as a dead end, and for those who voted Bloc, the federalist NDP with a similar social democratic culture seemed like an easy fit.

In local urban ridings, the Conservative message under Stephen Harper does not seem to gel with voters who have been comfortable for decades with the Liberals and their centre-left options. It was the Liberals in the 1960s who enacted medicare, developed a peacekeeping role for our military, defined a foreign policy that was distinct from the U.S., invested massively in funding infra-structure improvements across the country, and maintained progressive tax structures.

However, the Liberals’ sense of entitlement that came with being seen as Canada’s natural governing party contributed to loose ethics and the sponsorship scandal. The stink remains. Voters do not like to feel their support is taken for granted and that their trust is abused.

Now the challenge facing opposition leader Jack Layton and deputy leader Thomas Mulcair is to mould the NDP MPs into a positive and forward-looking caucus who carry out their watchdog role effectively without deteriorating into cockfighting. But more than that, the rookies have to offer strong alternatives to proposed legislation, prove themselves as strong constituency representatives and build confidence in the electorate.

As for the defeated Liberal candidates and the party, they have a lot of work ahead of them under interim leader Bob Rae. Challenge No. 1 is finding a new permanent leader. Obviously, Michael Ignatieff was not up to the job. In spite of a powerful mind, his highly educated, well-traveled and sophisticated background, apparent integrity and commitment, his somewhat professorial style was unable to spark voter enthusiasm. He got the message and resigned the day after the election.

Yet even more than a new leader, the Liberals are in need of a thorough rethinking of their policy book. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a pragmatic politician. He has set out a policy package that is a balancing act. He has resisted support for legislation that would impede abortion rights, for example, and continues to support official bilingualism even as his government remains committed to building more jails with Criminal Code changes that will increase incarceration, though violent crime is dropping.

Is the new NDP strength and majority Conservative government a sign of an increasingly polarized electorate? Is this the start of a left-right divide that relegates the Liberals to rump status? Is there a potential leader out there who can reinvigorate the Liberals as Pierre Trudeau did in the late 1960s? The answer is not blowing in the wind, but the parliamentary session will provide some clues as to whether the Orange Wave is here to stay or merely a passing storm. We will be watching the Liberals rebuild.



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