Canada’s progressive now, but for how long?

Last November’s defeat of the Progressive Conservative government in Newfoundland and Labrador left Canada without a single government sporting the Conservative brand. It closed out a tough year for Toryism that began with a PC loss in New Brunswick the previous fall, continued with the stunning PC defeat in Alberta, and crescendoed with the fall of the federal Conservative government, once described by Michael Ignatieff as “the most determined and ruthless … political machine we’ve seen in Canada for a long time.” By comparison, Premier Paul Davis’s trouncing by Newfoundland’s Liberals was a mopping up operation, finishing off the wounded on the national political battlefield.

For progressives, it was sunny days. Disunited and out of power in Ottawa for a decade and governing in only a few provincial outposts, they feared Canada had become an unregenerate right wing wasteland. Then suddenly the country was theirs again, and a thousand flowers might bloom.

Understandable as such satisfaction might be, the thoughtful progressive should still rest uneasily, for their victory is not complete.

In British Columbia, Liberal Premier Christie Clark is no progressive. She governs as a centrist Tory, leading a party formed from the wreckage of the once-dominant Social Credit party. She is a Liberal, in the way that some prime ministers have been Catholics, a member of the club but not accepting of its inconvenient nostrums.

In Saskatchewan, Brad Wall heads a provincial government that is conservative in all but name.

In Quebec, the governing Liberals under Philippe Couillard are federalist and fiscally cautious.

And even in Newfoundland, what are we to make of Liberal Premier Dwight Ball’s Harperian pledges to lower the provincial harmonised sales tax and “put money back in the pockets” of the citizens of Newfoundland and Labrador?

Conservative is as conservative does.

Moreover, although a complete exorcizing of a party name from the electoral map is unusual, it is not unprecedented. Brand-name Toryism has been wiped out in Canada at least four times since Confederation. But that’s politics: holding the reins today, under the horses’ hooves tomorrow, then back in the saddle: Rather like today’s progressives, in fact.

When and where might a conservative revival occur?

Elections 2016

First up is Saskatchewan’s election April 4. Brad Wall’s re-election seems certain. His party has been polling north of 50 percent for months and there have been no serious hiccups during the campaign. Even though Wall has been premier almost as long as Stephen Harper was prime minister and the oil price crash has tarnished his economic halo, he looks set to win a third consecutive majority. It’s a reward for presiding over nearly a decade of steady growth in the province’s economy, population and confidence. Happily for him, he has NDP horror proof-points to the west and east. The ‘don’t-do-what-Alberta-did’ card especially is a trump. And many Saskatchewan voters seem pleased that their premier has emerged as the West’s champion in tiffs with Ottawa and Quebec over pipelines and equalization.

The first incumbent progressive government to fall may be in Manitoba, on April 19. Polls have consistently favoured the Progressive Conservatives under leader Brian Pallister for years. Although the lead has recently narrowed, at mid-campaign the PCs were still running at least 20 points ahead of both the incumbent NDP government under Premier Greg Selinger and the Liberals under rookie leader Rana Bokhari, each holding some 20 percent of the centre-left vote.

The NDP has held power for 16 years, in itself an invitation to change. It has also languished in the polls for much of Selinger’s tenure, especially since a 2013 increase to the provincial sales tax. Sinking support has prompted party infighting – Selinger barely survived a leadership review last year – and some high-profile cabinet members have abandoned ship.

The worst news for the NDP is the resurgence of the Liberals, who took only 7 percent of the vote in the 2011 election. A few months ago it appeared the Trudeau afterglow might even vault the Grits into second place. Still, the NDP won’t go down without a fight. It will draw on national party resources and public sector unions, and is very good at getting out the vote. But thanks to Liberal-NDP vote-splitting, Manitoba will likely host Canada’s first conservative comeback.

Yukon must have an election no later than October 17. It will be fought against the backdrop of a struggling resource sector as well as Liberal momentum stemming from the 2015 federal election, when former Grit MP Larry Bagnell reclaimed the seat from the Conservatives, winning by a huge margin. But the territorial party has no history of winning and holds just one of 19 seats in the legislature.

The NDP (six seats) is the real competition for the incumbent Yukon party government, but as in all the surrounding polities, it is hindered by the performance of the Alberta NDP, which is widely perceived to have exacerbated that province’s economic difficulties. This contrasts serendipitously with the conservative positioning of Premier Darrell Pasloski as the architect of a balanced budget and champion for the territory’s beleaguered resource development industry.

Thus Yukon looks like another hold for conservatism in 2016.

Elections 2017

British Columbians will troop to the polls in May, 2017 and pass judgment on Liberal-conservative Premier Clark’s record. B.C. has weathered Canada’s recent economic difficulties better than most and could soon be the country’s only “have” province. Clark is a proven campaigner who snatched victory from defeat three years ago when the NDP, then riding high in the polls, seemed poised to govern.

Then and now, Clark has straddled pipeline controversies better than any Canadian politician caught between the rock of economically essential resource development and the hard place of green-aboriginal obstructionism. Behind the shield of her brilliantly ambiguous five-point approval list for pipelines, she has generally come down against bad (Alberta oil) pipelines and for good (B.C. gas) pipelines.

B.C.'s Clark and Alberta's Notley both need pipelines to generate economic growth and political capital.
B.C.’s Clark and Alberta’s Notley both need pipelines to generate economic growth and political capital.

In her government’s recent Throne Speech Clark added insult to injury of Alberta by suggesting its economic travails were entirely self-inflicted and in stark contrast to B.C.’s expert stewardship. It was a poor time for Alberta schadenfreude however: Only a few days before, Shell Canada, whose LNG pipeline to Kitimat was the only B.C. gas export project that had all its environmental approvals in place, had announced that market considerations required a nine-month deferral of its go/no-go decision. With the future of LNG as a strong contributor to B.C.’s economic strength increasingly uncertain, Clark was now in the same boat as Alberta’s Rachel Notley – both premiers need a pipeline to generate economic growth and political capital. Neither has one.

In the person of new NDP leader John Horgan, Clark faces an opponent with similar oratorical gifts. And lately, following a string of bad process stories that together portray a sense of Liberal entitlement, she is not feeling the love. In December, only Ontario Premier Katheen Wynne and Manitoba’s Selinger had lower approval ratings.

But it’s B.C. The election’s over a year away. Anything could happen. As evidenced by the Throne Speech, Clark’s Liberals are positioning centre-right. It’s not very conservative to oppose resource development in any province but one’s own, but it has worked for Clark so far and could do so again in 2017, in which case conservatives will say it was better than the alternative and claim her as their own.

2017 will also witness a raft of big city elections across Canada, including Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal and Quebec City. Strictly speaking, there is no party involvement in municipal elections, but as often as not they pit progressives against conservatives. Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi and his Edmonton counterpart Don Iveson are considered among the former. Iveson is probably a shoe-in for a second term unless a challenger can hang him with a string of civic infrastructure projects that have gone badly awry. Mayor Nenshi may have headed off a conservative challenge with his spirited attack on Montreal mayor Denis Coderre in defence of the Energy East pipeline.

Coderre, a former Liberal cabinet from the Chretien era, has done himself no harm in Montreal by attacking a pipeline. But neither has Quebec City mayor Regis Labeaume, by supporting one. Labeaume often willingly shared the stage with Stephen Harper when the former PM visited his city. Enormously popular, he takes the view that “all organizations that want to build infrastructure for transporting energy should be able to”. He also wondered how Quebecers would feel if other provinces blocked Hydro-Québec from building an electrical transmission line: “I would feel exactly like the people in the West do now.”

In these cities, at least, the status quo is likely to prevail, maintaining progressive dominance in Canadian municipal governance.

Elections 2018

In just over two years, four Liberal provincial governments – Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia – will be judged by the voters. The Ontario election, set for June, will likely focus on the governing Liberals’ seemingly indefensible fiscal performance, soaring energy prices, nagging scandals and OPP investigations, and the performance of Premier Wynne. Momentum is with the new Conservative opposition leader Patrick Brown, whose party handily won a February by-election, albeit in a safe Tory seat. The Ontario Grits, like their cousins in Ottawa, are praying the swooning Loonie will stimulate manufacturing exports, investment and jobs. Unfortunately, much of Ontario’s traditional manufacturing base has long since decamped to jurisdictions with lower operating costs, and what’s left of it depends greatly on the health of the western energy sector.

Brown, like Manitoba’s Pallister and Alberta’s Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean, is a former Harper MP, and a formidable campaigner. His leadership race was an impressive display of retail politics, signing up 40,000 new members and reinvigorating the party.

It is too early to speculate what effect the federal Liberal government might have on the fortunes of the provincial Liberals. Wynne’s cheerleading for Justin Trudeau’s 2015 campaign could be well-rewarded. Of course, the reverse is also true: if Trudeau flounders, it could backfire.

Get used to the phrase "Conservative Patrick Brown . THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch
Get used to the phrase “Conservative Patrick Brown”. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch

By 2018 the Liberals will have been in power for 15 years. They probably would have lost the 2014 election but for a disastrous Conservative campaign and performance by its then-Leader Tim Hudak. The provincial NDP is mired in third place, seemingly for eternity. The prospects for a significant economic turnaround putting air in the Liberals’ sails are slim. The election’s a long way off but it’s not too early to start practicing the phrase, ‘Conservative Premier Patrick Brown’.

Quebec votes October 1, 2018. Given the province’s singular preoccupation with matters of language and culture, its politics do not divide neatly along progressive-conservative lines. The separatist Parti Quebecois certainly layers a left-wing, high-tax, statist agenda onto its nationalism. The governing centre-right Liberals tend to be more fiscally prudent, although Quebec taxes remain among Canada’s highest on their watch – and are rising.

The fates of both parties could be heavily influenced by the actions of the federal Liberals. Any perceived encroachment by the Trudeau government on provincial jurisdiction, for example, would likely benefit the PQ. The nationalists could also make hay over the 150th anniversary of Confederation next year, casting it as symbolic of Canadian conquest and oppression. The Energy East pipeline remains a delicate file for the government, and the simmering issue of “reasonable accommodation” of ethnic and religious minorities could boil over with the arrival of thousands of Syrian refugees.

If the Liberals have an advantage beyond incumbency, it is in Premier Couillard’s generally calm and competent leadership, which contrasts strikingly with PQ leader Pierre-Karl Peladeau’s mercurial public performances. Liberal re-election seems probable, but it would not appreciably tip the scales toward progressivism or conservatism. As ever, however, it could have much to say about national unity.

The Liberal government of New Brunswick faces the voters in September, 2018. Like Nova Scotia, where a Liberal regime is also due for an election that year, New Brunswick is beset with an aging population and stagnating economy. Both provinces are trying to squeeze more revenue out of a shrinking tax base. Both remain dependent on federal transfers that come from a dwindling number of economically robust provinces. In these bleak circumstances, the words progressive and conservative have little political meaning. No matter who is in power, there is little room for policy variance.

Thus there is more fluidity within Atlantic voter, party and politician behaviours. The parties wander backwards and forwards over policy lines that would more sharply define and divide them elsewhere. And individuals move within them: Cumberland-Colchester MP Bill Casey, elected in 2015 as a Liberal, sat previously in Ottawa as a Progressive Conservative, a Conservative and an Independent. Liberal minister Scott Brison was elected in 2006 as a Conservative.

In Nova Scotia, in 2013, current Premier Stephen McNeill – the ‘progressive’ Liberal – campaigned on a ‘conservative’ issue, balancing the budget. Meanwhile New Brunswick Liberal premier Brian Gallant is now both against fracking – progressive – and in favour of pipelines – conservative. Both preach austerity.

A large-C Conservative comeback in both provinces is conceivable, for all the difference it will make. Some of their issues can be pitched from the left, such as the proposition that energy policies that ban fracking hurt the poor. In all likelihood however, a 2018 conservative comeback will be much more about organization, than policy. They have two years, and it is not more time than they need.

Elections 2019

In just over three years Albertans will judge their first NDP government. A split conservative vote handed power to Rachel Notley’s NDP last year. Although they took office with much public appreciation for ending the 44-year-old Progressive Conservative dynasty, the NDP has struggled in recent months. A recent poll pegged the combined support of the Wildrose and PC parties at over 60 percent and the NDP under 30 percent. The governing party finished fourth in last month’s Calgary Greenway by-election,

Much of the new government’s fall from grace has to do with the global oil supply glut, price crash and market access challenges, but there is a growing sense that the NDP is worsening the energy recession with tax increases and new environmental regulations. A clumsy attempt to regulate farm workers blew up what little support the government enjoyed in rural areas and Notley offended the province’s deep parochial streak by referring to Alberta as “Confederation’s embarrassing cousin”.

Nevertheless, the outcome in 2019 will depend on Alberta’s right standing together. A number of initiatives are underway aimed at creating a new, united conservative party, but there is institutional resistance and lingering bitterness in both camps. At a recent conservative unity discussion in the southern Alberta foothills town of Cochrane, members of both parties hurled insults at each other until Morgan Nagel, a young local councillor, called a straw vote asking whether they would be willing to abandon their existing parties for a new conservative party. Everyone voted in favour. Similar meetings have produced similar results elsewhere in the province.

The PCs narrowly held Calgary-Greenway in a March by-election to replace a former cabinet minister who died in a highway accident last fall. Wildrose finished a close second, with the Liberals and NDP not far behind in third and fourth, respectively. The NDP and PC share of the popular vote both fell dramatically compared to last year’s election, but the combined Wildrose-PC vote exceeded 50 percent.

The other election in 2019 that could substantively end progressive dominance in the current political cycle will be in Ottawa. But after the hair-raising ride of last year’s campaign, where all three parties were in majority territory at least once, only a fool would bet on the outcome today.

The Trudeau government, like the Notley NDP, looks like it will be governing through a rough economic patch for the forseeable future. It campaigned on promises to run deficits and invest in infrastructure and will undoubtedly do both. With luck, perhaps a lot of it, this pump-priming will see Canada through a downturn and the recovery will arrive just in time for the next writ.

In these circumstances conservatives may be inclined to stick to the austerity themes of the late 20th century that won them power and kept them there until recently. But some will see lessons in the electoral successes of big-borrowing, big-spending progressive parties, and this dichotomy could be a defining issue in the federal party’s impending leadership campaign.

By 2019 Canadians will probably be less susceptible to the personal charms that carried Trudeau to power. But if they are still in the mood for government borrowing and spending, and the conservatives’ traditional emphasis on fiscal prudence has not been diffused in a broader policy frame, the latter may have to resign themselves to another four years in the political wilderness.

The current progressive near-monopoly of Canadian government means that whatever happens to the economy, to employment, deficit, growth, pipelines, manufacturing, infrastructure, climate change adjustments, national security, euthanasia and national unity, they now own it. They own it, ready or not, from coast to coast and for good or ill. And the judgment of Canadians upon them starts this April.


Nigel Hannaford is a former member of the Calgary Herald editorial board, and for the last six years, Manager of speechwriting in the Office of the Prime Minister.


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