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Conservative supporters watch as election results come in night in Calgary on Monday, May 2, 2011. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Conservative supporters watch as election results come in night in Calgary on Monday, May 2, 2011. (JONATHAN HAYWARD/JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

John Ibbitson

Centrist compromise spurs Tory triumph Add to ...

It worked. Stephen Harper finally won his majority government. He did it by surrendering right-wing cant for centrist compromise. He didn't sound that way, but he acted it. And the voters understood.

There is a new reality in Ottawa. The fusion of right-wing factions into a party of the moderate centre-right now dominates national politics. Mr. Harper, who has already governed for five years, will govern for four more. The lesson for the parties to his left is obvious: Unite or lose.

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The night was a disaster for the Liberals. The centre would not hold for the party of the centre. The once natural governing party is in tatters, reduced to a poor third in the House of Commons, its leader without a seat.

And the Bloc Québécois barely exists, in an astonishing collapse. Regional fractures that governed the country for 20 years are being replaced by parties that war for the middle ground, even as the party that built its base in the middle is in danger of extinction. As a result, while Stephen Harper won a historic success by tacking his Conservatives closer to the centre, the left is split as never before.

Michael Ignatieff was trounced in his own seat and across the country. His base of greater Toronto, west-end Montreal and the Lower Mainland evaporated. Jack Layton's NDP is ascendant. This newfound popularity may prove ephemeral, but while it lasts, the argument for a union of the centre-left to counter the union of the centre-right seems powerfully urgent.

Quebec voters have delivered the Second Quiet Revolution, discarding Gilles Duceppe's Bloc Québécois, entrusting the NDP to fight for social programs and giving up on yesterday's sovereigntism. Is there a tomorrow's sovereigntism? That could become the dominant question in Quebec. But Mr. Duceppe, who resigned late Monday night, no longer has a voice in that conversation.

Everywhere else, a solid plurality of voters decided that, for them, the first job of a government is to protect the citizen's job, the citizen's money and the citizen's safety. They gave Mr. Harper high marks on all counts, and discounted any howls about Parliament being prorogued or reporters not being able to ask questions.

True, Mr. Harper might have benefited from a last-minute stampede of Ontario voters who abandoned the Liberals for the Conservatives.

Half of voters - the combined 50 per cent who cast their ballots for the Liberals and NDP - wanted more help for their parents, for caregivers, for the elderly. But they rejected the Liberals, the centrist party that traditionally has won election after election by offering just that.

Now, not only are the Liberals in third place for the first time ever, for the first time ever they have lost three elections under three leaders. This is a dangerous precipice.

Maybe Mr. Ignatieff simply didn't impress them. Maybe the Tory attack ads really worked that well. Or maybe something else is happening. Maybe the voters are telling us they want a clear choice.

The Conservatives came to power only after the factions of the right united to form the new Conservative Party, abandoning the regional alienation and unbending conservatism of Reform. Perhaps voters are now saying they would consider a national governing alternative to the Conservatives.

As long as the Liberals were the dominant party, they could argue they were that alternative. But they've lost that argument. Now the NDP can demand to be approached as an equal, which is the first essential condition of merger.

For Jack Layton, of course, this is the triumphant culmination of a life's work in politics. But he should remember something: Apart from changing the colour of his tie - abandoning orange - the NDP Leader did nothing in this campaign different from the last three campaigns. Maybe he just lucked out. If so, these giddy heights of popularity could prove ephemeral.

All this we can debate. What we know, however, is that voters in Quebec and across the country have once again restored Parliament to three parties, and the new natural governing party is Conservative.

As John Turner said in 1984 when his Liberal Party was reduced to 40 seats, "The people have spoken and the people are always right."

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

 

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