On its face, the federal election of May 2 didn’t seem all that important. Should Stephen Harper be given a majority government or held to a minority? What jet fighter should we buy? Where should the corporate tax rate be set?
And yet I believe the election was one of the most significant in Canada’s history, because it signalled the eclipse of what I call the Laurentian consensus.
From Confederation until quite recently, the direction of this country was determined by the elites in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and other cities along the St. Lawrence River or its watershed.
On all of the great issues of the day, the Laurentian elites debated among themselves, reached a consensus and implemented that consensus. In short, they governed the country.
And they governed it well. The National Policy of high tariffs provided a decent wage for millions of workers. The Laurentianists guided this country through two wars. They created the national social security system that many Canadians still consider a defining national value. They navigated the shoals of Quebec separatism, and brought home a Constitution with a Charter of Rights and Freedoms that is an example to the world.
Most importantly, they promoted an open-door immigration policy.
The result is the world’s first post-national state: the urban, polyglot, intensely creative country that we live in, and celebrate, today.
But one of the dangers of any consensus is that reality can evolve out from underneath it. When shared belief parts company with facts on the ground, inevitably there is confusion, even a sense of anger and betrayal. We see this in the way the Laurentian elites react to the Harper government: They don’t simply oppose this prime minister – they consider him illegitimate.
For much of this country’s history, the federal government has looked upon the Western provinces as semi-colonial possessions. But in recent decades, the West has profoundly changed. The oil sands, the rise of China and other Pacific and Asian tigers, shifting economic ties, shifting patterns of immigration and interprovincial migration have made all four Western provinces more affluent and more Pacific-oriented.
The Laurentian elites never really understood the importance of these shifts, and the Liberal Party, which most closely reflected the Laurentian world view, preferred to concentrate on winning votes in Central Canada with a message of protecting the environment and advancing social programs through modestly higher taxes.
But on May 2, stressed voters opted for the Western-based Conservative message of lower taxes, law and order, and jobs, jobs, jobs.
Immigrant Canadians, mostly of Asian background, along with other middle-class suburban, exurban and rural Ontario voters, allied themselves with Western Canada, forging a new Pacific-centric conservative coalition – shattering, in the process, the political influence of the Laurentian consensus.
Excluded from power, the Laurentian elites rage against this new normal, fearing that the Conservatives are about to dismantle everything they have achieved. They aren’t. Citizens in Edmonton are no less committed than citizens in Toronto to preserving a universal public health-care system. And the conservative coalition accepts, perhaps reluctantly, that the nation is largely of one mind on gay marriage, the right to abortion, and a prohibition on capital punishment.
But that does not mean there are no differences between the old guard and the new. The conservative coalition is low-tax, anti-regulation, environmentally skeptical, pro-military.
The conservative coalition may itself one day implode. But whatever replaces it must take into account a powerful new demographic and political reality. The West wanted in. Now, it’s in charge.
If the Laurentian consensus wants to govern again, then it must understand who rejected it and why. The old assumptions will not hold in this new century. The pendulum will swing again, but it will never return to exactly where it was.
Those who simply wait for the universe to go back to unfolding as it should could wait a very long time.
This was adapted from a speech John Ibbitson gave in Toronto this week. The full lecture, co-produced by the Literary Review of Canada and TVOntario, will air on TVO’s Big Ideas on Saturday and Sunday at 5 p.m. Also available at tvo.org/bigideas.