by: Robert Roach, Senior Researcher and the Director of The West in Canada Project
Majorities are not evil
Majority governments are the norm in Canada, so it is a bit odd to hear a large number of commentators acting like a Tory majority is some sort of evil aberration out of Tolkien’s Land of Mordor. It is true that the Harper government will be able to pursue its agenda without the restrictions of a minority Parliament, but this is exactly the same as it was for Trudeau, Mulroney, and Chretien. We are back to business as usual and not—as some seem to think—out on a crazy limb that will break and send the country into freefall.
In addition, majority governments like to win more than one majority. Hence, while they can pursue their vision for the country without constant fear of a non-confidence vote, they tend to keep one eye on the next election cycle. In other words, radical policies that will alienate large chunks of voters remain unappealing regardless of majority status.
Regional fault lines remain
From a regional perspective, the outcome of the election is very interesting. You barely need two hands to count the Conservative seats in Quebec whereas the NDP have become the de facto representatives of Quebec in the House. This is a new dynamic. In some ways, Quebec has become like Alberta in that it has chosen to side with the opposition rather than the government. Not that long ago, it was Alberta MPs who had only a small presence on the government side of the House.
On the bright side, a Harper majority likely means that the federal government will do as much as it can to advance Senate reform (full reform still requires the provinces to get on board). This is good for the country, good for Quebec and good for the West. A properly designed Senate has the potential to ensure that regional representation does not depend on which party forms the government in the House. Maybe, just maybe, Canada will finally start to fix this broken part of our political system. Maybe.
The Rise of the NDP
Given the nature of the Canadian system, the Official Opposition in a majority Parliament is largely irrelevant in terms of policy. They have an important job to do trying to keep the government’s feet over the coals, but they can’t block government legislation. In this sense, it matters little which party forms the opposition. However, the rise of the NDP is important for several reasons: 1) it is the first time in Canadian history that the Liberal party finds itself in the third party position and it remains to be seen if it can recover; 2) the fuzzy mandate that Layton has from Quebec voters will be a factor but it is impossible to say how this will play out; and 3) the ideological differences between the Tories and the NDPs are relatively clear and will present Canadians with a black and white set of alternatives to watch over the next four years.
The West is Still In
This election shows that a party with a leader from the West and a strong base of support in the region can, by also appealing to Ontario voters, form a majority government. Regardless of your political stripes, the Harper government is not a bad thing from a regional perspective. A government with a strong western base will have a natural connection to the region’s needs and unique circumstances. Because they are governing a nation rather than a region, these needs will not always take precedence, but they should be at least understood and given a fair hearing. This does not mean that governments without a strong western base can’t do this, but in reality, it is much more likely when they do.