Parliament Opens: With Majority Government, Harper Has Nothing To Lose
It's Stephen Harper's day.
As Canada's 41st Parliament opens in Ottawa today, the prime minister enjoys the first majority government in seven years.
Without the monkey of a looming election on his back, Harper can reshape the country in his party's image, though he must build bridges to an isolated Quebec.
Much more is at stake for the opposition parties. NDP Leader Jack Layton has to speak for Quebec without alienating his traditional base. The Liberals must fight to remain relevant; the Bloc Quebecois and Green Party must fight to simply survive.
While Canadians adjust to the new reality in Ottawa, all federal parties in the House of Commons will have to shift from the constant political bickering of a minority parliament to the long-term policy-making and political maneuvering of a majority situation.
But with the transformation of Canada's political landscape comes new challenges each of the parties will have to face between now and the next election, scheduled to take place in October 2015.
THE CONSERVATIVE PARTY
With the exception of a few cabinet ministers who held various portfolios at the provincial level, the Conservative Party is heading into the completely uncharted territory of a majority government. Ever since Stephen Harper led the party formed by the merger of the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives into its first election in 2004, the Tories have existed in a minority parliament.
The prospect of defeat and a new election around every corner galvanized the party behind its leader, and sharpened the political instincts of its strategists and key players. When they were first installed in power in 2006, policies were designed as much for the governing of the country as they were for winning votes in the next campaign.
With virtually unfettered power, the Conservatives can now reshape the country in their image. They have already moved quickly on some of their key election promises, such as the reform of the Senate and the abolition of the per-vote federal party subsidy. More unpopular measures, such as cuts to the public service, can be gotten out of the way now, with the next election still four years away.
But with the New Democratic breakthrough in Quebec, the Conservatives are more than ever an English Canadian party. In fact, it has been almost a century since Quebec has had so little representation in a majority government. With the Parti Québécois poised to take power in Quebec City by 2013, the Conservatives will have to find a way to bridge the gap between their massive majority outside of Quebec and the people who live inside the province.
Similarly, the biggest challenge faced by the New Democrats comes out of Quebec. With the exception of a few gains primarily in the GTA, the New Democrats won the title of the Official Opposition by way of Quebec, where the party took 59 of their 103 seats. Without their meteoric rise in the francophone province, the New Democrats would have likely been barred from Stornoway as the Bloc Québécois had entered the election on pace to win 50 or so seats, and the NDP's gains outside of Quebec were in part due to their rise in the polls in the province.
Jack Layton will thus have to speak as the voice of Quebec without alienating the base of support he has built in the rest of the country. The recent flap over the NDP's position on a potential Quebec referendum has already revealed some of the fissures between his two pillars of support. If the NDP fails Quebecers, the sense of political isolation the province already feels would only be boosted, further increasing the chances of another PQ government. If he tries to curry favour in Quebec too much, he risks losing support outside of the province.
In addition, Mr. Layton has to present himself as an alternative to the Harper Government. Arguably, the NDP has less clout with this majority government than they did in any of the previous minority parliaments, and maintaining an effective and reasonable opposition may prove difficult. If successful, Jack Layton may appear like a Prime Minister-in-waiting by the next campaign, but if the inexperienced elements of his new caucus throw the party off track, as it did for the ADQ in Quebec between 2007-2008, this NDP breakthrough might prove to have been a one-off event.
THE LIBERAL PARTY
The Liberals, under interim leader Bob Rae, have to find a way to remain relevant. Centrist parties have been squeezed out in a number of other Western democracies, and the Liberals will need to find a way to avoid that fate. They have a lot of time to re-build the party and prepare for the next election, but after years of trying to present themselves as an alternative to the Conservatives, the Liberals now need to convince Canadians that they are the alternative to the new alternative that is the NDP. With only 34 seats, and little representation in the West or francophone Quebec, the Liberals will find it challenging to continue to speak as a national party.
For the Bloc, which has gone from 47 MPs to only four and a staff of over 100 to little more than a dozen, the challenge will be their own survival. With less than 12 MPs, they have lost official party status in the House of Commons and the advantages that go with it. Though the Bloc still garnered more than 23% support in the province, maintaining a presence in Quebec as well as Ottawa may prove difficult. Capitalizing on any NDP missteps in the province will likely drive their strategy in the short- to mid-term.
THE GREEN PARTY
And for the Green Party and their leader Elizabeth May, their sole representative on Parliament Hill, the next four years will need to be used to prove that the Greens belong in Ottawa. Ms. May gambled by putting all of her party's eggs in her riding's basket, and she needs to prove that the cost in national visibility (the party went from 6.8% support in 2008 to 3.9% in 2011) was well worth it.
As the parties clumsily attempt to find their way in this new political reality, there is much potential for great political theatre. But this is also an opportunity for each of the three major parties. Whether it be the development of long-term goals and policies that can be implemented with a view to the next few decades rather than the next few months, a change in the tone of politics and the way things are done in Ottawa, or the re-definition of a party's lost identity, the transformations caused by the last federal election may turn out to be more than a mere change of colour on the electoral map.
Éric Grenier is author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls and electoral projections.