From 1867 on, our federal governments have alternated between Conservative blue and Liberal red. There’s never been another colour in the palette.
The Liberals have tended to dominate, twice holding power for more than two decades (with a brief interruption during one 20-year stint, courtesy of Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservatives). Since the election of the Mulroney PCs in 1984, there has been a more equal sharing of power, in roughly 10-year chunks of red and blue.
But the essential political narrative of this country is one of a constant toggling between, and within, two evolving parties. The 2010s have been the epitome of that political dynamic, and a lesson in what makes this country successful.
The Harper Conservatives came into the decade on a roll, thanks to consecutive minority election victories in 2006 and 2008. They finally hit paydirt in the 2011 election, which gave Stephen Harper a majority government and reduced the Liberals to embarrassing third-party status.
Based in an ascendant West, where the oil sands were booming, the Conservatives seemed poised to go on a two-decade run of their own.
They won a majority of seats in every province from British Columbia to Ontario, and demonstrated they could form a government without significant support in Quebec, which went solidly New Democrat and saw the Bloc Québécois reduced to four seats.
Most importantly, the Conservatives won large numbers of urban and suburban voters in Toronto and Vancouver.
The Liberals were going in the opposite direction. They had cycled through three leaders in three elections and lost seats in each one – plummeting to just 34 in 2011. There was open talk of uniting with the NDP, which under the late Jack Layton had grown into the Official Opposition.
Those were dark days for Canada’s historically dominant political party. Even when Justin Trudeau became Leader in 2013, and the party momentarily jumped in the polls, it didn’t occur to anyone that the Harper government was in peril.
The Conservatives had, after all, limited the impact of the 2008 crash and built a solid cabinet with a much-admired finance minister in Jim Flaherty. How could the supposedly callow scion of an Eastern political dynasty possibly be a threat to the gravitas of Team Harper?
The polls suggested Canadians felt the same way going into the 2015 election campaign. The race, if there was one, would be between the NDP and the Conservatives. The Liberals were going to finish third, again.
Then the 2015 vote happened, and now here we are at the end of the decade looking at a new Liberal dynasty and wondering whether the Conservatives have a future.
Andrew Scheer’s resignation as leader has left the party searching its soul and reexamining its priorities. The Conservatives increased their seat count in the 2019 election, and even won the popular vote, but while further entrenching themselves in the West, they were largely rejected by voters in big cities not called Calgary.
Canada’s political history may be written in two primary colours, but they’re always being mixed in new ways, with some blue in the red and vice versa, leading to a constant evolution of hue. To return to power, what shade of blue must the post-Scheer Conservatives offer? In 2019, Liberals won by convincing urban voters that Mr. Scheer’s social beliefs and economic policies would repaint the country in an unappealing dark tone.
Our red-blue dynamic was on full display in the 2010s. If history is a wheel, the past decade was wearing snow chains. It chewed through a Conservative majority and then a Liberal majority. Mr. Harper and Mr. Scheer are gone. And while Mr. Trudeau is in charge for the moment, there are early signs the wheel is turning again and he has begun his own descent into the Airport of Ex-Party Leaders.
In spite of this political turbulence, our country grew richer and bigger, and progressed under both parties during the decade. And that is the real takeaway: Canada works.
Ours is a vibrant democracy that can transition smoothly from one government to the next. The country can be accused of being boringly centrist, but it nonetheless has a dynamic political culture that keeps our politicians honest, our parties evolving and our country moving forward.
We’re one of the lucky countries. Our governments change regularly, but the foundations of our society remain stable.