Parliament returns Monday with MPs bracing for a spring election. But there is bigger news: Canadian politics may be on the cusp of a major lurch to the right, and it will have nothing to do with what happens in Ottawa.
It now appears that there will be as many as seven – count 'em, seven – provincial elections this year, promising generational change among the premiers on a scale never seen before.
And as the next federal government, whoever runs it, gears up to negotiate new agreements with the provinces in health care and equalization, Stephen Harper or Michael Ignatieff could face a roster of aggressively conservative premiers from the biggest and most prosperous provinces, which could in turn lead to major changes in how governments deliver health care and fund other social services.
In Alberta, the collapse of confidence in Premier Ed Stelmach and the rise of the populist conservative Wildrose Alliance party could make Ted Morton the next Conservative premier. The former finance minister used to join with Mr. Harper in calling for greater provincial autonomy and cuts to fiscal transfers from have to have-not provinces. The difference between Mr. Morton and Mr. Harper is that Mr. Morton hasn't changed. Even if he doesn't win – many of his supporters and organizers have already fled to Wildrose – the next Conservative leader in Alberta will have to tack sharply to the right or face defeat at the hands of Wildrose leader Danielle Smith in an election that many now expect this year.
In British Columbia, wholesale disgust with the governing class has led both the Liberals and the NDP to hold leadership contests. Former health minister Kevin Falcon has the support of the Liberal Party establishment. If he takes the prize, expect to see the party shift to the right. Former deputy premier Christy Clark is his biggest challenger; she is more centrist, but if she wins, B.C. might also be headed for an election, because Ms. Clark currently doesn't have a seat in the legislature and there is pressure for a clearing of the air over the much-hated HST.
Thanks to a fixed-election-date law, we know Ontario goes to the polls Oct. 6. In recent weeks, Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty has started to narrow the gap between himself and Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, but it will be a long, hard slog for the embattled premier as he seeks to fight off an opponent whom he rightly portrays as the political reincarnation of Mike Harris.
In all but two of the certain or possible provincial elections this year, conservatives are in the lead. Saskatchewan (read Conservative) Party Leader and Premier Brad Wall is considered a shoo-in for re-election this fall over NDP Leader Dwain Lingenfelter; Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen is comfortably ahead of NDP Premier Greg Selinger in Manitoba, while whoever replaces Danny Williams as Conservative leader and premier is expected to win re-election this fall in Newfoundland and Labrador. Only in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island do Conservative prospects look bleak.
Mr. Harper boasts that all is quiet on the federal-provincial front. That's only because of the health care and equalization accords that are in place. Both expire in 2014.
Consider the conservative wall that the Prime Minister could face as he prepares to negotiate new agreements. Imagine the press conference at which premiers Hudak, Falcon and Morton demand the scaling back of equalization payments to Quebec, Manitoba and the Maritimes. Imagine their campaign to allow provinces room to experiment with private-sector alternatives in health-care delivery.
Imagine them getting their way. Manitoba and the Maritime governments would increasingly have to fend for themselves, fiscally. Equalization cuts to Quebec would fan separatist flames. Canada's single-tier health-care system could become a patchwork, as each province took its own steps to reduce health costs through fees and private-sector options.
What in the federal Liberal or Conservative platforms would have that impact on the country, or on people's lives? What's a corporate tax cut or an airplane contract, compared with slashing the New Brunswick budget or permitting private hip-replacement surgery?
Of course, the fact that this may happen doesn't mean it has to. Moderates could prevail in Alberta and B.C., for example. But the sheer number of provincial elections this year ensures that Canada will inherit a new generation of provincial leaders, with all the energy and lack of experience that comes with it.
Maybe it's not Ottawa that we should be watching this year. Maybe we should focus on the tide of change rolling through provincial capitals across the land.