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What a difference third-party status makes. The last time the Liberals held an all-out leadership race, in 2006, it was about replacing Stephen Harper's frail minority and wielding power. Now even Justin Trudeau says, "This is about who's going to be leader of the third party." (An impressively long view from somebody who's supposed to lack maturity.) But what are the real stakes? It's about who will be the future Liberal Party of Canada.
At the moment, oddly, that’s not the Liberals, it’s the NDP, under former Liberal Thomas Mulcair. Both parties are battling over roughly the same voters. In policy terms, they're similar. Both are neo-liberal parties, like the Harper Conservatives or U.S. Republicans, but with a heart (assume some irony in the tone), like the Obama Democrats or Labour in the U.K.
Together, they command a strong majority of votes; that's been true since the mid-20th century, with two exceptions (the Progressive Conservative wins of John Diefenbaker in 1958 and Brian Mulroney in 1984). Otherwise, combined they average around 60 per cent of votes -- or more with the addition of the Greens and Bloc Québécois in the past 20 years. The conservatives, progressive or not, hang in the 30-40 per cent range.
The obvious question is: Why don’t they unite and both get to be the Liberal party? Lotsa luck. I heard someone who isn't old enough to vote yet, say: "It's like a game of chicken where they're driving toward each other and you're waiting to see which one gets off the road first for the sake of Canada!" It's even more irritating since if one of them did chicken out (for the greater good), forgoing power, the impact on Canadians would be about the same.
So I don't buy the suggestion of McGill political scientist Antonia Maioni, quoted by Michael Valpy here this week, that Stephen Harper is creating a "new normal" in Canadian politics. The voting stats going back 50-plus years don't show that. In fact, if you factor in declining voter turnout during those years (from 75 or 80 per cent to around 60 per cent), and assume that those who dropped out are far more likely to vote on the "left" of the spectrum, then the old normal may well have been reinforced, at least potentially, rather being supplanted by a new normal. This is also reflected in attitudinal polling on things like the role of government or the Canadian military.
I, too, have wondered if Stephen Harper is managing to change Canada incrementally and by stealth. But I don't think the evidence bears that out. Although some of his followers may think so, I suspect Harper himself doesn't. He knows he isn't transforming Canadians but he can still make a lot of changes in their society due to that split between Liberals and the NDP. It's entirely understandable for him to take the advantage, as long as he's offered it.
True, this kind of thing can drive you crazy, from a democratic or just a rational standpoint. But there seem to be lags and discrepancies between a population and its governors under almost any political system. Soviet-type regimes ruled Eastern Europe for four decades. They tried to “change” those societies both subtly and grossly. Then it all vanished as if it had never been. People remained religiously, culturally, etc. largely as they once were. It’s not easy to change a whole society from the top, whether it’s Poland or Canada.
For that matter, the period known as the Sixties (roughly from 1967-75) saw massive shifts in attitude regarding race, gender, sexuality, foreign policy, the environment. Those changes were only sporadically reflected in the formal poltical structures, or not at all. For the last 40 years there have been intense, well-funded political efforts to override them. Yet they seem ensconced.
There’s also the question, alongside who gets to be the next Liberal party, of who gets to be the next real third party, the one that's "a choice not an echo," as the CCF (predecessor to the NDP) was in its early incarnations. It's a dubious distinction since those parties rarely get far. Perhaps they're only there to make the "serious" parties uncomfortable -- and act as a reminder that something else is happening, not far beneath the surface.
This article was first published in the Toronto Star.