National Column: Looking back to see the future

by Chantal Hebert

Every political year brings its share of new players, emerging trends and surprises. 2017 in Canada was no exception. Here are five of the more meaningful ones for the shape of things to come.

1. Montreal mayor Valerie Plante scored the biggest electoral upset of the past political year in Canada. Her victory against Denis Coderre – one of the country’s most combative and most seasoned politicians – resonated from coast to coast to coast.

She landed on Google’s 2017 list of the top 10 trending political personalities in Canada. It is more customary for municipal politicians to make that list for the wrong reasons. On that score, think of former Toronto mayor Rob Ford.

A month before the Montreal November vote, few believed Plante could win. Coderre – who ran what can only be described as a non-campaign – was apparently among that majority. Her victory was yet another reminder that in the digital age, campaigns matter more than they ever did and that sunny ways continue to trump the alternative.

Plante’s campaign played on the same hopeful themes that allowed late NDP leader Jack Layton to sweep Quebec in 2011 and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau to vault from third to first place in the last election.

One of the more corrosive contributions of the social media to the political conversation has been a near-constant flow of negativism. Could it be that voters are reacting to this saturation by increasingly turning off campaigns that are not designed to appeal to their better instincts?

2. The Green party had a coming-of-age year of sorts in 2017. In British Columbia’s spring election, Green leader Andrew Weaver ended up with the balance of power in a Legislative Assembly led by a minority NDP government.

The duo whose combined forces ended a 16-year Liberal reign on Canada’s Pacific coast could yet make history in another way. Subject to the result of a provincial plebiscite next fall, B.C. could yet lead Canada by example by adopting a more proportional voting system.

The B.C. election was not the only Green party breakthrough. In a byelection this fall in P.E.I., Green candidate Hannah Bell took a riding from the ruling Liberals and beat provincial NDP leader Mike Redmond on the way to claiming a second seat for her party in the legislature.

3. Generation X entered the major political leadership leagues this year. The federal Conservatives and the New Democrats both effected generational change and picked leaders who are not yet 40.

Come 2019, Trudeau will be the oldest on the three main leaders and baby boomers will, for the first time in their voting lifetimes, not make up Canada’s largest voting cohort. And if you think that is a small detail in the larger scheme of politics, consider that in Quebec the younger cohort’s rising electoral weight combined with its comparatively low appetite for referendum politics has gone a long way to force the sovereignty issue off the radar.

4. Provincial conservative leaders had a busy year in Alberta and Quebec.

Jason Kenney, Stephen Harper’s former go-to minister, won the leadership of Alberta’s Progressive Conservative party in the spring; beat his former federal colleague Brian Jean for the top job of a reunified provincial Conservative party in the fall; and, in December, secured a seat and the job of leader of the official opposition in the legislature with a crushing byelection victory.

Francois Legault, the leader of the Coalition Avenir Quebec, enters Quebec’s election year with the wind in his back. On the heels of a headline-catching byelection win in a formerly impregnable Liberal Quebec City riding in the fall, next October’s election has become his to lose.

Who says history does not repeat itself? It was then-premier Lucien Bouchard who recruited Legault to the Parti Quebecois as a star candidate 20 years ago. Now, as the head of a party he founded, Legault could be about to deal to the PQ as lethal an electoral blow as his mentor Bouchard once inflicted on Brian Mulroney’s federal Tory party.

5. Quebec came back in force on the federal scene in 2017. At year’s end, the prime minister, the governor-general and the incoming chief justice of the Supreme Court all hail from that province.

If Trudeau’s Liberals are re-elected in two years that rare trifecta will be in place for a long haul. As rocky as the last part of the first half of the mandate was, Trudeau still is ending it in a sweeter spot in voting intentions than any of his recent predecessors at the same juncture. Quebec is turning out to be a bigger factor in his success than many had anticipated on the night of his election victory.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer.
Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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