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The Blue Wave

16 May

This month’s federal election results seemed to herald many dramatic changes in Canadian politics. Some of the obvious ones: Canadians elected a majority Conservative government for the first time in a generation; The NDP became the Official Opposition for the first time ever; The Bloc Quebecois was reduced to four seats; and voters handed the Liberal Party its worst drubbing in history, and an existential crisis to Liberal loyalists.

As is often the case, the full extent of the change did not become apparent until the votes were actually counted. Opinion polls certainly picked up on the NDP surge in Quebec, but few predicted that the party – which had only ever elected two Quebec MPs in its 50-year history – would win all but a small handful of seats in that province.

Even more surprising was the so-called “Blue Wave” that hit both the suburbs and the city of Toronto. There was a strong expectation the Conservative Party would make gains in a number of previously Liberal-held ridings in the Greater Toronto Area:  In places such as Mississauga, Brampton, and Pickering. In the end, the Conservatives won almost all of those suburban seats, plus a number of urban Toronto seats that had not elected federal Conservative MPs since the days of Brian Mulroney.

Toronto-area voters gave the Conservative Party its majority, and crushed the Liberal Party. There was no other region of the country where Conservatives made such dramatic inroads in comparison to the 2008 election.

As dramatic and relatively unexpected as it was, the Conservative breakthrough in the Greater Toronto Area was a long time coming, and characterized by slow-and-steady growth from election to election since conservative factions reunited into one party in 2003.

Much has been written – including by me – about the Conservatives’ successful courting over time of the votes of ethnic minority groups that traditionally voted Liberal, including the votes of the Jewish community. With so many of those groups concentrated in the GTA, this was an obvious factor in the party’s majority win.

Of course, voting is anonymous, so it’s impossible to know with any great degree of certainty how much of the “ethnic” vote – Jewish or otherwise – swung to the Conservatives this time around. But matching demographic statistics with vote counts paints a compelling picture.

There are nine ridings in Toronto that have Jewish populations greater than the Ontario average (although we shouldn’t exaggerate the Jewish vote: Thornhill, the riding with the most Jews, is only 36 per cent Jewish. Toronto Centre, which has the ninth-largest Jewish community, is only about 3 per cent Jewish. Ontario as a whole is about 1.7 per cent Jewish).

All those ridings were represented by Liberal MPs a decade ago, when the party held a near-electoral monopoly in Ontario. Even in 2004, when the Liberals were reduced to a minority, they easily held onto all those seats. In 2006, the Liberal Party lost Trinity-Spadina riding to the NDP and in 2008, it lost Thornhill to the Conservatives, but still held seven out of nine of the seats going into this month’s election.

Today, the Liberals only hold two of those nine seats. The Conservatives have six and the NDP still holds Trinity-Spadina. If you include three Ottawa-area ridings and one Hamilton-area riding, the Conservatives now represent nine of the 13 Ontario ridings with higher-than-average Jewish populations. The NDP and the Liberals represent two ridings each in that category.

If you look at the vote in individual ridings over time, the pattern becomes even clearer. The Toronto riding of York Centre, which is about 24 per cent Jewish, used to be one of the safest Liberal seats in Canada. Former Liberal MP Art Eggleton won it with 71.1 per cent of the vote in the 2000 election. In the following election, Liberal Ken Dryden won it easily with almost 55 per cent of the vote, but his vote dropped over each subsequent election. In 2008, he hung onto the seat with only 43.46 per cent of the vote.

In 2011, Dryden didn’t even come close, losing the seat to Conservative Mark Adler, who won with 48.5 per cent of the vote compared to Dryden’s 33.3 per cent. The story of election-to-election decline is the same in all of the ridings with higher-than-average Jewish populations, even the few in which the Liberals salvaged wins.  It’s also the same in other “ethnic” ridings.

If this voting pattern continues, the country could have a Conservative majority government for many more years to come.

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Election Matters… Elections Matter

4 May

Do you remember, just before the recent federal election, when I predicted – on this very blog – the following scenarios?:

* I predicted that Prime Minister Stephen Harper would run a plodding, repetitive, bubble-like campaign, highlighted by an almost daily parade of negative news headlines and mini-scandals, in which he would answer almost every question posed to him with a rote warning that the country faced dire consequences unless voters elected a stable, secure, national, majority Conservative government. I wrote that on Election Day, Canadians would give his party exactly what he asked for, thanks mostly to voters in the Greater Toronto area.

* I predicted that NDP Leader Jack Layton, fresh from hip surgery and a bout with cancer, would fire up the imaginations of voters with the sheer force of his personality and with campaign speeches that spoke of the “winds of change”. I foretold that those winds would carry him right into the Office of the Leader of the Opposition, thanks mostly to the province of Quebec, which would elect almost 60 neophyte NDP MPs to the next Parliament – more than half of the NDP’s new caucus, and more seats than they had ever won before.

* I predicted that Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff would run a high-energy but ultimately fruitless campaign that would lead his party to its worst-ever electoral result, that it would be reduced to third party status in the House of Commons for the first time in Canadian history, and that Ignatieff would lose his own Toronto-area seat and resign as leader the morning after the election. In fact, I predicted that the Liberal Party would lose most of the Toronto-area ridings that it held for six election campaigns and almost two decades.

* I predicted that after two decades dominating federal politics in Quebec, Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe would run an increasingly desperate campaign that would lead his party into political oblivion, that the Bloc would be reduced to a rump of four seats, lose official party status in the House of Commons and that Duceppe would also lose his own seat and announce the end of his political career on election night. I also noted that the Bloc’s historic defeat would likely come at the hands of a New Democratic Party that had never had more than a single Quebec MP in the House of Commons at any one time, and whose successful candidates would include a 19-year-old university student and an anglophone Ottawa bartender who spent more of the campaign in Las Vegas than in her rural francophone riding.

* Finally, I predicted that – although her party would earn a smaller percentage of the popular vote than it did in the last election, and she would be excluded from the televised leader debates – Green Party Leader Elizabeth May would make history by becoming the first-ever member of that party to win a seat in the House of Commons, that she would unseat a veteran cabinet minister, and that she would be returning to Ottawa as the MP for Saanich – Gulf Islands, British Columbia.

I predicted all of these things. I really did.

You saw that old blog post of mine, didn’t you? I must have lost the link…

If not, you’ll just have to take my word that I saw everything coming all along.

Or maybe you should take note of the short sentence that opened up John Duffy’s 2002 book, “Fights of Our Lives: Elections, Leadership and the Making of Canada”.

“Elections matter,” Duffy wrote.

When the 2011 federal election began, nobody could have foreseen what the results would be, even though many people – myself included – figured the most likely outcome would be roughly the status quo: A Conservative minority government, a Liberal official opposition, a few dozen NDP MPs, the Bloc continuing its hold on most Quebec ridings, and the resumption of what had been almost seven years of volatile minority political wrangling, machinations, and brinkmanship.

What happened instead was the biggest sea change in Canadian federal politics in recent memory. In one night, for better or worse, Canadian voters put Stephen Harper into the history books as one of the most successful and longest-serving Conservative Prime Ministers in history (assuming he serves out his full mandate), gave the NDP an unprecedented influence, probably destroyed the Bloc Quebecois entirely, and put in grave doubt the future of the Liberal Party of Canada – the most successful 20th Century political party in the Western democratic world.

Elections matter indeed.

Questioning Question Period

27 Sep

Shortly before Members of Parliament gathered up their briefcases and returned to work late last month after an extended summer vacation, they were greeted with a sobering performance review from their employers.

That’s us, of course: The Canadian People.

Five days before Parliament opened, a non-partisan think-tank called the Public Policy Forum released poll findings showing that Canadians think their MPs stink.

I’m paraphrasing a bit here. Poll respondents didn’t quite say that MPs stink.  But a majority of them felt federal politicians are falling far short in the performance of one of the most prominent part of their jobs:

Question Period.

Question Period, of course, is only a very small part of what MPs do. It’s a 45-minute-long exercise that takes place on days the House of Commons is sitting. The rest of those days are devoted to less publicized, more sober, and often productive activities such as legislative debates and committee meetings.

But Question Period is what many Canadians think about when they think about what MPs do on Parliament Hill. It’s the House of Commons activity that gets shown most frequently on the nightly news because it’s the time when the political story of the day plays out most dramatically and most publicly.

And the more they think about Question Period, the more Canadians think that it stinks.

Two-thirds of the respondents to the Public Policy Forum’s poll agreed that “Question Period is just a forum for politicians to grandstand for the media and try to score cheap, short-term political points”.

The poll also found a majority (56 per cent) of Canadians “think less of our system of government when (they) see scenes from Question Period”, and that two-thirds believe “Question Period needs to be reformed and improved”.

Ironically enough, Question Period itself was introduced many decades ago as a reform and improvement of Parliament, said Public Policy Forum President David Mitchell. It was created to give the opportunity for regular backbench members of Parliament to ask pertinent questions of cabinet ministers.

According to Mitchell, the decline of Question Period began when cameras were introduced in the House of Commons in the late 1970s, and MPs started to use a time intended for serious questions to instead… well… “grandstand for the media and try to score cheap, short-term political points.”

Nowadays, it has become more of a forum for red-faced, finger-pointing, name-calling theatrics than a chance for elected representatives to get civilized answers from the government about the pressing issues of the day.

Teachers are embarrassed to bring their students on field trips to Parliament to witness behavior that would net their students detentions or suspensions if emulated back in class.

It’s important to note that some observers say the source of the problem is not cameras in the House, but rather too FEW cameras there, and that a lot of the heckling and bad behavior that turns off Canadians might be reduced if its perpetrators could be better identified and publicly shamed.

Clearly, the problem is compounded by the fact that we have been in a minority parliament situation in Canada for more than six years and counting. To some extent, the growing nastiness of Question Period reflects the general nastiness of federal politics in an extended period of uncertainty and heightened partisanship.

In concert with its poll release, the Public Policy Forum held a one-day conference to discuss ideas for reforming Question Period. Conference participants included MPs from different parties, perhaps recognizing that the status quo is becoming increasingly unpalatable to Canadians, and is hurting all of their reputations.

They came up with a list of ten very practical recommendations, including giving the Speaker of the House more authority, and allocating more time for MPs to ask more substantive questions and receive more substantive answers.

The recommendations jibed with those of Conservative MP Michael Chong, whose private member’s motion to reform Question Period may soon come to a vote.

But hopes for an immediate change in the tone of federal politics and an increase in goodwill and civility in Parliament were quickly dashed when MPs finally did come back to work.

The finger-pointing and name-calling began again right where they left off last spring, and spilled out beyond the confines of the House of Commons into a heavily partisan speech by the Finance Minister to an audience expecting sober economic analysis.

If politicians do not find the will to change that tone, they’ll continue to debase their profession and alienate their employers.

That’s us.

The NDP: What Might Have Been…

12 May

In the alternate Bizarro universe of Canadian politics, we are into the fifth month in power of the current coalition government, led by that most unexpected of Prime Ministers, Stéphane Dion.

The reviews are mixed. The controversial way the government took power has divided Canadians along geographic and partisan lines. It’s also still unclear how well its fiscal plan will help alleviate the country’s economic crisis. But on the foreign affairs front, Dion’s good relationship with like-minded American President Barack Obama has had a positive effect on our country’s relations with the United States, with new bilateral agreements in the works.

Of course, the government has been helped immensely by the complete chaos on the opposition benches. Conservative leader Stephen Harper is facing open internal revolt over his leadership, after letting power slip from his hands into those of Dion, mere weeks after the Tory election victory. The Official Opposition has been giving the government a much freer ride than expected, as it sorts through its own divisions and ponders its newly shaky future.

For their part, Bloc Québécois MPs have been absolute pussycats, content to bask in the glow of their success in helping to bring this new government into being, and showing no sign of breaking the agreement that will keep the coalition in power – and the Bloc in its influential kingmaker role – for many months to come.

As for New Democrats, they have never been in a better political position, experiencing Parliament from the government benches for the first time in party history. NDP leader Jack Layton, Dion’s prominent Industry Minister, is up every day in the House of Commons answering questions about his sweeping auto industry bailout. Layton is enjoying unprecedented influence in Canadian politics and heightened attention from news media, while the NDP learns lessons about the discipline of power that will serve it well in election campaigns to come.

Okay… it’s not called the alternate Bizarro universe of Canadian politics for nothing.

Back here in our own dimension, things have unfolded quite differently over the past few months. Stephen Harper remains Prime Minister and maintains a firm grip on the Conservative Party, despite that party’s precipitous drop in the polls.

Stéphane Dion is long gone, replaced as Liberal leader by Michael Ignatieff, who put the kibosh to the coalition and saw his party’s popularity rise above the Tories’.

As for Jack Layton… well… what happened to Layton anyhow?

To some extent, every party leader rolled the dice somewhat during the coalition drama last fall. But it was the New Democrats who arguably had the most to gain – a place in government for the first time ever – and who also took the biggest risk in pushing for a coalition.

The idea, in fact, was hatched by the NDP, and Layton was its most emphatic proponent.

“Prime minister, your government has lost the confidence of the House,” Layton said on the day the coalition agreement was signed, “and it is going to be defeated at the earliest opportunity.”

That, of course, wasn’t to be.

In the fallout from the coalition’s collapse, some observers say the NDP has become somewhat marginalized in national politics. It is down in the polls, with a diminished role in Parliament. This despite the fact that Ignatieff has moved the Liberals farther to the right, theoretically leaving more room for New Democrats on the left side of the political spectrum.

“The New Democrat caucus tried to do a big thing – tried to replace the government. And it didn’t happen,” said NDP strategist Brian Topp in a recent interview with the Globe and Mail. “Undertakings that don’t succeed don’t build support.”

So what will rebuild support for the New Democrats? Some suggest a return to the party’s more traditional role as a principled opposition voice from the left. The eternal conundrum for NDPers, of course, is to what extent they should play the political game at the expense of compromising their principles. In the last election, Layton played power politics, explicitly running for Prime Minister.

But despite Layton’s modest electoral success in comparison to his predecessors, some think the party has been more influential as a kind of pressure group from the opposition benches, rather than as a pretender to the throne. There are even some whisperings that for the party to move forward, Layton may have to step down.

It’s a far cry from the alternate universe that might have been, where flowers grow high, the sun always shines, and New Democrats sit in cabinet.

Conservatives in the Candy Store

13 Apr

Whether or not it will ever again earn the title, a history of electoral success and longevity in power throughout the 20th Century gave the Liberal Party of Canada the nickname “Natural Governing Party”.

For most of the past hundred years or so, the Conservatives, in their various permutations, sat in the opposition benches like kids looking through the window of a candy store, drooling over the chocolate bars – or maybe… cabinet posts – on the other side.

On those rare occasions when conservatives did win power, they often did so in dramatic fashion, by forging coalitions of otherwise dissimilar voters and politicians united in populist anger against the perceived arrogance, elitism and corruption of the Liberal Party.

In fact, Conservatives – well, Progressive Conservatives, actually – won the two biggest electoral victories in Canadian history this way. John Diefenbaker’s 1958 victory and Brian Mulroney’s 1984 win remain the only historical instances of a party winning more than 200 seats in the House of Commons.

In both those examples, the party governed for a few years before the unlikely coalitions that brought it to power collapsed spectacularly, handing that power back to the Natural Governing Liberal Party for many more years.

Mulroney’s coalition of western populists, Quebec nationalists and Ontario fiscal conservatives collapsed so thoroughly in 1993 that the party itself split into three separate entities, its western supporters migrating to the Reform Party and its Quebec contingent following Lucien Bouchard into the Bloc Québécois, leaving a rump caucus of two Progressive Conservative MPs in the House of Commons.

When Stephen Harper came back into politics a few years ago, after some time as a lobbyist, he had a few long-term goals for the conservative movement in this country:

1) Reunite conservatives into a single party.

2) Win power.

3) Turn the Conservatives into the “Natural Governing Party” and the Liberals into the jealous kids with their noses up against the candy store window.

He accomplished the first two goals, the record will show. The third one, though, is still a work in progress.

For a while, Harper seemed to be doing well on the reverse-the-historical-trend front. The discipline of power – and the discipline meted out by the Prime Minister’s Office – seemed to be keeping Conservative MPs in check, the more controversial views of some of their members kept far from public earshot. In winning and keeping power, the Harper Conservatives made headway with traditionally Liberal ethnic groups, with Quebec nationalists, and with voters in many formerly solid Liberal Ontario ridings.

And even though Harper has now failed in three attempts to win a majority government, his party has increased its vote share in each of the past three federal elections, and has faced a Liberal opposition that has looked nothing like a Natural Governing Party for several years.

But is the Tory tide beginning to turn?

The Liberal Party, under new leadership since its ill-fated attempt to form a coalition government with the NDP late last year, are up in the polls and looking more disciplined and united than they have in years.

On the other hand, Conservative Party fault lines – which may have always been there, but hidden from public scrutiny – have become more and more apparent in recent weeks:

* The party’s social conservative wing, which Stephen Harper has tried to keep far from view, showed itself to still be a force when a couple of MPs – including the science minister – made public statements questioning evolution.

* The fault line between conservative principles and crass politics was exposed a bit more fully recently when Ian Brodie, Harper’s former chief of staff, made some candidm public statements about how the party formulated election policies like the GST cut.

* Rare leaks from the Conservative caucus revealed a party split on the PC / Reform line over the legacy and treatment of former Prime Minister Mulroney.

* The global economic crisis has exposed another fault line, as the Conservative Party swallowed its fiscal philosophies in order to stimulate its way into multi-year deficits.

* Harper made great headway in Quebec, which enabled him to take power, but the cultural fault line there may now be too big for the Tories to breach.

It’s sometimes easy to forget that the Canadian conservative movement was bitterly divided only a few short years ago. Harper’s historical legacy may well be tied to how successfully he manages to keep the party united – and on the better side of the candy store window – over the next while.

Anything can happen in Canadian politics… who’da thunk it?

3 Dec

So how’s it going to end?

Will the Conservative government fall and be replaced by a Liberal/NDP coalition propped up by the Bloc Québecois?

Will Stephen Harper manage to prorogue Parliament and live to be Prime Minister for a little while longer?

Will we end up with our fourth election in 4.5 years and our second in three months? Or will a best-of-five coin flip decide on who gets to govern?

Or maybe Governor-General Michaëlle Jean will declare “off with their heads” and end up ruling by decree…

Here’s something to contemplate:

Anything can happen in Canadian politics.

That’s not a sentiment you hear too often from too many quarters. But after five days of things happening in Canadian politics that no one would have ever predicted, and with the prospect of another five days or five weeks or five months or so of unpredictable things happening in Canadian politics… well… that’s something to contemplate…

Here’s another interesting thing. Yesterday was exactly two years to the day that Stéphane Dion became leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. 

And those two years may go down in history as some of the worst two years ever experienced by a leader of a major federal party in Canada.

They seemed to have culminated in a disastrous campaign and election loss this past October, which seemed to have sealed Dion’s fate as leader.

Here’s how I described it last month:

“Sadly for Dion, he will not get a second chance. The political promise that won the hearts of Liberal delegates on Dec. 2, 2006 got trumped by a deficit of political skills…”

Shows how much I know.

Well, I was probably right on the political skills part. But I may have been wrong on the second chance.

My crystal ball is as bad as anyone’s who claims to have one, but it looks as if Dion has about a 50-50 chance of shedding his likely epitaph of “Only the second Liberal leader in history never to become Prime Minister” and gaining one that reads “23rd Prime Minister of Canada”.

With an asterisk, of course, because he will be gone as Liberal leader next May whether or not he is also PM.

And then there is the matter of the 22nd Prime Minister of Canada.

As I write, Stephen Harper remains Prime Minister, and is using “every legal means at his disposal” to keep from losing the job. Will he succeed? People have lost money underestimating the man.

But no matter what happens to Harper going forward, this entire incident may have critically wounded his political career, the success of which depended on a reputation for competent management and serious purpose.

The wound was self-inflicted.

When Harper won a second minority mandate following an election this fall that many thought was unnecessary, his marching orders seemed clear:

Drop the extreme partisan shtick and get down to the serious work of governing this country through a looming economic crisis.

That’s what he said he was prepared to do on election night. And his statesmanlike tone continued into the opening of Parliament.

But on the major challenge of the day, the international economic crisis, he dropped the ball in what could be a history-changing way.

An economic update to set the agenda for dealing with the crisis instead became an opportunity for partisan political gamesmanship, which only succeeded in uniting opposition parties against the government.

And so an economic crisis begat a political crisis, which begat a constitutional crisis, which may have begat a national unity crisis in both Quebec and the West.

Harper may survive in the short term. But he will come out of this one way or another as a weakened leader, his political future uncertain in a way that was unimaginable just a few days ago.

***

Programming note: If you are looking for a more in-depth look at all of the twists and turns of the ongoing Canadian political crisis, you could do worse that have a look or listen to an hour-long televised discussion I co-produced on Monday night. But you should tune in soon. At the pace that developments are developing, what gets discussed one night may be out of date by the next morning.

 

 

Picking through election entrails

15 Oct

Suppose they held an election and nothing happened?

Not too much, anyway.

In September, Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared the 2.5-year-old minority Parliament to be unworkable.

In search of a more workable mandate, he violated his own fixed-election-date legislation to dissolve that Parliament and send Canadians to the polls for the third time in four years.

Five weeks, 300-million-dollars, one pooping puffin controversy, two roundtable debates, dozens of negative ads, and one international economic crisis later, did he get that mandate?

Well… kinda.

Sorta.

In his third kick at the can as party leader, Harper’s Conservatives gained a few seats, but still fell short of a majority government. And thanks to some ill-received policies and poorly executed strategies, the party failed to build upon its big Quebec breakthrough in the last election, once again winning ten seats in that province.

The NDP, under Jack Layton, also picked up a few more seats, but fell far short of the goal Layton publicly and repeatedly set. He said he was running for Prime Minister, but ended up once again as the leader of the fourth party in the House of Commons.

With the help of some Conservative self-inflicted wounds, Gilles Duceppe’s Bloc Québécois won by holding steady. Once again, the Bloc showed that rumors of its death were greatly exaggerated, as it won the lion’s share of Quebec seats for the sixth straight election. More than any other factor, it is the Bloc’s enduring ability to hold onto dozens of Quebec seats that accounts for the fact that Canadians have elected minority governments in three elections running.

The Green Party won a plethora of publicity and media attention, a seat at the table of the televised leaders’ debates for leader Elizabeth May, and in the end, exactly zero seats in the House of Commons for all its efforts.

And then there is the Liberal Party…

Oh, the Liberals…

It was one of the worst election results ever for the Grits, once known as Canada’s Natural Governing Party. The Liberals won only eight seats west of Ontario, suffered a net loss of seats in their Atlantic Canada stronghold, and made some marginal gains in Quebec, where they continued to be almost exclusively limited to the island of Montreal.

But the most telling results for the Liberal Party came in Ontario. A decade ago, the party regularly won almost all of the available seats in this province. This time around, it didn’t even take most of those 106 seats.

Conservative candidates won almost half of all Ontario ridings, the NDP increased its seat count in the province by almost 50 per cent by taking away Liberal seats in Northern Ontario, and the Liberal Party was in retreat everywhere save its electoral fortress of Toronto.

Even in the country’s largest city, the Conservatives began showing signs of breaching the Liberal castle walls. They took several seats in the suburban 905 region just outside of Toronto.

And Conservative star candidate Peter Kent won the riding of Thornhill, which borders the city of Toronto.

Thornhill happens to be the riding with the largest per-capita Jewish population in the province. It also happens to be the one riding the provincial Progressive Conservative party picked up in their wretched campaign during last year’s Ontario election.

Picking through the entrails of this year’s federal vote, there were several other signs the Conservative Party has made some headway in their attempts to win over the support of the traditionally big-L-Liberal so-called ethnic vote.

The Conservatives took several ridings with diverse multicultural populations from the Liberals in Ontario and British Columbia. And in Toronto proper, ridings such as Eglinton-Lawrence, York Centre, and Willowdale – ridings with significant minority-group populations that are usually among the safest Liberal seats in the country – featured much tighter races.

In 2006, Liberal Joe Volpe won Eglinton-Lawrence by defeating his Conservative rival by more than 11,000 votes. This time around, Volpe’s margin of victory was reduced to 2,200.

Within hours – minutes even – of the final vote count, quotes from anonymous Liberals began appearing in the media calling for the head of leader Stéphane Dion.

Fighting his first election as leader, Dion failed miserably to reverse his party’s slide of the past few years.

But the nearly bankrupt and disunited Liberals can ill-afford another lengthy, expensive and divisive leadership race.

After all, we’ve ended up with another minority Parliament, and Canadians may be going to the polls yet again before too long.