People & Places


The Verdict: In which Ottawa Magazine contributing editor Mark Bourrie calls out Stephen Harper for winning a majority by crafting an unwieldy coalition that will pose huge challenges in the months ahead

One of the great regrets of my life is that I have no artistic talent.

If I did, there would be a cartoon here instead of a blog. It would show Stephen Harper and Jack Layton riding side-by-side on tigers. There’d be some kind of witty caption, but right now I’m too tired to come up with one.

It’s funny that Harper used fear of a coalition to scare people into giving him a majority. All governments are won by cobbling together coalitions. So are all national parties.

Harper has crafted a coalition that poses huge challenges for him.

It consists of a core of western seats run by the old Reform party that tapped into Alberta anger over the National Energy Program, the Canadian Wheat Board, and being shut out of the federal bureaucracy by bilingualism rules.

It was, like most western populist movements, anti-urban. Its natural enemies were educated, young, white-collar downtown urbanites. The Reformers and Harper Tories ran against Kitsilano Beach, the Beaches, the Glebe, and the Plateau.

That was not enough to win government. The minority Harper government set out to win the votes of new Canadians. That took considerable audacity. The party that shelters people who seek to tear down equity rules and human rights commissions sought to convince people from Asia that they were not racist.

They went after the votes of Atlantic Canadians, even though Stephen Harper once accused voters there of engaging in the culture of dependency. It showed no real interest in arresting the economic decline of a region that was truly short-changed by Confederation and has been left behind by the change in world trade patterns and the decline of coal.

Most important, the party went after people like Stephen Harper. In his most telling comment of the campaign, Harper said Canada was one of the few countries of the world in which a truly middle-class person could rise to power. Harper came from a family with just one famous member: Robb Wells, who plays Ricky on Trailer Park Boys.

He was able to win over millions of people with similar middle-class backgrounds — people without friends in big corporate law firms, small business owners, parents who really sweated over where they’d come up with money to pay for their kids’ hockey gear.

This will be a difficult coalition to hold together. Can Harper keep the nutters — the Ezra Levants — from scaring away the New Canadian supporters?  Can he deliver what the Reform people have wanted so long — a humbling of the eastern media, cultural, bureaucratic, urban elite? Can he satisfy the patronage expectations of all of the members of this coalition?

Brian Mulroney came to power via a coalition of angry westerner and angry Québécois, plus a block of Ontario voters who mistakenly believed the Tories would allow Ontario to remain as an honest broker in Confederation. Within nine years, this coalition failed so badly that it went from 208 seats in the House of Commons to two seats.

The NDP have won Official Opposition status with a relatively small breakthrough in downtown Toronto and a big sweep of Quebec. It is now a party made up of those who are utterly despised by the old Reformers: downtown ridings in the big cities and the bulk of seats in Quebec.

The yuppie neigbourhoods of Toronto are in NDP hands — the Beaches, Queen Street West, Parkdale, the Danforth, the Annex. The Glebe is in NDP hands. But so is the Pontiac. And the NDP caucus is a coalition of newbies, people who will be immediately attacked by the conservative media that dominates discourse in Canada.

This is a very bad election for Ottawa. The 20th century’s centrist consensus fostered a professional, neutral public service. This was supported by technocratic cabinets dominated by lawyers who, for all their faults, understand the rule of law and value expertise. That model is now gone.

The Tories now have a mandate to make big cuts, not only to their cherished bogeymen like the CBC, but to swaths of the bureaucracy. Ottawa’s solid, bourgeois middle class and old elites – the people who read our magazine – has very few friends in the PMO. The NDP can carry the mantle of the public service, but this is a majority government. And John Baird, alumnus of the Mike Harris government and attack dog with no known scruples, is the only Ottawa cabinet minister with any clout.

I haven’t written about the Liberals. I’ll give the space to Michael Ignatieff, who said Tuesday morning: “The surest guarantee of the future of the Liberal party is four years of Conservative government and four years of NDP opposition… hopefully after that, people will realize why we have a party in the centre.”

The Liberals have one election left. This year’s could have been a blip. The election of 2015 will tell us whether Jack Layton and Stephen Harper have built social-economic coalitions that will last.

One last word about Michael Ignatieff. As all 15-year-old girls know, it’s easier to tear down a reputation than to build one. Conservatives — and Canadians — should be ashamed of the attack ad campaign that destroyed a man who, for his faults, is a world-class intellect who could think circles around Stephen Harper and, for that matter, Pierre Trudeau.

It is difficult to understand why anyone who actually buys into concepts like “citizen of the world” or “world class” would ever mess their hands in Canadian politics. Conrad Black once identified envy as one of Canada’s negative traits, and the old felon was right.

Many people will be inspired to come forward to engage in this new political paradigm. Others will wander in shock for at least a while, maybe even for the duration.

For the latter, here’s something to keep you busy for the next four or five years. www.angrybairds.ca