BY TOM BLACKWELL
The Liberal Party steamrolled to a stunning political comeback Monday night, forming a new, majority government and creating Canada’s first family dynasty at the highest level of national politics as an historic campaign came to a dramatic end.
The Liberals had collapsed to just 34 seats and third place in the 2011 election. But they were elected in 184 constituencies by early morning, taking from both the NDP and Conservatives and riding a wave of resentment toward Harper.
As the results began streaming in from the last polls in British Columbia, it became apparent that Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, whose father Pierre was one of Canada’s most legendary leaders, had exceeded the 170-seat threshold for a majority government that even the most recent polls indicated would be impossible.
The Conservatives ended the evening with 99 seats and 31.9% of the popular vote, the NDP with 44 seats (19.7%), the Bloc Québécois with 10 seats (4.7%) and the Greens with one seat, leader Elizabeth May’s in B.C., and 3.5% support.
The Tories’ backing remained virtually the same as it has been in polls for weeks now, with the huge Liberal gains coming largely at the expense of the New Democrats.
After three terms as prime minister, Stephen Harper indicated to his party that he would be stepping down as leader of the Conservatives, though remaining as an MP.
In a lengthy victory speech, Trudeau stressed the power of positive election campaigning and its potential to change how Canadians view public service.
“You can appeal to the better angels of our natures, and you can win while doing it,” he said. “We beat fear with hope, we beat cynicism with hard work, we beat negative, divisive politics with a positive vision that brings Canadians together.”
He also alluded to the Conservatives’ campaign against what they called “barbaric cultural practices” such as women who wear the face-covering niqab at citizenship ceremonies.
“Our enviable, inclusive society didn’t happen by accident and won’t continue without effort,” said Trudeau. “Have faith in your fellow citizens, they are kind and generous, they are open and optimistic. They know in their heart of hearts that a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.”
Harper said in a muted concession speech that would help facilitate the transition of power, before touting what he said were some of the guiding principles of his political career.
“We believe hardworking Canadians should keep more of the money they earn because we believe the government should manage people’s money the way people manage their own,” he said. “We believe that in a dangerous world, Canadians must advance our values defend our interests and stand by our friends.”
The campaign underscored the differences between the parties, which helped Canadians make a choice, Tom Mulcair, the NDP leader, said in his concession speech late Monday night.
“Today Canadians have made that choice, and we accept that choice with full humility,” he said, before leaving the stage quickly.
Mulcair added that Trudeau had made “ambitious commitments” to Canadians, and voters will now have high expectations.
The night was a major disappointment for the NDP, who had been ahead in the polls only weeks ago and looked on the verge of leading the federal government for the first time. It dropped from 94 seats in the last Parliament.
The Liberals started by snapping up all 32 seats in Atlantic Canada, then stormed into Ontario, Quebec and the Prairies as the first two waves of results flooded in Monday.
A subdued Peter McKay, who resigned as a Conservative MP and cabinet minister earlier this year, conceded early in the evening that many voters wanted to turf out his party.
“This is not what we had hoped for at all,” McKay told CBC. “Clearly there was a very clear resonance of this (idea of) change – change to what or change for what reason people can give all kinds of commentary.“
Jason Kenney, the Conservative national defence minister, suggested mid-evening that the Liberal gains early in the night were the inevitable result of a party being in power for a decade.
“After 10 years in office, there’s obviously going to be an accumulation of resentments over various issues,” he told CTV. “And that’s obviously what we’re seeing in Atlantic Canada.”
A plebiscite on Harper himself was woven throughout the campaign. Opponents depicted him as anti-democratic, overly hawkish and pandering to intolerant viewpoints; supporters, as a skillful, stable navigator of the ship of state.
The parties also offered some distinctive platform choices: Trudeau pledged to run three straight deficits so he could invest in a huge infrastructure program, the NDP promised to introduce a new national daycare program while still balancing the budget, the Conservatives touted a fiscally responsible program with various tax breaks.
The 78-day election set precedents on numerous counts: the longest race since 1872, the first mandated by a fixed-election-date law, and the launch pad for controversial new voter-ID rules.
But the real surprises emerged as the campaign itself unfolded.
The Conservatives began a close second behind a buoyant New Democratic Party in most polls, though pundits predicted the elongated campaign could play into the hands of the Tories and their overflowing war chest.
The Liberals were in third, Trudeau apparently having peaked months earlier and succumbed to the perception that he was too green and intellectually light-weight to be prime minister.
Then began a deluge of disparate issues and stories – from immigration to the economy and free trade – that sent the campaign skittering off in a myriad directions.
Perhaps the earliest sign that those first expectations would have to be revised came with the first leaders’ debate, where no one scored an obvious win but Trudeau drew plaudits for a solid performance.
As the Senate-expenses trial of Mike Duffy played out, Conservative fortunes seemed to flatten and the Liberals began slowly picking up steam. By early September, a succession of polls showed the three parties in a statistical dead heat, none ahead by more than the margin of error.
Then came the first real disruptive event of the campaign, the Quebec-centred debate on the Conservatives’ determination to prevent women from wearing face-covering niqabs at citizenship swearing-in ceremonies.
Mulcair came out strongly against the policy, a position that went over poorly in Quebec, the province whose orange-wave of New Democrat victories in 2011 raised the party to a historic high in Parliament.
As the NDP’s support dropped in Quebec, the Liberals picked up support in the polls, apparently because voters determined to oust Harper and the Tories saw Trudeau’s team as the best bet to win.
The Conservatives doubled down on the niqab file, announcing a hotline to collect reports of “barbaric cultural practices.” But it failed to pay dividends and, coupled with a tepid response to the Syrian refugee crisis, left an impression the Tories were anti-immigration. Polls suggested Conservative support had flat-lined, as the Liberals moved into the lead and steadily increased the gap.
Further muddying the waters was the announcement of an agreement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, a trade deal among 12 countries that the Conservatives touted as potential Viagra for the economy, but the NDP said was a sell-out that would decimate Ontario’s automobile industry.