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The Liberals: The strange death of the political centre

by Reg Whitaker

(Photo: Robert Laird Borden and Wilfrid Laurier circa 1910. At the time of this photo, Laurier was Prime Minister of Canada, and Borden was Leader of the Opposition.)

With time, the federal election of 2011 may be seen as a crucial realignment election, like 1935 or 1993. In realignment elections, the party system undergoes a fundamental structural change. In 1935, two new parties appeared, the social democratic predecessor of the NDP and a right-wing Alberta-based populist predecessor of the Reform Party that in 1993 wrecked and then eventually swallowed the old Progressive Conservatives. 1993 also saw the rise of the Bloc Québécois as a sovereigntist presence in the federal Parliament.

2011 saw the destruction of the BQ by an NDP tsunami in Quebec. That, combined with the collapse of the Liberal Party across Canada, gave the NDP Official Opposition status and the Harper Conservatives their longed-for majority. The Liberal collapse sent a shock wave through the Canadian political system. With deep roots going back to pre-Confederation Canada, the Liberals are the centrist brokerage party that dominated the country from the 1890s through the 1990s and have marked every aspect of Canadian life, from the economy to the constitution to the cultural symbols of the nation. They are the party of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Mackenzie King, Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, icons of Canadian statesmanship.

George Dangerfield, author of The Strange Death of Liberal England, detailed the collapse of British Liberalism on the eve of the First World War. A century later, it is time to analyze the “strange death of Liberal Canada.” To understand this “strange death,” it is best to focus not on the fate of a political party, but on the deeper meaning of the party’s passage from domination to collapse. Parties are important not in themselves, but for what their success, and failure, can tell us about the politics of the country. Something very important has happened to our politics: the disintegration of the political centre. One need not have any loyalty or emotional attachment to the Liberal Party to conclude that this is not necessarily good news.

We might start with the dimensions of the Liberal collapse. Between 1896 and 2004, there were 30 federal general elections: the Liberals won 21, the Conservatives nine. During these years Liberal governments were in office 72 per cent of the time, the Tories only 28 per cent. This was the long Liberal century. The Liberals were the “Government Party,” the most successful political party in the Western world throughout the 20th century.

That was then. After Jean Chrétien’s third straight majority in 2000, the Liberals under Paul Martin limped to a minority in 2004 while polling 269,811 fewer votes – a loss of 5.1 per cent of their 2000 support. In 2006, Martin’s party lost government, and polled 502,805 fewer votes – a loss of 10.1 per cent. In 2008, under Stéphane Dion, the Liberal losses accelerated: 846,230 fewer Liberal votes than two years earlier, a loss of 18.9 per cent. And finally, in 2011 under Michael Ignatieff, the Liberals fell to third place, in the process polling 850,010 fewer

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About the Author

Reg Whitaker
Political scientist Reg Whitaker writes a political column for Inroads and is a member of its editorial board.


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