Political events wonderfully express the equipoise of stability and change. Change was most apparent Monday, and for obvious reasons. For the first time, Canadians elected a member of the Green party to Parliament. For the first time, the Liberal party ran third. For the first time, the NDP came second and now forms the official Opposition. For the first time, two party leaders resigned because they had failed so badly, even losing their own seats.
There was also a remarkable renovation. For the first time in a generation, Ontario voters followed western leadership. In short, 2011 had all the markings of what one of the great American political scientists, V.O. Key, called a critical election, an election where decisive long-term change is possible.
Was it? One of the reasons to think so is because of the short-term excitement unleashed during the latter part of the campaign. As we have seen time and again in recent years, both here and in the United States, political campaigns are really marketing campaigns. The product to be sold to voters is the personality of the leader more than the policy of his or her party.
Psychologists have many ways of distinguishing personality types. However you slice it, Jack Layton is a different kind of guy than Stephen Harper. Layton’s personality appeals to people and especially to, and through, the media in a much different way than does the prime minister’s. The Layton slogan, much repeated, was: “Do you want change? Yes or no?” We’ve heard that message before, during the Barack Obama campaign three years ago.
Change is a fine slogan upon which to campaign. There is no question that Layton and his party were major beneficiaries of a desire for change in the electorate. Unfortunately, Layton thinks he is the author, the cause of change. Thus, his speech Monday night sounded like a victory speech. This is delusional. The NDP improved its position, as it has every election since Layton became leader in 2003, but the real change was to a Conservative majority.
Harper’s campaign also reflected his personality. He began as front-runner and played it safe. What do you expect from a conservative? He defended the fort. As Machiavelli explained, relying on fortresses and defensive measures leads to ruin only if the people are against you. But the people were not against him.
As for the personality of Michael Ignatieff, what can one say except that few professors are good politicians? The Liberals did not learn from Professor Stephane Dion. Ignatieff’s aggrieved professorial personality came through perfectly in his concession speech.
“Defeat is a teacher,” he said. Neither Layton nor Harper would have said such a thing. Perhaps he’ll write a book about it when he’s back at the Kennedy School.
Personality did not entirely eclipse policy. The formal need for stability was persuasive. Living with the short time horizons of minority governments is no way to run a country during a period of economic upheaval. But content mattered too: those basic medieval purposes of government, the defence of the realm and the administration of justice still resonate with citizens, as did the promise of smaller government. Let us wave goodbye to the wheat board.
Amid all this change, what of stability? Here, the great constant, Quebec particularism, again expressed its distinctiveness. By so strongly supporting the NDP, Quebec voters ensured they would remain outside government. The result of this odd but predictable regional behaviour, sans doute, will become another source of grievance. But now, with Ontario and the West agreed on the few basic things that matter, who cares? If there is to be continuing separatist blackmail, it will have to go through the provincial capital, where it will be ground up as business-as-usual federalism.
One test whether 2011 might have been a critical election is this: Ask yourself how the country would feel if anyone other than Harper had won. No one would rejoice at the prospect of another return to mediocrity and the premature end of an adventure. Only Harper can turn the possibility of lasting change into a reality. Let us hope he seizes the opportunity to become a great prime minister.