THAT FIERY WEEKEND tour after the leadership debates didn’t wind up doing the candidates Dion visited much good. Keith Milligan lost in his Prince Edward Island riding. Kirt Ejesiak lost in Nunavut, Tina Keeper in Churchill, Briony Penn and Anne Park Shannon in B.C. Brian Murphy hung on in Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe, Marc Garneau in downtown Montreal, Anthony Rota in northern Ontario, Keith Martin on Vancouver Island. You win some, you lose some. “Some days take less, but most days take more,” a singer named Bono, much liked by Dion’s predecessor Paul Martin, used to sing. “Some slip through your fingers and onto the floor.”
In Ontario, where he had focused in the home stretch, 16 seats won in 2006 slipped through Dion’s fingers and into the Conservative and NDP caucuses. Twenty-seven, as compared to the 2006 returns, were lost by the Liberals from coast to coast. The Liberal party won a smaller share of the vote than it ever had in modern times. One consolation prize, not a slim one: with 24 per cent of the popular vote and 13 seats, the Liberals performed better under Dion in his home province than under Martin in 2006. It was not a complete rejection. It was not the most personal rejection possible.
It was pretty bad. As Dion and his family made their way into the big room so he could make his very sad concession speech, his wife, Janine Krieber, and daughter, Jeanne, smiled bravely despite obvious distress. CTV reporter Roger Smith, one of the network’s quiet professionals, did his best to carry out an ancient and ludicrous assignment: trying to get a comment from the leader before the leader could address the nation. An RCMP officer guarding Dion body-checked Smith pretty hard, and when the reporter came back for more, Dion himself rounded on him. “The last one I want to speak to first is
Should the Liberals unsheath the
knives? Even on that they were divided.
CTV,” he snapped, and the next sentence dripped with venom and multiple meanings. “You understand that?”
The obvious question was how quickly the Liberals should unsheath the knives. Even on that they were divided. Michael Ignatieff said the party should “reflect” on its leadership. That earned him a rebuke from Denis Coderre, an Ignatieff supporter who had been very slow, in 2006 and 2007, to return to his default mode, loyalty to the leader in place. “I think Mr. Ignatieff, unfortunately, made a mistake tonight,” Coderre told Radio-Canada. “This is not the night to be in knife mode.”
In a lot of places across the country, hiding the cutlery was probably a prudent policy. Elizabeth May lost because of vote-splitting, simple as that. If the NDP vote had gone her way she’d have won. But of course the NDP vote wouldn’t go her way because Jack Layton’s entire tenure as leader of that party has been about his party’s right to exist and thrive, whatever happens to other parties. May sought, with more goodwill than agility, to find a more conciliatory path. The way his philosophy rang the death knell for hers will sharpen the inevitable and healthy debate about how small political parties should work to advance their interests.
Layton becomes the first New Democrat leader since Tommy Douglas to grow its seat count in each of three successive elections. The NDP didn’t post a loss in any province in the nation. They picked up seats in crazy places, crazy places for the federal New Democrats, Newfoundland, Alberta. But Layton had set his sights almost comically high, and like Ron Obvious he didn’t come anywhere close to making it across the Channel. The mood at Layton’s election-night party, at the Guvernment nightclub in Toronto, was sombre. The party hadn’t broken Ed Broadbent’s all-time record seat count. The million-dollar ad buy in Quebec had allowed Mulcair to keep his seat but accomplished no more. The three other Quebec ridings
Lavigne had coveted weren’t even close.
“My name is Jack Layton and I ran for prime minister to put ordinary families first,” he said in French. He essayed a few more lines from his stump speech, switching from present to past tense as he went, stumbling a bit along the way. It had been a tricky campaign for verb tenses.
Every leader of the Bloc Québécois has said the party must not become a permanent fixture in the Parliament of a country the Bloc wants to leave. It is becoming a long time since Duceppe said it. It must be assumed that this year he won a few votes from young voters who were not even alive when he was First elected to Parliament in August 1990. The Bloc is becoming the James Bond of Canadian politics. Every few years, leaders from the rest of Canada leave it bound and gagged over the shark pool, twirl their moustaches, offer up some insincere elegies, and then head for the exits. And every single time, it turns out Duceppe has stashed a laser in his watch or a diamond cutter in his molar or whatever it was he needed to fight another day. Turns out the Bloc didn’t need a sponsorship scandal or months of Gomery commission broadcasts to thrive. Fifteen million in arts cuts— Quebec’s share of the national cuts—was all the fuel he needed. The price of indignation, like the cost of so much else this season, is down substantially.
The Liberal conscripts never did come up with enough guns in British Columbia. Perhaps four seats moved from Red to Blue, after the B.C. wing of the federal party had managed to make gains against national losses in 2004 and 2006.
Stephen Harper veers so wildly from the expected path sometimes that to judge his progress, it is always handy to take the long view. In the summer of2006, a reporter asked a close Harper associate where the new Prime Minister wanted Canada to be in a few years. “Taxes will be down,” the Harperite said. “Ideally André Boisclair will be a defeated leader in the [Quebec] election campaign and the PQ will be in some kind of internal
Stephen Harper has never been handed anything he has won
turmoil.” In this future Canada, “criminals are spending minimum sentences in prison, and there is an organizationally strong, united Conservative party, a divided, discredited, possibly bankrupt Liberal party, and a resurgent NDP.”
Pretty good shot, all things considered. And to what end? More soothsaying from another unnamed Harper associate, this time only this past weekend. “Most people would have said, ‘How the hell could a guy like Harper even last 2V2 years?’ I would argue he made two or three substantial changes to Canadian politics: the child stuff [benefits for parents of each child under six], the military stuff and the cutting of the GST, taking a huge swath of revenue from the federal government. These are big important things that Canadians have dreamed about doing. And he’s done them without—not that anyone thinks he’s not Conservative, but he’s done then in an incremental way. But those are substantial accomplishments.”
Harper has never been handed anything he has won. Seven years ago, when Dion already
had the Clarity Act exploit behind him, Harper was an ex-MP eyeing the leadership of an utterly discredited Canadian Alliance. He had to get past Stockwell Day and Joe Clark and Peter MacKay and Belinda Stronach before he even got a shot at Paul Martin. Every time you could find someone to say he couldn’t win it. He fell short of a majority this year. Never having had a majority, he is not sure what he’s supposed to be missing.
The Liberals have yet to decide how much division and bankruptcy they want to serve up to the waiting Conservatives. Dion will always wonder, as he should, what he could have accomplished if he had not spent two years telling experienced politicians their advice was no use to him. The economy will be tougher than at any point since before Jean Chrétien became prime minister. Some of his tricks are wearing thin. This unwanted, unlovely election didn’t settle much. But it settled one thing.
Stephen Harper is still in charge. M
With John Geddes, Aaron Wherry, Nicholas Köhler, Martin Patriquin, Colin Campbell, Nancy Macdonald, Anne Kingston, Steve Maich,
RachelMendleson and Susan Mohammad
ON THE WEB: A comprehensive photo gallery from behind the scenes of a dramatic election at www.macleans.ca/election08. And for more post-vote news and analysis visit www.macleans.ca/capitalread
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