Why 2015 could be the most competitive election of our time

  • National Newswatch

By Andrew Perez | May 06, 2013Two years ago, the country awoke to a dramatically altered political landscape – the Conservative Party had won its first majority government, the socialist NDP had done the unthinkable in forming the Official Opposition for the first time in its history, and the once-invincible Liberal Party had met electoral annihilation, barely limping away from election night with a mere 34 seats – the worst electoral result in its history.But before the scarce remains of the Liberals' electoral wreckage could be resuscitated, the commentariat had already pronounced the death of the Liberal Party – a national institution that had governed the country for most of the 20th century. Capitalizing on this overwhelming sentiment, Peter C. Newman got to work on his latest book: “When the Gods Changed – The Death of Liberal Canada.”In the months that ensued, some of the most revered political analysts argued the 2011 election had precipitated a seismic shift in the electoral landscape. A new, polarized political structure had emerged, pitting socialists against true blue Conservatives – the orange and blue electoral maps swarming the press were ubiquitous.To many in the press, May 2, 2011 signified the death of the Laurentian Consensus – the noblesse oblige, consensus-oriented style of politics that had built modern Canada. Anchored in the Montreal–Ottawa–Toronto axis, this elite consensus had been adopted by 'progressive' Conservatives and Liberals alike for time immemorial.It was said the country's central power structure had shifted to Western Canada, propped up by a strong base in Ontario enabled by majority support among immigrant communities in suburban Toronto. The separatist Bloc Quebecois had been vanquished and many hoped it had been relegated to the pages of history books for good.But two years later, the picture emerging both on the ground and in political Ottawa is measurably different than it was on the morning of May 3rd, 2011. So much has changed in the past two years – most notably, the NDP lost its foremost asset, the late Jack Layton, and replaced him with a strong, yet less charismatic leader.The Liberals also selected a new leader, investing steadfast confidence in a man they believe is their last best hope of restoring the Liberal offering. And while Stephen Harper continues to head up a comfortable majority government, it's the movements below the surface level that are becoming undeniable.A myriad of public opinion polls now suggest real, durable changes are afoot on the political landscape. To the extent that a seismic shift has taken place, recent developments suggest it's not a shift toward a polarized – socialist versus conservative – option, but rather a steady move toward a competitive three-party system.Welcome to Canadian politics 2.0 – a new political order that encompasses three competitive, mainstream brokerage parties who all enjoy a reasonable prospect of victory in 2015.With the exception of Quebec, where Harper's brand of conservatism is an anathema, the Tories remain relatively well-placed throughout the country. And while the NDP and Liberals amount to political tourists in Alberta, both parties are competitive in every other region of the country.To illustrate the new political backdrop that is emerging, it's useful to examine some data from March 2013 prior to Trudeau's leadership victory. First, it's important to highlight that parties typically enjoy a post-leadership bounce in the immediate days and weeks following a new leader's selection. This has no doubt been the case in the early days of Trudeau's leadership.To control for this bounce-factor, I chose not to focus on polling results from April 2013, as this data represented Liberal majority government numbers. Instead, polling averages from March 2013 were examined from ThreeHundredandEight.com. The results – Conservatives averaged 31.3 per cent, Liberals 28.3 per cent, and the NDP 27.1 per cent support – a close three-way race.Translated into seat distribution, these numbers would result in a Conservative minority government with 139 seats, facing a Liberal Official Opposition with 97 seats, and the NDP in third with 90 seats. In this conceivable scenario, the Tories could easily be outvoted by the 187 combined seats of the Liberals and NDP, leading to an entirely new outcome – the potential for a durable coalition government that does not require Bloc Quebecois support.These recent polling averages are instructive insofar as they would have been deemed inconceivable a mere decade ago. In May 2003, then in power for a decade, Jean Chretien's Liberals enjoyed a 172-seat majority and were thought to be headed toward a 200-seat victory under Paul Martin's imminent leadership.At the time, Liberals had no real rivals – the conservative family remained divided among two parties and the NDP were a marginal force with just 13 seats. Columnist Jeffrey Simpson made light of the peculiar situation in his 2002 book: “The Friendly Dictatorship” with a photo of Chretien emblazoned on its cover.Here is where the parties stand as of today – including key strengths and weaknesses – as we look ahead to what could be the most competitive election of our time in 2015.Stephen Harper's ConservativesOver seven years into his prime ministership and it's becoming increasingly clear that Stephen Harper has encountered a third-term 'slump.' With no major policy agenda up the government's sleeve, yet another political circus has been thrust upon Ottawa. In this rendition, the Tories have taken the unprecedented move of launching a frontal assault on the leader of the third party.Such an assault speaks volumes of the Conservatives' vulnerabilities. Even some Tory MPs have now signaled they will not distribute taxpayer-funded pamphlets attacking Trudeau. It's all illustrative of a government backbench that is growing restless – even rebellious – as increasing numbers of Tory MPs publicly question the iron grip of the PMO.But for all their troubles, the Tories boast one clear advantage – their leader. In spite of their sustained dip in the polls, they benefit from the power of incumbency and the ability to impact public policy and frame the narrative. Love him or hate him, Harper is a known quantity – after three consecutive mandates, he has established economic stewardship and Tim Horton's values as the trademarks of his leadership.As election readiness ramps up, watch for the Tories to intensify outreach to three core constituent groups – social conservatives, middle-class suburban families, and immigrant communities. The durability of this tenuous coalition will determine their fate in 2015.Thomas Mulcair's NDPIt would be an understatement to say Thomas Mulcair has enjoyed a less than stellar spring. First, there was the sudden defection of one of his MPs to the Bloc Quebecois. Then, a litany of unfavourable NDP polls amid a Liberal leadership race the media seemed to swoon over. And to top it off, the anointment of Justin Trudeau who threatens to siphon off NDP votes on the centre-left.At the centre of Mulcair's problems is a growing suspicion he does not resonate with the electorate – particularly in English Canada where he remains an unknown quantity. Even in his home province, Mulcair faces a battle on two fronts with the newly invigorated Liberal and Bloc Quebecois parties nipping at his heals.A recent Harris-Decima survey placed the NDP statistically tied with the Bloc Quebecois for second place in Quebec at 23 and 24 per cent respectively. The Trudeau Liberals were well ahead at 37 per cent support.But Mulcair's fate is not cast in stone for he remains the NDP's best hope of transforming itself into a political vehicle akin to the UK Labour Party. Since assuming its leadership, Mulcair has taken to saying words like “entrepreneur” and “middle class” on a regular basis. To the irritation of its left fringe, the party removed the word “socialism” from its constitution last month.Today's NDP remain a fixture on the political scene like never before, boasting representation in every region of the country. Moreover, should Trudeau self-destruct as leader, Mulcair will acquire the ammunition needed to entrench his party as a government-in-waiting.Justin Trudeau's LiberalsThe Liberal Party has finally got its groove back -- or so Liberals would like to believe -- after over a decade of party infighting and electoral setbacks. A Harris-Decima poll from late April suggests the party has now jumped into a seven-point lead over the Tories in the two weeks that followed Trudeau's commanding leadership victory in mid-April.But at this early stage in his leadership, Trudeau remains a blank slate – absent a concrete policy agenda, voters have largely been drawn to his charisma and youthfulness. As 2015 nears and Trudeau is forced roll out a concrete policy agenda, some voters will want to reassess whether the Liberal offering coincides with their priorities.While some voters will inevitably vote for the cult of personality, debate performance and the party platform will ultimately inform the votes of many more. But political opponents who under estimate Trudeau's propensity to learn on the job do so at their peril; he has proven himself to be a quick study thus far.Trudeau has also shrewdly surrounded himself with a new generation of savvy political strategists. Key architects Katie Telford and Gerald Butts originate from Dalton McGuinty's Ontario government and are said to be keen on re-building the Liberal Party around the younger Trudeau's name. To the extent that the era of 'hyphenated Liberals' is over, it's largely due to the fact the Liberal Party has essentially become the 'Trudeau Party' in all but name.Placing so much confidence in one man is an inherently risky strategy, but there is very much a sense among Liberals that it's do-or-die for the erstwhile natural governing party that remains dormant in large swaths of the country. Watch for the Liberals to double-down on their greatest asset – Justin Trudeau – while moving promptly to assuage any concerns (provoked by Conservative attack ads) that Trudeau lacks the political and management experience to lead a G8 country.Andrew Perez, BJ, MPP, is a Toronto-based writer and political activist. Andrew has considerable experience working in public policy and politics, having worked as a Parliamentary Intern in Ottawa where he worked for both a government and an opposition Member of Parliament. He has also worked for the Liberal Party of Canada, and completed internships at Queen's Park and on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. Most recently, he worked as an advisor on the Sandra Pupatello leadership campaign in Ontario, briefing the candidate and senior campaign team on issues management. Andrew holds a Bachelor of Journalism from Carleton University, and a Master of Public Policy from the University of Toronto.