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Has Canada Undergone a Big Shift to the Right?

April 9, 2013

by John Parisella

It is often stated as conventional wisdom that the United States is a right-of-center country and Canada, with its state-supported healthcare system and greater state-run operations, is left-of-center. In real life, it is far more complex—as we saw when U.S. President Barack Obama handily won reelection last November while the right-wing Conservative Party of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has won the last three general elections in Canada.

Occasionally, a book surfaces about a new political paradigm, leading many to question existing conventional wisdom. One such book has just hit the newsstands in Canada.  It is called The Big Shift, co-authored by the CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, Darrell Bricker, and the respected Globe and Mail newspaper columnist John Ibbitson. I happen to personally know both authors and can attest to their impeccable professional credentials. Their book covers new ground, challenges existing conventions and offers a highly provocative treatise about the new politics in Canada.

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The book’s basic thesis deals with an emerging new coalition of voters—anchored in resource-rich western Canada and in suburban Toronto—who share more conservative values and views about the role of government, the economy and law and order.  Using recent census data, they point to a fluid demography where many new immigrants are arriving in Ontario and western Canada from East Asia and South Asia. Ibbitson and Bricker speak of an immigration inflow that is equivalent to the size of Canada’s largest city, Toronto, every ten years. The result is a new, more Pacific-oriented Canada that is more polarized along the conservative-progressive divide than ever in its recent history.

To reinforce their case for the new Canada, the authors define the old Canada as the product of what they label the “Laurentian consensus.” This consensus is composed of the political, media and economic elite of Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. The authors claim that this elite is in decline. The political expression of this elite can also be found primarily in the Canadian (federal) Liberal Party—often referred to as Canada’s national governing party for having governed for most of the 20th century—which is now the third most powerful party in Parliament. Policies such as official bilingualism, Canadian-bred symbols like the Maple Leaf national flag instead of the British Union Jack, multiculturalism, constitutional reforms, and preoccupation with subduing Québec separatism were the hallmarks of Canadian liberalism, or the so-called Laurentian consensus.

According to Ibbitson and Bricker, Canada is now becoming more attuned to the Conservative Party of Stephen Harper, which may well become Canada’s national governing party in the 21st century. This provocative viewpoint is supported by some compelling data and is unlikely to disappear before the next election. To be fair, the authors recognize that Canada’s progressive constituency still outnumbers the new conservatism, but politically speaking, the parties of progressive thinking—the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Liberals—are too divided and too dominated by Laurentian consensus-type policies to turn the political process in their favor.

The Big Shift is a compelling book, and worth the read.  But it underestimates or ignores the change taking place in other parts of Canada.  Change is not just a phenomenon west of Toronto. Ibbitson and Bricker’s research on change and electoral coalitions in Greater Toronto and eastward—specifically in Québec—may still be too superficial and premature for their far-ranging conclusions.

Progressive thinking remains the thinking of the vast majority in Canada. While Harper’s party obtained 40 percent of the popular vote in the last election, the remaining parties (arguably to the left of the Tories) obtained 60 percent. Canada’s Conservative Party may be clearly the most right-wing in history, but it had to move to the center to make significant political gains, abandoning its social conservative agenda to unite its own disparate forces and eventually win power. In addition, despite the Conservative Party’s law and order platform, the return of capital punishment is not in the cards.

The results of the 2011 election, which saw the rise of a majority-Conservative government, can also be attributed to the collapse of the listless, uninspiring Liberal Party. The NDP became the official opposition largely due to its popular and late leader, Jack Layton—and despite the split in the progressive vote in that election, it may still have greater potential for growth.

The recent surge in the polls by Liberals—due to the eventual selection of the young, charismatic Justin Trudeau as Liberal leader—shows the fragility of the Big Shift thesis. Both Trudeau Liberals and the official opposition NDP together have the support of more than 50 percent of voters in the latest polls.  It’s not enough to predict a change of government, but hardly constitutes a strong shift to the Right.

It is hazardous to argue that we are on the verge of a seismic shift back to the Laurentian consensus or to the Liberals’ return to power.  But it is far too early to assume that we may be on an irreversible course to a more conservative Canada. The next election, in 2015, will go a long way in giving us a clearer direction.

*John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

Tags: Canada, Canadian politics

To speak with an expert on this topic, please contact the communications office at: communications@as-coa.org or (212) 277-8384.
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