The Conservative attack ads didn’t resonate with Canadian voters this time around, as the guy with the “nice hair,” pulled off what was an unprecedented come back in this nation’s federal election history. From a distant third to first at the polls in the course of just four years isn’t supposed to happen. In the 2011 election, the Liberals suffered a spectacular fall from grace, claiming a record low of 34 seats in the House of Commons. But after the polls closed for this year’s October 19 election, the count showed the party won 184 seats — 14 more than needed for a majority and Justin Trudeau is now the prime-minister-designate.
Political pundits are now engaged in analyzing the results of the 2015 election to determine how a expected minority by any of three political parties became a majority government for the Liberals. It will become a note in Canadian history as the first time a son has duplicated the feat of a father to become the prime minister of Canada. The father, Pierre Trudeau, road a wave of “Trudeaumania” that swept the land in 1968 to win a Liberal majority government. Can his son’s victory be called a reincarnation of “Trudeaumania?” Perhaps to some extent, but it had more to do with Canadians wanting “real change” — the campaign motto of the Liberals — than a search for a new charismatic individual to lead the nation.
The morning after the election, pollsters admitted they had failed to predict a Liberal majority — a minority maybe, but not a majority, although they were right about the percentage level of support each party would receive.
It was a remarkable defeat of an incumbent government, though far from the utter collapse of the Tories led by Kim Campbell in 1993, when the Conservatives went from a substantial majority to just two seats in the House. This time around, the Conservatives under Stephen Harper won 99 seats, falling to second-place status in the House. It was a result dictated by the exercising of “wedge politics,” a play to the Conservative voter base. Relaying solely upon this base meant there was no room to grow. It was impossible for the Harper-lead government to break through the barrier of 30 per cent of committed voters. All that was required was the gain of just a few percentage points, but that was a bridge too far when coupled with the collapse of the Thomas Mulcair-lead NDP. The Tories had to rely upon retaining their base combined with the NDPs and Grits splitting the other 65 per cent of voters who would never back the Conservatives. In this scenario, the Tories could only hope for a minority government at best, but that was not to be. A factor was that too many people came to the polls — nearly 70 per cent — which hampered the Conservative cause. In the 2011 election, the turnout was significantly lower at under 62 per cent. With a guaranteed base of 30 per cent of voters, the Conservatives were assured a majority by marshalling a scant percentage of other voters. Still, there should be no despair expressed, since the party won a good chunk of seats and will replace the NDP as the Official Opposition.
In the 308-seat House, the Conservatives held 159 ridings when this year’s election was called, while the NDP had 95. The House was recently expanded to 338 seats, including 15 in Ontario, six each for Alberta and B.C. and three others for Quebec, which technically should have helped the Tories.
What happened this election was that the anything-but-Harper voters backed the Liberals and Trudeau, who got stronger as the campaign progressed, defying Conservative wisdom that the guy, who they claimed was “just not ready,” would make a slew of mistakes during the course of Canada’s longest election campaign since 1874. He didn’t and that irreparably damaged the Conservative message. Trudeau managed to turn the tables by mocking the attack ads with the comment, “Stephen Harper says I’m not ready. I’ll tell you what I’m not ready for ...” and then criticized the Conservative’s economic record. Quite simply, the Conservatives underestimated their opponent. He was no pushover in the same vein as Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, the Liberal Party leaders prior to Trudeau who were dismissed by the electorate following a spate of Tory attack ads.
With the election results coming in, a neighbour bluntly told me, “His (Harper’s) negative campaigning didn’t work!”
“We beat fear with hope,” Trudeau told supporters after the election in Montreal. “This is what positive politics can do.”
The potential extent of the Liberal victory became evident when the final ballots were counted in Atlantic Canada. It was an unprecedented sweep, as the party claimed all 32 seats available (they won just 12 seats in the region in 2011).
The surge continued into Quebec, where the NDP were decimated to the Liberal’s advantage. The “orange crush,” turned into an “orange crash” with the NDP winning just 14 seats. In Ontario, the Liberal surge kept its momentum with the party claiming 80 of 121 seats.
And then in Manitoba, seven of eight Winnipeg seats went to the Trudeau-led party. The list of major upsets included the NDP’s Pat Martin, Manitoba’s longest-serving MP at 18 years, falling to Liberal newcomer Robert-Falcon Ouellette in Winnipeg Centre, and Liberal Doug Eyolfson, another newcomer, unseating long-time Tory MP, Steven Fletcher, in Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia-Headingley.
The only Conservative strength was in rural Manitoba where the party won five of six ridings, which was not an unexpected result.
It was also expected that the Conservatives would maintain its base of diehard supporters in Saskatchewan and Alberta, which was the case, although there were Liberal gains in urban centres. Once past the Prairie Provinces, the Liberal sweep continued in British Columbia.
Gracious in defeat, Harper told his own supporters in Calgary, “The people are never wrong.” Harper will be stepping down as leader of the party he kept in power for a decade, which is a good run for any prime minister. He accepted personal responsibility for the defeat, but also said his supporters should have no regrets. Harper has asked his party’s national council to approach the new parliamentary caucus to appoint an interim leader and implement a leadership contest.
What becomes the shape of the Conservative Party in the post-Harper era remains to be seen.
Equally gracious in victory, Trudeau said: “Conservatives are not our enemies, they’re our neighbours. Leadership is about bringing people of all different perspectives together.”
“Canadians have made their choice, and will accept the choice with full humility,” said Mulcair during his concession speech in Montreal. Across Canada, the NDP, which was initially touted as the party with the best chance to oust Harper and the Conservatives, won just 44 seats.
The outcome of the federal election was a surprise — not that Harper and the Conservatives lost, as the polls showed that was a possibility — but the extent of the Liberal margin of victory.