Column: Compared to predecessors, Harper in better place

Whether it results in regime change or not, this year’s federal election will lead to one of the more significant recasts of Parliament of the last two decades.

Even before a single riding changes hands the addition of 30 new seats combined with the retirement of more than 40 incumbents will ensure that plenty of new faces dot the benches of the next House of Commons.

Still when it comes to ushering in radical change the next federal vote will not come close to topping the 1993 election.

That campaign resulted not only in the return to power of the Liberals after a nine-year absence but also in the meteoric rise of the Bloc Quebecois and the Reform party.

It took two decades but Canada has been returning to the pre-1993 federal normal with three long-standing national parties once again dominating the Commons. That trend is likely to persist next fall.

The Reform contingent has folded into a rebranded Conservative party with the prime minister one of the last former 1993 members expected to stand for re-election next fall.

As for the Bloc Quebecois, it is anything but hitting the pre-election ground running. The party will nominate its first candidate for this year’s election on Saturday.

By comparison the Liberals and the NDP have already selected candidates in more than half of Quebec’s 78 ridings and the fourth-place Conservatives have been headhunting for high-profile candidates more aggressively than the BQ.
Overall the Liberals and the Conservatives have nominated candidates in almost 60 per cent of all ridings.

After three of his Quebec ministers lost their seats in 2011, Stephen Harper handed each a plum appointment and the prime minister’s generosity is going some way to entice prospective candidates to risk becoming Conservative
sacrificial lambs next year. Polls that suggest Harper has a fighting chance to be in a position to hand out consolation prizes to his defeated candidates also help.

The fact is that, after nearly a decade in power, Harper’s Conservatives are in a stronger electoral position than the Liberal and Tory incumbents of the recent past.

By the time Pierre Trudeau retired in 1984 the Liberals had landed on the wrong side of Quebec over the patriation of the Constitution and the party’s name was dirt in much of Western Canada as a result of the introduction of the National Energy Program. Many voters across the country had become disenchanted with Trudeau’s management of the economy.

After nine years and two mandates, the Mulroney Conservatives were in even worse shape.

There was vocal dissatisfaction over the introduction of the GST and deep regional divisions resulting from the government’s constitutional failures. The Mulroney Tories had lost the pillars of their majority to the Reform party and to the Bloc Quebecois.

On the eve of the 1993 election, some of the most prominent members of the Mulroney cabinet – senior ministers such as Joe Clark, Barbara McDougall, Michael Wilson, Benoit Bouchard and Marcel Masse – all retired.

Around their 10th anniversary in power in 2003, the ruling Liberals were beset by a civil war. In the lead-up to the first post-ChrÈtien election, loyalty to his successor often took precedence over past services to the government.

Paul Martin went into his first campaign as leader in 2004 without, among others, Brian Tobin, John Manley, Allan Rock, Sheila Copps and Martin Cauchon. There is no such exodus in the making on the front benches of Harper’s third-mandate government.

The prime minister is at least as polarizing a figure as some of his predecessors but he leads a more united party and runs a federation whose intraregional tensions are, in comparison to the past, at low ebb.

That is not to say that a fourth Conservative mandate is in the bag. The next campaign has the potential to be the most competitive of the past decade.

For cyclical reasons Harper will have to contend with a stronger tide of change. But it is harder to see the writing on the wall for this nine-year old Conservative government than it was for its predecessors.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Copyright 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services

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