By now, most Canadians are familiar with the immediate consequences of the 2011 federal election; a majority government for the Conservatives with 167 seats in the next Parliament, Official Opposition status for the New Democrats with 103 seats (59 of them in Quebec), the collapse of the Liberals to third-party status with 34 seats, the near obliteration of the Bloc Québécois (reduced to four seats), and a foothold for the Elizabeth May and the Green Party with one seat.
But these immediate results also represent changes in the political foundations and landscape of Canada with much larger and longer-term consequences.
From the very beginnings of Confederation, the Laurentian region, Quebec and Ontario together, has dominated federal politics. But on May 2, that political centre of gravity shifted westward, the new and dominant alliance becoming that of Ontario and the West together.
Ontario and the West now control almost two-thirds of the seats in the House of Commons, 145 of those held by the Conservatives, allowing them to form a majority government despite losing all but five of their seats in Quebec.
This shift in the geopolitical centre of gravity of the country lags, but now mirrors, the westward shift of the Canadian economy, as resource-sector workhorses play an ever-increasing role in pulling Canada’s economic wagon.
Lest we forget, however, Westerners especially, know what it is like to be “out” of the federal power block, and should make special efforts to ensure that Eastern alienation (in Quebec and parts of Atlantic Canada) does not become a permanent and debilitating national affliction.
Jack Layton and the NDP are to be thanked for obliterating the Bloc, at least temporarily, and for replacing separatist MPs with what the rest of the country hopes are federalist MPs.
But here is the great danger for the NDP: In the past, both of the major federal parties, the Liberals and the old Progressive Conservatives, bent over backward to accommodate Quebec’s demands. In doing so, they increasingly alienated major segments of the electorate in the rest of the country. In the end, their Quebec supporters turned against them. It happened to Pierre Trudeau, it happened to Brian Mulroney and it could happen to Jack Layton even more quickly and dramatically.
What should be increasingly apparent is that if new and stronger bridges are to be built between Quebec and the rest of Canada, they will have to be primarily constructed not by federal politicians on constitutional grounds, but by private-sector decision makers and provincial leaders on the grounds of economic and interprovincial relations.
National unity will thus depend increasingly on such measures as increased Quebec-Ontario trade and increased co-operation between the energy sectors of Quebec and the West, and on greater interprovincial co-operation, as discussed recently in a Montreal Economic Institute report calling for a new Quebec-Alberta dialogue.
There is also an important lesson for all political parties, including the Conservatives, in the collapse of the Liberal Party.
Parties long in office use up their intellectual capital and depend largely on the expropriation of ideas from others, including the civil service, to replenish it. Parties long in office increasingly attract human resources not on the basis of vision or principles but on what they can offer in terms of positions, pay, pensions and patronage. Parties long in office become accustomed to having all the communications tools and resources of a government to transmit their messages and drown out those of their opponents.
But then, as invariably happens in a democracy, when a long-time governing party is removed from office, it finds itself intellectually bankrupt, its human resources weak and depleted, and its political voice reduced from a roar to a whimper. This, sadly for Liberals, is the political legacy of the Chrétien years.
If the parties are unable to develop and maintain democratic infrastructure – the development of political intellectual capital, the knowledge and skills of political activists, expanded political communications capacity – because of their preoccupation with fighting elections or governing, then it is the responsibility of the “movements” that surround and support them to do it. Failure can lead to eventual collapse. Look and learn.
Preston Manning is president and CEO of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy.