|"Here you go, sir."
"Thanks. Uh, what is it?"
"Why, sir, its humble pie. Now eat up."
What could I say? After all, Id just finished eating a hearty course of crow, so a little humble pie seemed only appropriate.
Let me back up a moment. In recent columns here Id argued variously that (a) the Liberals record of scandals would have little effect on last Mondays federal election, (b) Paul Martin would consequently lead his party to a second minority government and (c) Stephen Harper was, quote, "a loser."
Wrong. On all three counts. Canadians went to the polls and clearly though not unambiguously voted "Team Martin" out of office. The allegations of corruption had stuck. Instead, and despite all the fearmongering, they placed sufficient trust in Harper to turn him into Canadas 22nd prime minister.
Perhaps I should have seen it coming. After all, on the face of it, the facts are simple enough. The 2004 federal election had resulted in a minority Liberal government that could not form a workable majority in Parliament even with the support of Jack Laytons 20 NDP seats (see sidebar). Thus it was for the past 18 months wed lived in the shadow of a vote of confidence being called at any time. In hindsight, that Martins first (and only) administration lasted as long as it did was the truly surprising fact.
Yet when that vote finally came last November, it seemed to me and a fair number of other observers the Liberals would be able to ride out the storm of public distaste and anger over the Gomery Report and other scandals. The election, I believed and argued, might test the fortitude of the Liberal party, but ultimately Canadians would overlook if not quite forgive the stench of cronyism and patronage that had come to characterize the beast.
Not so, it seems. I hadnt counted on the total inability of Martin to conduct a simple and focused campaign. I hadnt counted on his team of advisers losing the initiative so early on in the battle. I hadnt counted on Harpers ability to remain calm and collected in the face of what were, unquestionably, some pretty mean-spirited and personal attacks by all the other parties.
Above all, I hadnt counted on the Conservative partys ability to control and corral those candidates whose views on certain contentious issues gay marriage, abortion and private health care, among others had fuelled opponents cries of "extremism" and scared off voters in previous contests. The fact that the likes of Myron Thompson, Rob Anders and Stockwell Day never surfaced in the national media played no small part in securing Harpers victory.
In Alberta, its a victory that will long be savoured. The historic home of Reform and the slogan "The West Wants In," the provinces solid sweep of blue now thrusts it into the heart of federal power. Accounting for 65 of the Conservatives 124 seats in Ottawa, this region is the true base of that partys power and the West is in like never before.
when the Prairie dust settles, this victory may turn out to be less than it first appears. The Conservatives share of the popular vote (36 per cent) was enough to win, but is hardly a ringing endorsement of Harpers agenda. And while voter turnout was unexpectedly higher (65 per cent) than in 2004 (60 per cent), this means the Conservatives have the active backing of only one in four adult Canadians. Still, thats more or less the same level of popular support that the Liberals had under Martin, so maybe not too much should be made of this
More troubling, perhaps, is the fact that outside of Calgary and Edmonton, the Conservatives remain unrepresented in Canadas major urban centres, notably Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. A decade ago this might not have mattered so much, but with cities now increasingly bypassing provincial go-betweens in their negotiations with the federal government, this imbalance may prove to be a problem for Harper.
But its in Parliament, of course, that Harpers most immediate difficulty lies. With 124 seats, the Conservatives are significantly shy of the majority that some polls had been predicting late in the campaign. This figure also means that Layton once again cannot play the role of kingmaker all on his own, for even with the support of the NDPs 29 seats Harper would still require two more to ensure passage of new legislation.
This leaves us with two possible scenarios once Parliament resumes. One is that Harper "reaches out" to either the Liberals and/or the Bloc Québécois in an effort to build a more solid coalition government. In doing so, of course, he runs the risk of having to compromise on some of his own policies, and after 13 years on the outside, such compromise might not come easily to the Conservatives.
The other possibility is that Harper will simply gamble that Canadians are "electioned out" and that no party wants to be blamed for bringing down the new government. If so, he could proceed as if he did in fact have a clear majority, trusting on enough cross-party support or abstentions when it comes to critical votes in the House.
Or there is a third option: we simply go though the whole process again some 18 to 24 months from now. If the Liberals, NDP and Bloc truly oppose what Harper stands for and each said they did during the past election then together they can bring down the Conservative government anytime they wish.
In that event, theres a good chance that well end up with a third consecutive minority government, something that hasnt happened since the days of Diefenbaker-Pearson more than 40 years ago. At that point, and given that the sole purpose of our present "first past the post" system is to produce a clear winner, itll finally be time to concede that the system is broken and meaningful electoral reform is essential if Canada is to become governable again.
"Thats my prediction, waiter, and we both know Im never wrong on this sort of thing, dont we?"
"Quite right, sir. More pie?"