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Red in Central Canada, blue in Ottawa an immutable rule? Don't bet on it!

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Tim Hudak

It's certainly true that the Ontario Liberals are going to miss Progressive Conservative Party Leader Tim Hudak. He was a gift that kept on giving.

But their federal cousins, and the federal NDP as well, can take comfort. They still have Stephen Harper.

So it's not necessarily a sure bet, as the Laurentian Punditocracy has been relentlessly trying to tell us, that because there are now Liberals safely ensconced at Queen's Park, which is what Ontarians call their provincial Legislature in Toronto, and in the National Assembly, which is what Quebeckers call theirs in Quebec City, the Harper Government has no election worries into the indeterminable future.

Like the national aspirations implicit in the names of the two legislatures, our national electoral myth -- that when rouges are in power in the largest provinces' capitals, bleus must hold power in Ottawa -- ain't necessarily so.

This is true even if the national myth is being repeated in the wake of the Ontario provincial election by reasonably sensible pundits, as well as the Prime Minister Stephen Harper's spittle-flecked Sun News Network cheerleaders and the rest of his media barking chain. Consider Lawrence Martin, of the Globe but not in the Globe, and Tim Harper, in the Toronto Star, neither of whom are exactly far-right loons.

"The prime minister will not be terribly dismayed by the election result," wrote the former immediately after last Thursday's Ontario results were in, followed by a long list of recent times when one party at Queen's Park seemed to assure the other would rule in Ottawa. "The contours of history and the power of incumbency cannot be ignored," said the latter, with his version of the same list. "Historically, Ontarians vote contrarily on the provincial stage and the federal stage."

Nowadays we in the west, of course, mostly reliably vote conservative provincially and federally alike no matter who occupies the seat of power in the nation's capital, so whatever qualities we bring to the national table, we are not much help as electoral soothsayers.

And, it is certainly true, as Martin and (Tim) Harper argue, that there is a general historical correlation between having Liberals in Central Canadian provincial legislatures and Conservatives in Ottawa, and vice versa. With good reason, as voters in the most populous regions of Canada sought balance in their governance.

But it is said here that Canada has changed in fundamental ways, and this historical axiom is far less likely to apply now and into the future.

For one thing, the Conservative Party of Prime Minister Harper is not the Conservative Party led by John A. Macdonald through to Joe Clark. Indeed, it is not a conservative party at all, but something sui generis in Canadian history, a radical neoliberal party in the mould of the modern American Republicans, clever at political tactics but scornful of Canadian history, contemptuous of Canadian values, disloyal to the idea of a Canadian nation-state and proudly disdainful of science.

There may be differences in tone and style between the Conservative parties of Prime Minister Harper and Hudak, but they are quite alike at base and quite different from anything we have seen calling itself Conservative in Canada before. Moreover, in Ontario they shared the same electoral machine -- which has just been handily defeated by a government that voters had every reason to punish, and which also shares a demonstrably more effective electoral machine with its federal party in the same territory.

The Harper Conservatives have become, as Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman says of the Republicans, a party whose "intellectual devolution seems to have reached a point of no return" at which "allegiance to false doctrines has become a crucial badge of identity."

Conspiracy theories, hatred for unions, kowtowing to the gun lobby, witch hunts against scientists, and hostility toward science in general and climate science in particular have become mainstream in both parties, and it is increasingly obvious to everyone.

It's scary indeed that, as Tim Harper suggested, Prime Minister Harper is actually more moderate than Hudak!

The assumption that Central Canadians will continue to vote blue in Ottawa when they have voted red at home is based either on the notion that one of those parties offers a moderate reformist instinct and the other a quiet resistance to potentially harmful change, which is demonstrably no longer true, or that Central Canadians are too dumb to see it, which the circumstances and results of Thursday's Ontario vote manifestly suggest they are not.

So the first problem with the Red-Blue Axiom is that Canadian Conservatives are blue no more, and it's becoming increasingly hard to deny.

The second key change has to do with the movement of money, power and population to the west, and in particular here to Alberta.

On the face of it, since we Albertans vote Conservative with metronomic regularity, this would appear to help Harper, since he can always rely on his base on the Prairies no matter how much contempt he shows for us. But he could rely on us anyway, and the fact remains that while he may be able to form a majority government without Quebec, and even without Quebec and the Atlantic Provinces, he can't form a majority without Ontario.

What's more, just as in Martin's theory Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne's supposedly high spending ways give the prime minister an effective target, the increasing income inequality among Canadian provinces -- specifically, between Alberta and all the rest -- will give Liberals and New Democrats new opportunities in their strongholds that are unique in Canadian history.

Even if, as far-right media rather unpatriotically hopes, foreign bond-rating agencies force Wynne into painful and destructive austerian policies, they are certain to come too late to help Harper in his next election hot zone.

And Central Canadians are unlikely to react well to Albertans -- who are rich because they won the resources lottery, not because they have been particularly good managers -- preaching to them self-righteously about the need for austerity while we insist on maintaining a firewall around our own high spending.

This will be especially so when we are demanding something for nothing -- for example, a muscular petro-Loonie that lays waste to central Canadian manufacturing and unregulated Danzig Corridor for our pipelines through environmentally sensitive areas in other provinces. What do you think is next on the Harper Agenda now that the Northern Gateway Pipeline has been rubber-stamped? All this to suit a Cordilleran Elite that dwells within sight of the Rockies and proposes to run Canada in its own interests from there!

This will make a tempting target for both rouges et oranges, methinks. Indeed, I would bet we can expect some calls for national income balancing from smart politicians in Central Canada. This will drive Alberta leaders, federal and provincial, into a rage so perfectly frantic they will be unable to keep their lips zipped, Harper's famous party discipline notwithstanding.

What these conservatives say in such circumstances has the potential to make the case in Central Canada against the Harperites and set the stage for success by parties that see no percentage in paying any attention to Alberta's robotically Tory voters.

Moreover, with the prime minister’s increasingly frantic determination to proceed with pipeline development at any cost -- it is, after all, the only way to finance his Thatcherite vision of dismantling of the Canadian social safety net, 209 safety conditions be damned -- this strategy is as likely to sell in British Columbia as it is in Central Canada and the East.

These circumstances are new in Canadian history.

So while we are all welcome to cling to whatever myths and traditional wisdom we like -- especially after an election that didn't go the way the Cordilleran Petro-elite and its media echo chamber profoundly wanted it to go -- that doesn't alter the fact the conditions that made the Red-Blue voting axiomatic in Canada no longer exist.

 

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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