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Stephen Harper greets supporters at a campaign stop outside Toronto, Aug. 20, 2015. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)
Stephen Harper greets supporters at a campaign stop outside Toronto, Aug. 20, 2015. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

BRICKER AND IBBITSON

Why Canada’s shift to conservatism isn’t dead Add to ...

Darrell Bricker is the CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs; John Ibbitson is The Globe and Mail’s writer at large.

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In 2012 we wrote a book called The Big Shift, in which we argued that the rising power of Western Canada, coupled with massive immigration from Asian and Pacific countries, had created a new conservative coalition that would dominate the political landscape in the coming decades, at the expense of “the Laurentian consensus” – the progressive eastern elites who had traditionally governed Canada.

A number of pundits have declared that the Oct. 19 election result disproves our thesis. As Andrew Cohen put it in The Ottawa Citizen: “An election expected to confirm the decline of the ‘Laurentian consensus’ … has instead served to entrench it. The locus of political power in Canada returns to Eastern and Central Canada … The West remains in, yes, but not as ‘in’ as it was under Harper’s Conservatives.”

We would like to take this opportunity to own up to what we got wrong, and to affirm that the core arguments of The Big Shift still apply.

We shouldn’t have been so cocky in asserting that Stephen Harper was likely to win the 2015 election. At the time we wrote, Justin Trudeau had ruled himself out of contention for the leadership of the Liberal Party. We underestimated his ability to revive the party after reversing his decision. We also underestimated the longing for change that voters were likely to feel after a decade of Mr. Harper. Cyclical political forces can be decisive.

An Ipsos online poll of 1,000 voters conducted Oct. 20-Oct. 22, right after the election, found that 51 per cent of voters approved of how the Harper government had managed the economy, and 42 per cent approved of the government’s performance over all. But 67 per cent declared it was time for a change nonetheless. That number did not budge through the entire 78-day campaign. Against such headwinds, the Tories had little hope.

In our book, we predicted that progressive forces would, from time to time, coalesce around a centre-left alternative to the Conservatives. That alternative, we said, would be anchored in Quebec and in the downtowns of cities in English Canada, and would convince the all-important suburban voters – especially suburban immigrant voters – living outside Toronto and Vancouver to switch sides, which was exactly what happened Oct. 19. We believed the New Democratic Party would be the likely vehicle for such an upset, but it turned out that a renascent Liberal Party carried the day.

We also believed that such progressive victories would be emphatic, just as Progressive Conservative victories were emphatic when they displaced the Liberal hegemony in 1930, 1958 and 1984. But the Liberals invariably returned to governing, back then, because their coalition was broad and deep and coherent.

We believe that in this century the conservative coalition is also broad and deep and coherent. If the party takes its time and chooses its next leader wisely, without being distracted by nostalgists or narrow ideologues, the Conservatives will be very competitive in the next election and in elections to come.

Mr. Trudeau’s astonishing revival of the Liberal Party – one of the greatest political achievements in this country’s history – masks a contradiction within his caucus. That caucus consists of a large contingent of MPs from Atlantic Canada and Quebec, where attitudes to wide-open immigration and multiculturalism are ambivalent at best. Both regions are, broadly speaking, economically weak, making them dependent on federal subsidies.

But the caucus also contains a large swath of MPs from the so-called 905, the suburban cities surrounding Toronto, named after their area code; and from similar ridings outside Vancouver. Polling shows that the immigrant voters who dominate these ridings are economically and socially more conservative than many of the native-born with European backgrounds.

The prospect of four more years of Mr. Harper pushed them away from the Conservatives and over to the Liberals. But we believe that, all things being equal, they will be inclined to drift back.

Of course, all things may not be equal. Mr. Trudeau may prove to be an inspired prime minister. The Tories could choose badly when they select the next leader. Any student of history knows that both tectonic forces (the U.S. economy surpassed all others in the 19th century) and individuals (Lincoln became president at the Republic’s most perilous hour) shape events. In the next Canadian election, anything could happen.

But slumping commodity prices notwithstanding, Western Canada will continue to grow in population and influence. In recent years, the Conservatives boosted immigration from 250,000 a year to 285,000. If any further proof of the seismic demographic shift that is under way were needed, Statistics Canada reported Tuesday that (a) between 2011 and 2014, the Canadian population grew by a healthy 1.1 per cent per year, (b) two-thirds of that growth was due to immigration and (c) the three fastest-growing provinces were Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Asian immigration and the rising West are making Canada a more Pacific and a more conservative place. We note that Mr. Trudeau, while campaigning on a message of hope and change, crafted a platform that left the meat of the Harper government’s agenda – low taxes, non-interference with the provinces, expanding trade opportunities, tougher penalties for some crimes – intact.

The shift is real and it will only grow more real with every passing year. We suspect no one understands that better than Mr. Trudeau himself. To beat him, the next Conservative leader must embrace it as well.

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Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

 

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