by Janice MacKinnon
Michael Ignatieff’s main challenge is to reestablish the Liberal Party as a truly national party by increasing its support in western Canada. In a highly regionalized country like Canada, a party that aspires to form a government should have a reasonable level of support in every major region of the country. Increasing Liberal support in western Canada is especially important in light of the current economic power of the region and the prospect that the west’s economic clout will continue to grow in the future.
To increase western support, the Liberals will have to change some policies and redefine what it means to be a Liberal in the 21st century. Such an undertaking is consistent with the second main imperative for Michael Ignatieff. He should not assume that the Conservatives will be tarred with problems of the current recession and hence defeat themselves. Ignatieff needs to announce new policies and define himself before his opponents paint their own picture of Ignatieff for voters, the majority of whom currently know little about the new Liberal leader.
The magnitude of the Liberals’ problem in western Canada is reflected in the results of the October 2008 election. The Liberals won only seven of 92 seats and two of these seats were won by fewer than 100 votes. In terms of popular vote, the Liberals placed third, behind the NDP, in every western province. Even in Alberta, the one seat not won by the Conservatives was won by the NDP, not the Liberals. Equally revealing are data on second place in western ridings. The New Democrats came second in 46 ridings, while the Liberals placed second in only 24 – in fact, in 24 ridings in the region the Liberals placed fourth behind either the Greens or independents.
The Liberals have to ask themselves why they fared so badly with western Canadian voters. Their leader, Stéphane Dion, was obviously a problem, but selling Dion to voters was a problem in all regions of the country. The main problem for the Liberals was the Green Shift, their proposal to impose a carbon tax and to redistribute the money collected to income tax cuts and spending on social programs. The policy would have redistributed money from Alberta and Saskatchewan to other parts of Canada, and British Columbians faced the prospect of paying two carbon taxes. For many westerners, the Green Shift rekindled the image of the Liberals as eastern-based and unaware of or uninterested in the interests of western Canadian voters.