Prime Minister Stephen Harper could call the election as soon as the weekend, making it the longest campaign in Canadian history, leading up to the October 19th ‘big reveal’. Boundaries have changed, there are 338 seats in Parliament up for grabs this time, and the New Democratic Party sits poised to take a serious shot at making Canadian history. Are you jacked? Are your grassroots moving?
A Very Brief Synopsis of Canadian Political History
Before we dive right into the players, and the game, perhaps we should get some of you up to speed, on the ‘bigger picture’. After all, roughly half of you haven’t seen the inside of a voting booth since 2006, so you might be feeling a tad ‘out of the loop’. Yes, I’m still harping on the dismal voter turnouts in the last couple of federal elections, but I also want people to become re-engaged, for what just might be the most important election of our generation. So yeah, I’m picking on you, but doing it for a ‘benevolent’ reason – honest! For those of you who are politically astute, and happily following your favourite party and every political twist and turn along the way, this will be mercifully brief.
If you take a quick look at the last eighty years of Canadian politics, you can see a very stable pattern emerge, that gives insight into what we might expect in this election. The early years of Canadian politics were unstable and funky, which is to be expected when something brand new begins, so we’ll just jump up to 1935, when things begin to stabilize.
In 1935, The Liberals, under Mackenzie King, defeat incumbent R.B. Bennett of the Conservatives. At this time, the CCF (later to become the New Democratic Party), make inroads into Canadian politics, and introduce the concept of ‘social reform’, a left-of-center ideology that will become integrated into the Canadian psyche, separating us politically from our American counterparts.
In 1940 and 1945, the Liberals win again, under Mackenzie King. In 1949, and 1953, the Liberals continue to hold power, under Louis St. Laurent.
In 1957, power shifts over to the Conservatives, under John Diefenbaker. It is a narrow victory, which sparks another election in 1958, in which Diefenbaker wins the largest majority government in Canadian history.
In 1962, Diefenbaker wins again, with a minority. This election sees the emergence of Tommy Douglas, the patriarch of the New Democratic Party, who is credited with the concept of universal health care in Canada.
The turbulence of the 1962 election results in another election in 1963, in which the Liberals, under Lester B. Pearson, take control with a minority. Canada goes back to the polls in 1965, and again, Pearson wins a minority.
In 1968, Pierre Trudeau emerges as the Liberal leader, and wins a majority. Trudeau wins again in 1972, with a minority, which leads to another election in 1974, where Trudeau wins a majority.
In 1979, Joe Clark of the Conservatives wins a hotly contested minority. This election sees the emergence of Ed Broadbent of the NDP, who makes significant progress in an enlarged election landscape.
Canada goes back to the polls in 1980, which sees Trudeau re-emerge, with a majority.
In 1984, Brian Mulroney wins a historic election for the Conservatives, defeating John Turner of the Liberals, who had only been party leader for a short time. The Conservatives win the most seats in Parliament in Canadian history.
In 1988, Mulroney wins another majority, successfully fending off a resurgent Liberal Party, and a strong showing from Ed Broadbent’s NDP.
In 1993, the Liberals, under John Chretien, win a majority, devastating the Conservative Party, led by Kim Campbell.
In 1997, Chretien wins another majority. Preston Manning leads his new Reform Party to form the official opposition, splitting the votes amongst right-of-center voters. The NDP gain more seats.
In 2000, Chretien wins yet again, this time facing Stockwell Day’s Canadian Alliance Party, as the conservative movement in Canada continues to shift and evolve. Joe Clark and the Progressive Conservatives narrowly hold onto official party status, with 12 seats in Parliament.
In 2004, the Liberals win a minority government, under leader Paul Martin. Stephen Harper emerges as the leader of the newly formed Conservative Party, merging the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives under one banner.
In 2006, Stephen Harper wins a minority for the Conservatives. In 2008, Harper wins another minority. The NDP continue to pick up seats, with Jack Layton as leader.
In 2011, Stephen Harper wins a majority. The New Democratic Party forms the Official Opposition under Thomas Mulcair for the first time in Canadian history. Also, for the first time in history, the Liberals under Michael Ignatieff fail to form either the government, or the Official Opposition.
So, there you have it! All the drama, the spills and chills of the last 80 years, in just over 500 words! Not too painful, was it?
Looking at this brief synopsis, what can we glean? What does it foretell about the Canadian political landscape by the time Halloween rolls around? Will it be spooky? Full of tricks, or will there be treats?
Depends on which team you cheer for, I suppose. As I said, I’m not settled into any one party or candidate yet. I need to see more, before reaching any conclusions.
But what I can tell you, is this. Of the 24 elections covered in my synopsis, 15 were won by Liberals, and 9 were won by the Conservatives. The NDP have yet to seize that brass ring, even though the Party has won elections on a provincial level throughout most of Canada. So, if you were strictly a statistics nut, and you were drawing up the Las Vegas betting line for the upcoming election, you would likely have to give a mathematical advantage to the Liberals.
Hold on, wait a minute! The Liberals aren’t looking very strong right now! They are languishing in third place in the polls, and Justin Trudeau seems to be struggling to define himself, wedged between the strength of the left and right signals coming from the Conservatives and the NDP. What chance do they have of winning, realistically? Let’s go back to the analysis, see if there are any more clues.
From 1974 until 1984, there was a back-and-forth thing that happened, that is unique to Canadian politics. The Liberals and the Conservatives traded wins four times in a row, which hasn’t happened at any other point in our history. Apart from that election anomaly, there tends to be more of a pendulum motion to Canadian politics, where leaders rise, sustain, then fall, and power shifts back over to the other party. The historically dominant Liberal Party has managed to hold onto a winning momentum for five consecutive election wins, but what about the Conservatives?
The Conservatives have never won a fourth election in a row in the last 80 years. Diefenbaker won three in a row, back in the late 50’s and early 60’s, but the Conservatives have never been able to hold onto momentum for a fourth term. Guess what? Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have won the last three elections! Can they re-write history, and capture that elusive fourth win? Or will history repeat itself, and the pendulum will swing? And if it does, which way will it swing, this time?
Because, as mentioned before, there is a new player in town. His name is Thomas Mulcair, and if trends continue, he just might get that pendulum to swing further left than it has ever swung before. The Liberal ship is floundering while trying to get its bearings, the NDP are riding a wave of popularity, and the Conservatives are facing strong historical headwinds, and a voting public yearning for change. What will happen? Where will the drama take us?
Luckily, it looks like we will have a marathon election cycle, to play it all out. For political pundits, it’s play-off season. The Super Bowl of Canadian politics is taking shape, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. An uncertain economic climate, a crashing oil market, and a volatile world await the victor. Who will emerge as our champion? And what will it mean, for the average Canadian?