In 2003, Stephen Harper, then the leader of the Canadian Alliance, and Peter MacKay, the Progressive Conservatives’ leader, shook hands to celebrate the merger of their two right-leaning parties. That handshake, political commentator Chantal Hébert argues, changed the Canadian political landscape more than any other event of the decade.
Hébert, a political columnist for the Toronto Star as well as a contributor to Le Devoir, delivered the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada’s annual J.R. Mallory Lecture at the Faculty Club last Wednesday night.
Richard Schultz, the McGill political scientist who introduced Hébert, compared her columns to those of famed Canadian journalists such as Graham Fraser and André Laurendeau, praising the role of such commentators.
“A healthy democracy requires a healthy media sector,” he said. “What is most important to a healthy media sector, I’d argue, is that small cadre of journalists known as political columnists.”
In her lecture, titled “The Shifting Canadian Political Landscape,” Hébert described the ways in which the four major federal parties have attempted to reposition themselves over the past decade.
According to Hébert, while Progressive Conservative leaders such as Brian Mulroney relied on winning ridings in Alberta and Quebec to form governments, the rise of the Bloc Quebecois has forced Harper to focus his energy on winning in the rest of English Canada.
“[The prime minister] wants the party to be solid in Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta,” Hébert said. “Within ten years, due to demographics and seat redistribution, it will be possible in this country to craft majority governments without Quebec.”
The Liberals, meanwhile, have been in disarray for far longer than the four years they have been out of power, Hébert argued. Since Pierre Trudeau’s retirement in 1984, the Liberals have faced a united conservative in five elections, four of which they have lost. The only exception, in 2004, occurred while Harper was still rebuilding the Conservative Party after the merger. Even then, Paul Martin’s Liberals only managed to win a minority government.
Shifts have also taken place in the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Quebecois since the handshake between Harper and MacKay, Hébert said. Jack Layton’s NDP has been far more willing to engage with other parties than under previous leaders, though Layton has failed to force major concessions from the Harper government.
The Bloc, meanwhile, has pursued Quebec sovereignty with far less vigour than it did in the 1990s. It has become, Hébert said, a “party of sovereigntists” rather than a party actively seeking sovereignty.
In the current political landscape, Hébert said near the end of her lecture, the NDP wants to occupy the strategic position of the Liberals, while the Liberal want to be the Conservatives. The prime minister’s Conservatives, for their part, want a majority government. Everybody wants to be somebody else, she said.