Friday, April 19, 2013

Two questions - and it's too soon for answers

The aftermath of the 2011 Canadian election, left two interrelated questions, the answers to which would determine the shape of federal politics in Canada for a generation or more.

The first question was, "Can the New Democratic Party consolidate their historic breakthrough in Quebec and establish themselves as the principal alternative to the Conservatives?"  Within a few weeks, that question was tragically amended to add, "without Jack Layton."

The second question was, "Can the Liberal Party recover from it's worst electoral trouncing in history?"

With last weekend's coronation of Justin Trudeau after a pro forma leadership stroll, some commentators have misread the standard leadership poll bump as an indication that the two questions have both been answered with a "no" and a "yes" respectively.  These are the same commentators who breathlessly assured us that Paul Martin would crush both the Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois, that Stephane Dion was a formidable opponent who thrived on being underestimated and that Michael Ignatieff's stature as a internationally known public intellectual would wow the Canadian electorate.

The consistently bad track record of the commentariat notwithstanding, it would be equally foolish to conclude that the questions have been answered with a "yes" and a "no."  Beyond a few broad generalizations, only a fool would try to handicap the next federal election more than two years out.

Each of the two parties have certain things that must be accomplished in order to be successful in 2015.  If only one of the two parties is successful, then it is highly likely that party will establish itself as the principle alternative to the Conservatives for at least a generation or two.  If neither party can effectively establish itself in that role, the Conservatives are destined to a whomping majority in 2015, Quebec will largely drift back to the Bloc and any other prognostication is a complete mug's game.

New Democrats need to establish their new MPs (especially, but not only, the Quebec MPs) as strong presences in their communities and establish effective constituency associations in traditional areas of organizational weakness (again especially, but not only, in Quebec).  The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, but certainly the party has been focusing its resources on these twin goals.

In the early days, the handful of mostly quite young placeholder candidates who were elected was seen as the party's greatest vulnerability.  While the so-called McGill Four were held up for a certain amount of derision, but the prime target for the corporate media attack machine was Ruth-Ellen Brosseau, the Ottawa campus pub manager who agreed to be a name on the ballot in the Quebec riding of Berthier - Maskinongé. Recent media features have highlighted how hard these young "accidental MPs" have worked to connect to their constituencies.  

The NDP organization in Quebec is stronger than it has ever been, and the membership at its highest level in history.  NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, a former Quebec environment minister and the architect of the NDP's Quebec breakthrough, is well respected in the province, and has managed to unite the party behind him following the leadership race.

For New Democrats, consolidation doesn't necessarily mean they need to hold onto all of their newly won seats, especially in Quebec where some shrinkage after a sweep is actually to be expected.  But if the NDP can retain the largest number of Quebec seats after the next election, it will be very difficult for the Liberals to overcome that inbuilt numerical advantage in the rest of Canada. 

The Liberals, who have seen their support steadily erode over the past five elections, have also seen their support become more concentrated in Atlantic Canada and in Canada's two largest cities.  In vast swathes of the country, the Liberals have no organizational depth, and the party would likely not even be competitive in any of its four seats west of Ontario were the incumbents to step aside.

In electing Justin Trudeau, the largely unaccomplished eldest son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, the Liberals have rolled the dice in the hope that a photogenic young(ish) leader with a famous name will garner them enough media attention to attract nostalgic former Liberals back to the fold and to recruit a handful of star candidates in areas outside their regional strength, while opening up the wallets of potential supporters.  Certainly Trudeau's initial poll numbers look good, but party poll standings generally improve in the immediate aftermath of a new leader.  Given the way the mainstream media have been fawning over Trudeau from the day he was born and the general reluctance of reporters (or Liberal leadership opponents) to challenge him with hard questions, one should expect the polling honeymoon to go on for a while.  However, continued and sustained Liberal recovery will depend on rebuilding the organizational infrastructure of the party, and vain celebrity is of limited value there.

That said, vain celebrity can have some effect in holding the media's attention and creating at least the illusion of broader capacity.  Opponents would do well not to underestimate the nostalgic appeal of Trudeau fils who, while lacking his father's gravitas, actually exhibits stronger soft political skills than Trudeau pere. 

In 30 months we will have a much clearer sense of the real answers to the two questions. Those who pretend the answers are discernible now are either fools or partisan spinners - or possibly both.


Purple library guy said...

"If neither party can effectively establish itself in that role, the Conservatives are destined to a whomping majority in 2015, Quebec will largely drift back to the Bloc and any other prognostication is a complete mug's game."

I'm not at all convinced even of this bit. Last election, the Conservatives racked up numbers somewhat above their typical polling since; they got over 39% in the election, while they're more often around 35% and have often been down past 33%. If the Conservatives continue to suffer from scandal and the perceptions of arrogance etc. that both fit them and tend to dog governments that have been in place for a while, the other two parties could split the vote and yet the Conservatives could still fail to even get close to a majority.

I can readily envision a scenario like this: In Quebec, the NDP hang onto most of their seats due to a natural ideological fit with the Quebecois electorate and to Quebecois remembering they didn't much like Pierre in the first place. Meanwhile, Justin is a fairly effective Liberal leader and recovers some vote elsewhere. But the Conservatives fail to capitalize because they are running out of steam and their sins are catching up with them. The end result, a nearly even three-way split.

Neal Ford said...

The old maxim of 15 minutes as an eternity in politics did not arise from nought.
When you consider 30 months, absolutely anything can happen.
This reading too much into every poll that comes out seems to be a reflex canadians developed during the 8 year period when we had 4 elections. This time nothing happens until 2015.