Polling data show the Liberal party stuck in the polls over the last months. After nudging ahead of the Conservatives, the Grits have fallen back, unable to establish any kind of a lead.
There is no shortage of explanations for the Liberal stall. Importantly, the party has failed to establish its leadership on the policy issues that matter: the Afghanistan war, the economic meltdown and the future of carbon capitalism.
It is barely imaginable that Canada should be sending its soldiers to die in what has been the graveyard of imperialist adventures since the time of Alexander the Great. While a majority of the Canadians now want to bring the troops home, the official opposition has failed to oppose the war.
Amid the worst economic slump since the 1930s, the Conservative government, which totally misconstrued the nature and extent of the problems (and believes government can do nothing to make things better) continues to lead the Liberals in public opinion. Yet the Liberal party declines to offer Canadians analysis, and ideas about what needs to be done to rebuild the economy.
After electing Stéphane Dion leader on the basis of his green platform, the Liberals have reverted to cheerleading for tar sands development, a policy stance inherited from the Chrétien years. The party flubbed its electoral chance at wearing the green mantle to victory by supporting a carbon tax (favoured by industry) instead of championing controls over green gas emissions. Now it has backed away from the defining issue of the century: how to deal with out-of-control carbon capitalism.
Historically, Liberal electoral performance depends, first, on having more partisans than the other parties; and, second, on being successful in getting them out to vote. The Liberal party membership saw itself excluded from its most important role -- choosing the party leader -- when the parliamentary caucus usurped the leadership decision-making process, and pressured the two other leadership candidates to withdraw, so the party executive could appoint Michael Ignatieff leader. Alienating party members augurs poorly for the party come the next election.
His grandstanding over forcing an election, and his parliamentary manoeuvers around reform of the ineffective unemployment regime have failed to enhance the reputation of Ignatieff as a Liberal leader. An initial round of Conservative attack ads have played better than the rookie Leader, whose attempts to generate public interest and attention have failed to boost his party.
To re-build their finances, the Liberals have chosen Rocco Rossi as party National Director, a proven fundraiser with a national reputation. However important it is to beef up organizational capacity -- the strong point of the Conservatives -- something else is happening at the level of the party system.
The Liberal stall shows electors are paying attention to the performance of the other parties. In fact a new electoral map has emerged where the two old line parties together occupy less space than in the days of majority governments. Data from various polls over recent months confirm a trend that emerged with the accession of Harper to government. Together the Liberals and Conservatives find favour with about 65 per cent of Canadians. Another 35 per cent are looking either to the Bloc (about 10 per cent), or NDP/Green (25 per cent). Poll after poll has the Liberals at 30, 31, 32, 33, 34 or 35 per cent, mirrored by the Conservatives at 35, 34, 33, 32, 31 or 30 per cent. The NDP have been polling between 15 and 18 per cent, mirrored by the Greens at between 10 and seven per cent. Bloc support fluctuates around 10 per cent.
The Liberals, like the Conservatives, show a bedrock support of about 30 per cent, but also a ceiling no higher currently than 35 percent -- not enough to win a majority. Moving the ceiling means taking space from the Bloc, the NDP or the Greens.
To get back on their game, the Liberals need to gain ground in Quebec. It is the straightforward way for any party to become the default option for Canadians looking to change the government. But in much of Quebec outside the Montreal region, the Conservatives have more support than the Liberals, and in urban Quebec the Liberals have either the wrong polices (Afghanistan, tar sands), no policies (the economy), or too many enemies from the past for them to challenge the Bloc.
The same bad policies, no policies stance means the Liberals are not threatening the NDP/Green 25 per cent support level in urban areas outside Quebec. This "not Liberal" support has remained stable.
The Liberal stall can be seen as a structural shift in the party system. We see a two way split between a 65 per cent Liberal/Conservative electorate, and a 35 per cent NDP/Green/Bloc voting group. Such a scenario predicts minority governments to come.
The Liberals and Conservatives now form a grand coalition. Neither partner is happy with living with the other. However, since the stable minority is based on similar policy stances on the important issues of the war, the economy and the environment, it can be expected to last until after the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Duncan Cameron writes from Quebec City.
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