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Divide, to conquer, in Canada's politics

Published:Monday | June 11, 2012 | 12:00 AM

By John Rapley

hroughout the 20th century, Canadian politics at the federal level was dominated by the Liberal Party. Only it had sufficient support in Canada's two biggest provinces, Quebec and Ontario, to be able to consistently build a national majority. The socialist NDP couldn't crack Quebec or the Atlantic provinces, and the Progressive Conservatives, as the right-wing opposition were then called, could hardly get a look-in in French-speaking Quebec. So dominant were the Liberals that they became known as Canada's 'natural governing party'.

This dominance looked like it would become permanent when, in the 1990s, the Progressive Conservative Party split into warring factions. A tenuous alliance with Quebec nationalists broke down, and Western Anglophones broke away to form their own movement. With the Right fragmented and the NDP famously derided as little more than Liberals in a hurry, the governing party got a little too comfortable in office. Sinking into corruption, the Liberals would in 2006 face the voters' judgement.

By then, a new force was on the landscape. Early in this century, the Right managed to bury their differences, and came together to form the Conservative Party. More right-wing than its predecessor, the Progressive Conservatives, it alienated some of the old lions of the Canadian Right, who either drifted away from politics or into provincial politics. But that enabled the new party to appeal to its strong western base, while adding a new, emerging constituency.

A bit too liberal

For generations, new immigrants to Canada had gravitated to the Liberal Party, seeing the PCs as too WASPish for their liking. But this led to a mistaken conclusion, which was that immigrants were naturally liberal. As Canada became more liberal, new arrivals sometimes found the ruling party a bit too easy-going. Often people who had pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, these new Canadians weren't always keen on Liberal tax-and-spend proclivities. And Liberal positions on moral issues, like abortion or gay rights, sometimes offended people who had come from more traditional societies.

Canada's biggest city, Toronto, had become a bastion of liberalism. But the widening ring of suburbs, bedroom communities and towns around it, filled with immigrants, were ripe for Conservative picking. The man who would go on to become prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, built a new right-wing coalition by marrying the solidly conservative prairies to these so-called 905 voters (after the area code for that part of Ontario), finally coming to power in the 2006 election.

To consolidate his rule, Mr Harper's strategists believed one remaining thing needed to be done: ensuring the Liberals never recovered from their defeat. Mr Harper is convinced that in a straight choice between his party and socialists, Canadians would choose the Conservatives every time. So to abet the rise of the NDP, the party turned its guns on Liberal leaders, giving NDP politicians a relatively easy ride.

In last year's election, this strategy paid off. The NDP surged in Quebec, the Liberals collapsed, and the Conservatives squeaked in with a modest, but comfortable, majority. Bereft, stunned, the Liberals are casting about for a new leader, and possibly even a new identity.

Reading Conservative playbook

For its part, the resurgent NDP appears to be have adopted the Conservative playbook. If the government's coalition marries the West to outer Toronto, the NDP's approach will be to marry Quebec with urban Ontario. Because high oil prices are driving a prairie boom - since that's where most of Canada's rich oil deposits lie - the influx of foreign exchange is driving up the dollar. This, argues the NDP, is fuelling a "Dutch disease", hurting Ontario and Quebec manufacturers, who are losing export competitiveness.

So far, this West-versus-the-rest strategy appears to be supporting the NDP's popularity. But while the government and official opposition are dividing the country up among themselves, national unity may be fraying. Ironically, it has fallen to provincial leaders, some of them conservatives, to call for the restoration of a national vision to federal politics.

At the moment, the federal leaders seem too intent on power to pay their provincial counterparts much heed. It just goes to show that being a good politician does not necessarily make one a good statesman.

John Rapley is a research associate at the International Growth Centre, London School of Economics and Political Science. Email feedback to and