Orange Crush or Blue Behemoth?


Conservative's victory might be a one-time thing — or not

No easy answers to the surprising results of May 2nd, 2011

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

Theories abound about how the Conservatives pulled a majority out of the widely expected minority government on May 2 or why the NDP crushed the Bloc Quebecois en route to becoming the official opposition. Or what happened to the Liberals.

One of the more interesting commentaries about the outcome comes from the consulting firm Ensight Canada. It conducted 12 focus group examinations of the election across the country right after the vote. Its conclusion is “Stephen Harper’s new majority might be an isolated event.”

The Liberals did poorly at connecting with many voters and the surging NDP may have driven some of the support to the Conservatives, it says. Michael Ignatieff failed to connect with many Canadians.

“Despite a sizeable public appetite for change, his lack of a ‘unique selling proposition hampered his party’s ability to win seats. Canadians simply could not name a compelling reason that the Liberals had given them to vote for their party.”

The Bloc concentrated on sovereignty when most Quebecois weren’t interested. Layton became the only option, Ensight observes. “In an effort to gain seats at the expense of the Conservatives, Liberals and Bloc, the NDP successfully became the only acceptable choice to voters dissatisfied with Liberal and Conservative treatment of their province and who were unimpressed with the Bloc in this election. The NDP, like the Conservatives in 2006, drew support from the ranks of soft nationalists and federalists alike.”

While the Conservatives got lucky bounces in the election campaign, they were “matched with equal parts hard work, earned trust, and careful positioning,” Ensight points out. “The Conservatives made themselves the party best able to achieve stable government and to provide stable economic leadership.”

The focus groups showed Canadians were tired of election threats and political games among the leaders. Some voters held their noses and voted for Harper to bring stability to the federal government.

His advantage is a solid economic performance. “Even those who disliked Harper respected his performance during the worst economic crisis in decades. We believe Harper’s continued success on the economy appears to be a double-edged sword: he earned political capital during the difficult years now behind him, but economic performance will continue to be the measure of his success going forward.”

While some Conservatives may cast the election win as a strong mandate for implementing Conservatives policies, Ensight suggests a more cautious interpretation.

“A small gain in popular vote has translated into a large gain in seats that has some Canadians alarmed. They view the new majority with some degree of surprise and even a degree of trepidation. This surprise outcome may be a momentary phenomenon as Canadians come to terms with the results, but it could be aggravated by policy decisions perceived to be extreme. You might call this a ‘majority mandate with clear boundaries’ for the new government.

“At this point, Canadians are still not ready to grant the Conservatives permission to move too far out of the mainstream across certain areas of the issues spectrum,” Ensight suggests. “While Canadians confidently gave Harper a green light on the economy, they do not expect, nor do they want to see, any movement on social issues.”

It’s not only the Conservatives who need to tread with caution in the 41st Parliament, Ensight points out. “The NDP earned their historic showing as a result of a political swell based mostly in Quebec, but a new day brings questions about the party’s readiness. Now that Laytonhas the keys to Stornoway, Canadians are beginning a frank assessment of how much trust they will lend him.

“The NDP have a number of significant challenges ahead,” it notes. “They must earn their new role of Official Opposition. They walk a minefield of potential caucus  management issues with their field of rookie MPs and face the challenge of balancing their appeal to federalist and soft nationalists in Quebec.”

Meanwhile, the Liberals have a big job ahead regaining their hold on the middle of the political spectrum in Canada. “Their percentage of votes and number of seats collapsed far below what has traditionally been considered the Liberal vote floor. ... To many, the outlook for the Liberals is grim. But not all agreed. Some Canadians optimistically noted that defeat was an opportunity in disguise. They saw it as a chance to redefine the party, its goals, and its place on the political spectrum. Still others explained that a proper leadership race can finally take place, though they do not expect any candidate to be a savior.”

Most telling, Ensight added, “We found almost no appetite for discussion of a formal merger with the NDP.”

The electorate punished the Liberals for their focus on ethics without convincing Canadians of the importance of the issue. “There were mentions of contempt of Parliament, but without any real indignation or concern. For the Liberals to trumpet ethics was seen as hypocritical, some said, offering the example of the sponsorship scandal. Many noted that any political party could point their finger at any one of their competitors.”

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