The Liberals on Monday didn’t receive a slap on the wrist from voters, they received a full-body slam that sent them reeling.
Chastised, they have been sent to the corner and told not to come out until they learn to behave.
After 12 years in power, the Liberals obviously no longer enjoy the confidence of the majority of voters. This wasn’t said with a resounding voice, but with enough decibels to shatter the myth of the Liberals being the Natural Governing Party.
But, the Conservatives under Steven Harper need not be overly confident. They did not receive a seat total in the House of Commons that guarantees a smooth ride. With only 124 MPs elected, the revamped Tories are teetering on the brink of collapse unless they can iron out a deal with either the NDP or the Bloc Quebecois, or a combination of the two, when considering specific issues.
Making an alliance with the BQ may seem politically expedient in the short-term, but long-term success means not appearing to be in bed with separatists. The BQ may be the spawn of former Tory Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s attempts to tinker with the Canadian Constitution, but they are still separatists intent on breaking up the country.
The NDP and Tories may seem like strange bedfellows, but it may be expedient to form some kind of alliance. The Conservatives can satisfy the social conscience of the NDP by throwing them the odd crumb on health care and the like. This would be something in the manner of the deal struck with the Liberals prior to the Liberal’s lost confidence vote that led to Monday’s election. It may not be a rock-solid arrangement — the Liberals found that out the hard way — but it can give the Tories a bit of breathing room before they have to again call an election to sort out the “pizza parliament,” resulting from the January 23 vote that saw 124 Tories, 103 Grits, 51 Bloc, 29 NDP and one independent elected.
Harper should also be aware that the NDP have been reinvigorated under the leadership of Jack Layton. From only 19 MPs in 2004, the NDP’s fortunes have rebounded. The party elected 29 MPs this time around, making them a force to be reckoned with when parliament resumes next month.
It would be a mistake to think that the Tories will not have to call an election anytime soon. It may be not be immediately, but surely the cries will arise within six months or so that it’s again time to go to the polls. What the Tories need to properly govern is a more precise mandate — 124 MPs just doesn’t cut it in a 308-member House of Commons.
It’s a mistake to think their mandate is so convincing that they have the full support of Canadians. Some may be saying the election spells the end of the Liberals and the rebirth of the Tories, but it’s really too soon to tell.
The Conservatives might follow the example of former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, who gained a slight minority — 112 seats to the Liberals’s 105 — in 1957 after years of Liberal domination in the House and then called a snap election just months after the June 10, 1957 election to catch the new Liberal Leader Lester Pearson off guard. “Dief the Chief” couldn’t have planned it better — his party was swept into power on March 31, 1958 with what was then the greatest parliamentary majority in Canadian history. The Conservatives took 208 seats to the Liberal’s 50 seats.
The same scenario that Diefenbaker encountered is unfolding today. The Liberal Party is in a shambles. Besides the scandals, infighting had a lot to do with their defeat, and ex-Prime Minister Paul Martin has succumbed to this infighting and announced he will step down as party leader. His party’s election defeat was the final blow. He realized that his years of striving for the leadership of the Liberals have earned him nothing more than a melancholy stint in power.
The Liberal Party will soon be leaderless, cast adrift in a sea of disarray, just as was the case in 1958.
Canadian voters may be weary after two federal elections in two years, however, they will have little choice in the matter.
The Tories will somehow create the conditions that require an election. The fact they have such a slim minority is grounds enough to ask for a stronger mandate from Canadian voters. The Tories may also have to call an election to prevent the Liberals from having time to search out a new charismatic leader who can lead them out of the depths of despair.
For years, the Liberals relied on the disorganization of Canada’s political right. Now, their respective positions are reversed. Unified as they have not been for over a decade, the Conservatives can only retain their tenuous grip on power in the wake of the Liberal’s present disorganization. That’s something Diefenbaker knew over 40 years ago and a lesson that should be learned by today’s Conservatives.
The only thing they have to avoid, if they are able to take advantage of the Liberal disorganization, is not to repeat Diefenbaker’s mistakes following his massive 1958 election victory. His paranoia led to the collapse of the majority the Conservatives enjoyed in the House within five short years.
The Liberals under Pearson resurged as Diefenbaker’s paranoia led to his abandonment by a previously friendly press. By 1963, the Liberals were again in power, although with a minority. But, they held onto power for decades as the Conservative Party resorted to its own infighting to at first unseat Diefenbaker and then find an adequate replacement.
So, be prepared. One misstep, one mistake by Harper and his Conservative MPs — bound to happen, simply because that’s the nature of minority governments — and voters will be returning to the polls sooner than they anticipated.