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Liberal Comeback Unprecedented in Canadian History

Liberal Comeback Unprecedented in Canadian History

Insightful, provocative commentary on political and economic issues is what Andrew Coyne delivers to Canadians across the country. With topical and timely presentations, the former national editor of Maclean’s magazine and current weekly columnist for the National Post is sure to ignite debate and discussion with every audience. Below, Andrew looks at the unprecedented comeback of the liberal party last night:

Contrary to the old saw, governments do not, as a rule, “defeat themselves.” Economies defeat them. Majority governments, in particular: cautious hedgers that they are, Canadians tend to stick with the devil they know unless given an overwhelming reason not to. That reason is almost always the economy.

In only four elections in the past 80 years were governments in possession of a majority driven from office: 1993, 1984, 1957, and 1935. In three of those, the country was recovering from deep recessions or indeed depression. The exception is 1957: the government in that case, led by Louis St. Laurent, had been in power for more than 20 years (as had the Liberal government in 1984, but for the Clark interregnum), the longest continuous term in office in Canadian history.

For the Harper Conservatives to go down to defeat, then — of any kind, let alone defeat of the scale that seemed evident election night — is remarkable. The economy is not in recession, certainly nothing to compare to the previous examples. Unemployment is barely scraping 7 per cent. Inflation is low. Real incomes are at an all-time high. And the government has been in power less than 10 years, only four of them with a majority. This is a government that has had to do its level best to defeat itself, and let it be said it has been up to that challenge.

But then, as bad as the Tory campaign was — dull, purposeless, a series of morosely staged photo ops featuring Stephen Harper with nothing really to announce — it’s hard not to see their fate as having been baked in from the start. Such was the degree of polarization engendered by the Tories’ relentless resort to wedge politics that the party could count on somewhere around 30 per cent of the electorate to vote for them no matter what — versus the 65 per cent that would not vote for them no matter what.

The Tory vote only ever had about 5 per cent to grow from that base — the 5 per cent that put them as their second choice — meaning a minority government was always the best they could hope for, assuming they could pick up all of the votes that were available to them. And that was only if the opposition vote remained almost perfectly evenly divided. Elections are often described as referendums on the governing party. In this one the contest was much more to see which of the opposition parties, if any, could unite non-Tory voters behind them.

That race has been resolved resoundingly in favour of the Liberals. This ranks as perhaps the greatest political comeback in Canadian history.

To have come back from 19 per cent of the popular vote in 2011 to almost 40 per cent, and from 34 seats — 11 per cent of the total — to 184, a majority: there’s just no precedent for it. To have done so, what is more, having started the campaign well back in third, against more experienced and better-financed opponents, tells you just how well the Liberal campaign went — and how well Trudeau performed.

Yes, he benefited from low expectations, but far from dissolving under scrutiny, Trudeau simply got better the longer the campaign went on. Moreover, the Liberal strategy proved to be much superior to that of the NDP: more adroit, more attuned to the mood of the “change” vote.

Clearly the NDP assumed that the Liberals would cease to be a factor early in the campaign; from then on all that remained was to present themselves as a responsible government-in-waiting. When the Liberals instead refused to go away — when, crucially, they stole the “change” mantle with their pledge to run deficits for three years — Tom Mulcair and his people seemed unable to adjust.

More to the point, there was a fundamental hollowness to the NDP campaign: the party simply isn’t the moderate party Mulcair was trying to present it as, nor is he the cuddly grandfather party advertising suggested. Of course, nothing could have prepared the party for the niqab torpedo, but as badly as its support fell in Quebec after that, it had already been falling for some time across the country.

At one time the niqab “play” was viewed as a devilish masterstroke for the Tories. But it could well be argued that it hurt them more than it helped. It’s surely significant that Conservative support began to fall around the end of September —  “peak niqab,” just before the second French debate, accompanied by the “barbaric practices” snitch line. Perhaps the Tories pushed it just a little too far.

What is more, it may have done too much damage to the NDP for the Tories’ own good. So far did the NDP fall that it may well have kicked off the stampede toward the Liberals, as the best choice to defeat the Conservatives. In politics, as in other fields, be careful what you wish for.

Andrew Coyne/National Post/October, 2015