2011 Election Aftermath



2011 Election Aftermath

"What a great night! Quelle belle soirée!"

By now Stephen HARPER is getting used to making these speeches on the floor of the Telus Convention Centre in Calgary. This was his fourth since 2004, his third as Prime Minister-elect since 2006. Canadians have been watching this man for nearly a decade: his cadences, his body language, his preferred topics and the terms he uses to discuss them are familiar.

It's just everything else that has changed. "Friends, I have to say it," the modern architect of Conservatism as a durable governing force in Canada said. "A strong, stable, national, majority CONSERVATIVE government."

It was what he had asked for, in those words, on every day of this astonishing campaign. By now it was an inside joke. But it was also a totem of victory, because for the first time Stephen Harper had won clear command of a Parliament within which no coalition could block or replace him. He is the first party leader in the history of the country to fall short of that goal three times and then succeed. By now the victims of his resilience are stacked outside like cordwood, and it may at last be getting hard for them to hang onto their easy dismissive smirks.

He thanked the voters of Calgary Southwest for returning him--and "for giving me the honour of following in the footsteps of Preston Manning," a bit of family detail that has been true since he first represented the riding in 2002, but which he had not mentioned in front of a national audience until this night. He spoke of his love for his children, Ben and Rachel, and for his tearful wife, Laureen. He thanked the voters, who "chose hope, unity of purpose and a strong Canada."

Hang on. Unity of purpose? Six voters in 10 did not vote for his party. Those who voted against him were so desperate for an alternative that more than a million of them abandoned once-sturdy vessels, the BLOC QUÉBÉCOIS and the LIBERAL PARTY of Canada, in favour of a bicyclists' party led by a former city councillor with a bum hip.

Jack LAYTON is the evening's second great story, in some ways fresher: a career politician with a Ph.D. whose opponents, and some of his allies, wrote him off for years as a naïf or a citified bumpkin. Harper himself would say in private that he had urged Layton to take a chance from time to time, but then the Conservative leader would always shrug: "You can't teach an elephant to dance." That's okay. Elephants don't have to dance. They just walk right over things.

Every election comes down to a choice between "change" and "more of the same." But in a parliamentary system we get to have both. Harper set the terms for this election two years ago. His agenda was never secret. He would propose stability and warn against risk. He knew the choice would split the electorate, and hoped only for the larger part.

In the end, those Canadians who wanted stability have it. Only seven incumbent Conservatives were defeated on Monday night, compared to 82 incumbents from other parties. The Conservative vote keeps growing, but most of the voters who supported one of Harper's candidates were doing so for the fourth time. As they head back to the drawing board, Harper's opponents should start by admitting to themselves the extraordinary buyer satisfaction Harper provides his supporters. He is becoming what he has hoped Conservatism could become in this country: a familiar habit.

But even the voters who rejected Harper's stability proved him right by preferring risk--and taking a big one. A vote for the Bloc Québécois has, for 20 years, been a respectable way to wave the home flag and choose, in other important ways, not to play with others. A vote for the Bloc combined pride and safety, and why would anyone ever give up a blanket like that? Unless they started hoping for more. Quebecers did. Monday's awesome swing in that province is many things, but among them it is an expression of hope. So Jack Layton became the first anglophone leader of a national party to win in Quebec when a francophone was on offer. Half of his caucus will now come from Quebec, so he will need to put more French into his speeches than he did in accepting the people's verdict on election night. He'll adjust.

Sixty-four per cent of the NDP vote on Monday came from outside Quebec. Layton has MPs from eight provinces. In Saskatchewan, where a trick of the electoral system locked him out, his party won nearly a third of the vote. He is a truly national Opposition leader, facing a truly national Prime Minister, and that alone is good for the country. So it was not mawkish but accurate of the Prime Minister to say Canadians "chose hope" on Monday, even if they chose such starkly different kinds of hope. Even if the results throw some into despair. But we'll get to the Liberals in a minute.

"Because Canadians chose hope, we can now begin to come together again," Harper said. "For our part, we are intensely aware that we are, and we must be, the government of all Canadians, including those who did not vote for us."

This will be the test of the next three or four years in this country. Will Canadians judge that Harper has listened to them? Will he take his majority mandate, as his opponents always warned he would, and take such radical action that Canadians feel betrayed? Or do his opponents now have something worse to fear: the possibility that more Harper will mean more support for Harper, as has been the case now for four elections in a row?

The Prime Minister offered a few hints. "Friends, hear me on this. All those lessons of the past few years--holding to our principles, but also of listening, of caring, of adapting--those lessons that have come with a minority government, we must continue to practise as a majority government."

So he plans, or says he plans, to stay the course. "Our ?rst job will be to implement what we set out in our budget." The budget the other parties, including Layton's, said they would oppose, a budget they cannot now block. The months ahead will show both the extent and the limits of Layton's new clout.

So the Harpers move back to 24 Sussex, but little of what lies ahead is familiar. The story of how we got here is one of the most amazing stories in the annals of Canadian politics. Once again, Maclean's has deployed all the resources at our disposal to tell that story. A team of Maclean's reporters, led by myself, John Geddes and Aaron Wherry, travelled the country to cover the 2011 campaign. We interviewed key members of every leader's campaign staff, often on the understanding that nothing we were told would be revealed until after Canadians had voted.

Here is that story. In part it is the tale of an election strategy decided by Harper himself in the days after the 2008 coalition crisis nearly took his job away. He announced his plan as soon as he concocted it--a clear choice between a majority and a reincarnated coalition--in the first week of 2009, in an interview with the publisher of this magazine. Michael IGNATIEFF had two years to prepare but he never found a persuasive answer.

This is also the story of a party, the NDP, that has courted French-speaking voters in Quebec for literally half a century, through good days and bad, and of a leader who has been written off as an also-ran for every one of the four elections in which he improved his party's standing.

But the story has to begin with Michael Ignatieff. To understand anything else in this election, we have to understand how he became the leader of a once-great party, and how Stephen Harper took him apart, piece by piece.

Maclean's May 16, 2011