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Ontario: No Political Hat Trick

12 Oct

Back in the middle of the summer, when politics and elections were the furthest things from most people’s minds, Toronto mayor Rob Ford hosted a barbecue for 800 of his closest friends.

It was a special event honoring federal finance minister Jim Flaherty for his work helping Toronto-area candidates make historic breakthroughs during the federal election earlier this year.

Those federal breakthroughs came about six months after Ford’s own breakthrough victory in Toronto – a steak-and-potatoes conservative mayor winning power in what some perceive as a brie-and-white-wine liberal city.

The barbecue came to the attention of the media because of a surprise guest who showed up to address the gathering: Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

In a video of the event shot by one of the barbecue guests and later posted online, Harper made partisan comments about Ontario politics:

“We started cleaning up the left wing mess federally in this area,” Harper said. “Rob’s doing it municipally. And now we’ve got to complete the hat trick and do it provincially as well.”

When Harper made those remarks in early August, it seemed likely that Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak had a good chance of completing that conservative hat trick. Only two months before the scheduled provincial election, his party sat comfortably atop public opinion polls, and the trend over many months had shown Progressive Conservative support growing as support for Premier Dalton McGuinty’s governing Liberals steadily fell.

In retrospect, Hudak was trying to swim against a couple of longstanding currents in Ontario politics. The first was the tendency of Ontarians to give party leaders some extended time on the opposition benches before they are willing to vote them into government. Hudak’s two immediate predecessors as PC leader – John Tory and Ernie Eves – learned that lesson the hard way, as did McGuinty himself when he was trounced by Mike Harris in his first election campaign as Liberal leader in 1999.

The second – even more unfailing – current was the tendency of Ontario voters to vote in different parties provincially than they do federally. In the 1970s, when Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals held power in Ottawa, so did Bill Davis’s Tories at Queens Park. In the ‘80s, Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative governments negotiated with Liberal and NDP governments in Ontario. In the ‘90s, Liberals under Jean Chretien owed successive majority victories to Ontario voters, who handed them near-sweeps of this province. At the same time, they were giving Mike Harris similar victories in provincial elections. Finally, the current Harper era in federal politics has coincided with the McGuinty era in Ontario.

When the video of Harper’s barbecue speech showed up online, his aides seemed to realize that it probably wasn’t helpful to the Hudak campaign, or to the conservative cause, for the Prime Minister to be seen making such a blatant partisan intervention into a provincial election campaign. A bit of an Internet cat-and-mouse game ensued, with Conservatives trying to remove every online appearance of the video as quickly as McGuinty supporters could get it reposted.

As I have written before on this blog, it helps to imagine this province as an Ontario-shaped target, with a lop-sided blue bull’s-eye in the middle, stretching across the rural southwestern, central and eastern parts of the province. That’s the conservative heartland – a couple-dozen ridings that right-leaning parties usually win easily in both provincial and federal elections.

Splotches of NDP orange dot the outer edge of the province-shaped target, where the most urban neighborhoods of our cities and the least-populated stretches of our northern regions lie. When New Democrats do well in Ontario – as they did in both elections this year – the perimeter of the province grows a deeper shade of orange.

Between the orange edge and the blue bull’s-eye is the red Liberal donut that expands or shrinks at the expense of the other colors, depending on the Grits’ success from election to election.

In May’s federal election, the Tories and the NDP both took big bites out of different sides of that donut – most notably in Toronto-area ridings. The result was the worst showing ever for the federal Liberal party.

In Ontario earlier this month, it was Toronto voters – and to a lesser extent those in Ottawa and a few other urban areas – who preserved the red donut enough to give the McGuinty Liberals a narrow minority victory.

It’s hard to know if Harper’s comments helped McGuinty win. But they certainly underlined the fact that in this province, political hat tricks are hard to come by.

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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.

The Conservative (???!!!!) Budget

30 Jan

Sometimes the best way to put present circumstances in perspective and to figure out what to expect in future is to look back on the past.

With that in mind, I dug out an old report card.

The comments started out well:

“The positives are impressive: he has a brilliant strategic mind, a sound grasp of public policy, and good communications skills in both French and English.”

Not bad. On the other hand:

“The negatives – his mistrust of the grassroots, his tendency not to be a team player … and the tendency to withdraw – are manageable if they are acknowledged and compensated for by the strengths of others.”

Well, there you have it. The good and the bad. A blunt assessment of protégée by mentor.

The protégée, in this case, is the Prime Minister of Canada. And the mentor is no political detractor, but rather Preston Manning, the man who gave Stephen Harper his first job in politics, as his trusted lieutenant in the Reform Party that Manning founded and led.

The Reform Party, of course, morphed into the Canadian Alliance, which Stephen Harper eventually led into a merger with the old PC Party. The united Right party – the big-C Conservatives – then took power, Harper became Prime Minister, and the small-c conservative revolution that Manning championed became reality in Canada.

Not so fast.

Did you happen to hear about the federal budget released the other day? Huge deficits, massive spending, the addition of a forecasted $85-billion to the national debt over five years, the creation of a new Trudeauesque regional development agency – this one for recession-ravaged Southern Ontario, and… hard to believe, but true… money for culture and the arts.

The old Reform Party – indeed, the old Harper – would have furiously attacked any government that dared to propose this kind of a budget. The old Harper would have called it wasteful, irresponsible… liberal.

Instead, it was his party and his government that introduced just such a budget.

Clearly, Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

What we’re in, of course, is a global economic crisis. And the budget is a reaction to that. Governments – conservative and liberal alike – all over the Western world are proposing similar measures to stimulate their economies.

In their budget document, Canada’s Conservatives described their measures as “timely”, “targeted” and “temporary”. Whether or not they turn out to be any of those things won’t be evident for many months.

What the measures clearly aren’t:

Conservative.

The government anticipates that once things improve, it will be able to revert to its more traditional approach of slashing spending, paying down the debt, and shrinking the role of government in the economy instead of expanding it.

This may be wishful thinking. History has shown that it’s much easier to open the spending taps than it is to close them again.

Of course, every budget is not only an economic blueprint, but also a political document. This one perhaps more than others because it comes after the government’s near-death experience last fall. The budget was designed to save the government from defeat at the hands of a newly united opposition.

In that respect, it seems to have succeeded, at least in the short run. The morning after the budget’s release, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff told reporters he was putting the Conservatives “on probation” and the Official Opposition would support the budget as long as the government agreed to regular reports to Parliament on the progress of the economy.

That’s a heck of a lot better for Harper than what Ignatieff’s predecessor, Stéphane Dion, was offering last fall – namely, an immediate vote of non-confidence in the government and its replacement by a coalition government.

Which brings us back to Preston Manning’s observations about Harper, taken from Manning’s 2002 autobiography.

Global economic crisis aside, the reason the government had to move as far as it did from its core philosophical beliefs in introducing such a budget is tied to some of the negative characteristics that Manning observed in his former lieutenant.

Harper’s mistrust of consultation, his go-it-alone instincts, led him astray, revitalized his political opposition and created a situation where his government will be forced to consult Liberals more than ever before and put a tremendous amount of water in its ideological wine if it wants to survive.

If you disagree with the Conservative Party’s ideology, you’ll see that as a good thing for the country. But if you’re a true believer, you may be pining for the days of Reform.

Programming note: I produced an interesting televised panel discussion on this very topic the other day, where smarter minds than I weighed in. You can download a podcast here.

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.

Election night cheat sheet for political junkies

14 Oct

UPDATE: Election post-mortem here

Will tonight’s federal election result in more of the same or are we in for a surprise or two? Here’s a cheat sheet on the tightest local races, which are likely to decide the election. Clip, save, place next to your chips, beer and TV remote, and consult as results pour in from east to west:

Atlantic Canada

Newfoundland and Labrador: The big question here is how effective Premier Danny Williams‘ Anyone But Conservative campaign has been. The Conservatives went into this election holding three of the province’s seven seats — St. John’s East, St. John’s South – Mt. Pearl, and Avalon — and are in danger of losing all three: Two to the Liberals and St. John’s East to the NDP’s star candidate, Jack Harris, the party’s former provincial leader.

Prince Edward Island: The Island’s four ridings have not gone anything but Liberal for 20 years. The Conservatives seem to think they have enough of a shot in the riding of Egmont, which takes in the city of Summerside and the western part of PEI, that Prime Minister Stephen Harper made PEI the first stop in his big final-day cross-country push yesterday. The Liberals are running former PEI Premier Keith Milligan there against the Tory candidate Gail Shea, a former provincial cabinet minister.

Nova Scotia: No riding here has garnered more interest than Central Nova, where Green Party leader Elizabeth May is trying to topple Defence Minister Peter MacKay. If she succeeds, it will be one of the top stories of the election. Elsewhere, former Conservative MP Bill Casey will try to hold onto Cumberland – Colchester – Musquodoboit Valley as an independent candidate, and the NDP hopes to add to its two N.S. seats (Halifax and Sackville-Eastern Shore) by poaching Dartmouth-Cole Harbour from the Libs and South Shore – St. Margaret’s from the Tories.

New Brunswick: The Liberals tend to dominate in the northern half of this province (with the exception of the NDP stronghold of Acadie-Bathurst). and the Tories tend to dominate in the southern half, leaving a trio of adjoining swing ridings in central and western New Brunswick worth watching: Fredericton, Tobique – Mactaquaq and Madawaska – Restigouche.

Quebec

Montreal / Laval : The Conservatives are not a factor anywhere in the metropolis, where the Liberals still hold on to their core Quebec vote. There are four races to watch here, all in traditional Liberal ridings the Grits hope to retake from opponents. In Papineau, Ahuntsic and Jeanne-Le-Ber, those opponents are Bloc MPs. Papineau Liberal candidate Justin Trudeau hopes to become the third son-of-a-Prime-Minister in Canadian history to sit as an MP (trivia points to anyone who can name the other two). In Outremont, the Liberals hope to unseat NDP incumbent Thomas Mulcair, who won the seat in a byelection. If Mulcair holds on, it will be the first time in history that an NDP candidate won a Quebec seat in a general election.

Quebec City / Northeastern Quebec: These are the areas where the Conservatives made their great breakthroughs in the last election – breakthroughs they hoped to build on this time around. Instead, an erratic campaign has them hoping to preserve what they already had. Their seats on the south shore of the Saint-Laurent, across from Quebec City, seem safe, but several in the provincial capital and in Saguenay-Lac Saint Jean are in danger of swinging back to the Bloc. These ridings include Beauport-Limoilou, Charlesbourg-Haute-Saint-Charles, Louis-Hébert, Roberval-Lac-Saint-Jean, and the Jonquière-Alma riding of cabinet minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn. The only safe Conservative seat north of the river seems to be Louis-Saint-Laurent, held by Heritage Minister Josée Verner.

Elsewhere: It’s all safe Bloc seats, including Vaudreuil-Soulanges, where previously unelected cabinet minister Michael Fortier is expected to remain unelected. The only exceptions are the three Outaouais ridings, across the river from Ottawa. Hull-Aylmer is the only remaining safe-ish Liberal seat outside of Montreal. Pontiac will continue to be held by Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon if the other three major parties continue to split the vote. And in Gatineau, NDP candidate Francoise Boivin hopes to win back the seat she lost to the Bloc as a Liberal incumbent last time around.

Ontario

Toronto: The biggest Liberal bastion in the country. A couple of tight NDP-Liberal races worth watching are in Parkdale – High Park, where former Liberal leadership candidate Gerard Kennedy hopes to win back his old provincial riding from incumbent New Democrat Peggy Nash, and Beaches-East York, which former NDP MPP Marilyn Churley will once again try to win away from longtime Liberal MP Maria Minna.

The 905: The region surrounding Toronto where many elections get decided. Many interesting races to watch here. In the eastern part of the 905 semi-circle, Oshawa always hosts tight three-way races. Farther west, the Conservatives hope to retake Newmarket-Aurora now that Belinda Stronach has left politics and Halton, now that incumbent Garth Turner has left their party and become a Liberal. Similarly, the Liberals hope to retake Mississauga-Streetsville from Grit-turned-Tory Wajid Khan. Conservatives also have a chance in several other ridings that have gone Liberal for years: Mississauga-Erindale, Mississauga South, and Oakville. In the Hamilton-Niagara region, the Liberals hope to retake Hamilton East – Stoney Creek from the NDP and St. Catherines from the Tories. And look for a close three-way race in Welland.

Southwestern Ontario: The two closest races in this region are likely to be in Brant and London West, where Liberal incumbents defend their seats against Conservative challengers.

Eastern and Northern Ontario: Incumbents seem pretty safe in Eastern Ontario. The closest race in this region is likely to be Glengarry-Prescott-Russell, where Dan Boudria attempts to win back his father Don‘s old riding, won by the Conservatives in 2008. The NDP has high hopes in the north, where New Democratic candidates have their eyes on a number of seats the Liberals won last time around, including Algoma – Manitoulin – Kapuskasing, Kenora, Nickel Belt, Thunder Bay – Rainy River and Thunder Bay – Superior North. Also worth watching is Parry Sound – Muskoka, which cabinet minister Tony Clement won last time in the closest race in the country.

Prairie Provinces

Manitoba: The Liberal’s three incumbent MPs in the province were all fighting tough battles in this election. The NDP hopes to grab Churchill, the Tories hope to win Saint-Boniface and Winnipeg South-Centre. If the Libs have any chance to regain an old seat, it will be in Winnipeg South, won by the Tories last time.

Saskatchewan: Ralph Goodale‘s one Liberal seat in this province is probably safe, as are most of the other Conservative seats in the province, with the exception of Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar and Palliser, former NDP seats that party hopes to win back, and Desenthé-Missinippi-Churchill RIver, which Progressive-Conservative-turned-Liberal David Orchard hopes to win after being denied the nomination by Stéphane Dion in a recent byelection.

Alberta: The easiest province to pick should go all-Tory all-the-time. The two ridings where there could be longshot upsets are Edmonton-Strathcona, which the NDP often wins provincially and where it has the best (longshot) chance in he province, and Calgary Northeast, where a divisive nomination race resulted in one Conservative running as an independent against the official party candidate, with a (longshot) chance at splitting the vote.

British Columbia and the North

Vancouver Island: Three races to watch here: Esquimault-Juan de Fuca, where Liberal incumbent Keith Martin is in a three-way race, Vancouver Island North, which the Tories hope to take back from the NDP, and Saanich – Gulf Islands, where cabinet minister Gary Lunn faces an unexpectedly strong challenge from the Liberals, after the NDP candidate was forced to withdraw from the race.

Greater Vancouver: Many interesting races here. Liberal incumbents face strong Tory challenges in Richmond, Newton-North Delta, North Vancouver and Vancouver-Quadra, and the Liberals and NDP are in a tough race in Vancouver Kingsway, most recently held by Liberal-turned-Tory-turned-retired-cabinet-minister David Emerson. Two other ridings worth watching are West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country, which the Conservatives hope to win back from Liberal-turned-Green Blair Wilson, and Surrey North, once held by the late Chuck Cadman. Cadman’s widow Dona is running for the Tories in a riding won in 2006 by the NDP.

Elsewhere in B.C.: Many safe Tory and NDP seats all over rural British Columbia. The one exception may be Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo, which the NDP hopes to poach from the Conservatives.

The Arctic Territories: Yukon is a safe Liberal seat, Western Arctic is a safe NDP seat, but Nunavut may be tossup, which explains why so many leaders have visited Iqaluit lately.

Tune in tonight, and keep this guide handy…

Programming Note: Quebec Scene

9 Apr

Just over a year ago, Jean Charest’s Quebec Liberals limped out of a provincial election with a narrow minority government, the first in that province since the 19th century.

In the same vote, the Parti Québécois became the third party in Quebec’s National Assembly, and the ADQ party, led by Mario Dumont, won more seats than ever before – almost winning the election – to become Quebec’s Official Opposition.

And for a little while at least, it looked as if Charest’s minority government wouldn’t last too long. By September of last year, they had dropped to 24 per cent in the polls, third place behind the ADQ and the PQ.

Late last month, though, the front-page headline in Montreal’s La Presse read ‘”Charest Revit” – literally, “Charest Lives Again” – as that newspaper’s latest polling had the Quebec Liberal Party back on top of the heap at 34 per cent voting intention, as compared to the PQ’s 30 per cent and the ADQ’s 22 per cent.

Even more encouraging for the Quebec Premier, the poll showed that 61 per cent of Quebec residents were satisfied with his government, the highest level of satisfaction for any government in the province in two decades, and almost double its rating of six months ago.

Quebec has a history of producing popular, charismatic politicians – think Trudeau, Lévesque and Bouchard. But Charest has seldom been thought of in that league. His more remote personality, his previous career in federal politics (he came within 187 votes of becoming Prime Minister of Canada in the 1993 Progressive Conservative Convention, losing to Kim Campbell), and … yes… the fact that his mother was an anglophone, all contributed to the wariness with which francophone Quebec voters approached Charest since his entry into provincial politics one decade ago this month.

So what accounts for his party’s amazing political turnaround in such a short period of time? Some of it certainly stems from the failure of Mario Dumont to appear as a Premier-in-waiting over the past year. And the PQ has been going through its own leadership issues, replacing André Boisclair with Pauline Marois.

Some commentators suggest that Charest has taken some posthumous lessons from one of his predecessors – Robert Bourassa – and become “…a button-down premier who appeals to Quebec’s sense of order, if not its heartstrings…

The Premier’s recent success comes at a time when politics in Quebec seems to be changing. Most dramatically, the PQ recently abandoned its longstanding policy of promising a referendum on sovereignty as soon as possible after an election victory. And on the federal scene, the Bloc Québécois’ decline in popularity and the Conservatives’ growing credibility among Quebec voters had prominent Quebec journalist Chantal Hébert writing about a “full-fledged federalist revival” in the province.

What does that mean for the rest of Canada? Well, according to Hébert, it certainly doesn’t mean the Question of Quebec will cease to be central to politics in this country.

Here’s what she told an audience in New Brunswick last fall, in a speech that was recently broadcast on CBC Radio:

Keeping Quebec in the federation has been the dominating challenge of the second half of the 20th century in Canadian politics. But I would predict that living productively with a Quebec that’s not going anywhere may be one of the more transforming experiences of the first decades of the 21st century. And you may find it sometimes just as hard.

For more on recent developments in Quebec politics, please tune into a televised panel discussion I am producing that will air tonight and be available online later this week.

Heroin for Political Junkies

6 Feb

For raw political spectacle, nothing beats a good old-fashioned brokered leadership convention. Here in Canada, it is the traditional way our political parties have selected their leaders.

Delegates come from across the country to a hockey arena or convention centre in a major city and, over a couple of days of speechifying and balloting and convincing and cajoling and backrooming, they figure out who will be the next leader of their party. Often enough, the final result is unpredictable and the process to achieve that result is drama-laden.

In 24 hours and four ballots, Stéphane Dion climbed from fourth place to first and became the unexpected leader of the Liberal Party at their last convention 14 months back (a convention I attended as a journalist and blogger.) In 1976, Joe Clark rode a similar path to victory as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party. And then there was the famous written agreement that ended the very last convention of the PC Party in 2003 and made Peter MacKay the very last leader of that party – a job he held onto long enough to break the agreement and dissolve the party.

A dramatic brokered political convention picked Canada’s longest-serving post-War Prime Minister. Another one picked Canada’s first-ever female Prime Minister. And another one set off the feud that would dominate Liberal Party politics for 15 years.

Whether these conventions pick the best leader, or are sufficiently democratic, are open questions… and beside the point, which is – again – that they are like heroin for political junkies.

In recent years, some political parties have opted for different methods of picking leaders. The current governing party, for instance, used a byzantine system of point allocations and preferential ballots to elect Stephen Harper as leader in 2004. He won on the first ballot, the results of which were announced at a glorified press conference.

Yawn.

American politics play out on a bigger stage than those of Canada. The leadership conventions of the two major U.S. parties are big, glitzy, expensive affairs, with massive media coverage. But in modern times, they are also scripted events with predetermined outcomes. Adlai Stevenson won the last brokered convention in the U.S. more than half a century ago.

The convention results are predetermined because it usually doesn’t take too long into the winter primary season for the major party front-runners to be sorted out and guaranteed first-ballot victories months before the summer conventions begin.

This year, of course, offers the best chance in a long time for a brokered convention on the Democratic side. Or at least a more interesting one.

Most likely, the Democratic Party nominee will get sorted out before it comes to that, but in a way the drawn-out, uncertain, exciting primary season itself has served as an extended brokered convention, offering thrill-a-minute jolts to political junkies – no jolt bigger than last night‘s Extra Super Duper Tuesday fight-to-a-draw.

Warning: If you are a Canadian political junkie, standing too close to the U.S. border may give you a contact high.

(Programming Note: I am co-producing an hour long televised discussion on Super Tuesday and the American Presidential race, which will air tonight and be available for online viewing here within a day or two )