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Liberals let Harper take control, say analysts

The ballots have been counted.  The confetti has been swept away.  And somewhere inside Liberal Party of Canada headquarters, party…

By Amelia Bellamy-Royds , in Elections , on October 17, 2008 Tags: , , , , , , ,

The ballots have been counted.  The confetti has been swept away.  And somewhere inside Liberal Party of Canada headquarters, party organizers are working hard to figure out what went wrong, and how the organization which used to be considered the natural governing party of Canada wound up with less than one quarter of Parliament’s seats.
Tupper said Conservatives controlled the election agendaIf they really want to understand it, however, they’ll have to look back farther than the start of the campaign, suggested Allan Tupper, the Head of the Department of Political Science at the University of British Columbia.  He was speaking at a post-election forum held at the university on Wednesday, October 15, where he and three other political analysts sought to make sense of the election results.


Tupper said it is “an eternal mystery” why the Liberals did not fight back in 2007 when the Conservative party attacked Stéphane Dion in an extended advertising campaign.   At the time, Dion’s efforts were focused on connecting with Liberal Party stalwarts, so his public image became the image the Conservatives created for him: the “bumbling no-name from Quebec,” in Tupper’s words.

The experience of the past five weeks “reverses the classic textbook image of how a democratic political campaign … is to work,” said Tupper.  The Conservatives were not held to account on their record and instead the opposition Liberals were forced to defend their proposed Green Shift policy and their leader.  In essence, “the Conservatives entirely controlled the agenda of the campaign,” said the UBC professor.

‘Shallow’ media

The agenda could not have been controlled so successfully without a certain degree of complicity from the media, and this was readily acknowledged by Tupper and the other political analysts at the UBC forum.  Miro Cernetig, a Vancouver Sun columnist and the Canwest visiting professor at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism, admitted that he was not a big fan of the centralized-style of political reporting emphasized by most national Canadian news bureaus, despite having engaged in it himself in the past.  In his view, “there was no dissection of Conservative policy.”  Instead “it was all about Stéphane Dion’s gaffes,” he said.  “It was pretty shallow, actually.”
The audience heard that there was no clear winner in the voteFred Cutler, a UBC professor of political science who specializes in quantitative analysis of political issues, suggested that the narrow focus could be explained in part by the media’s over-reliance on polling results.  “The polls give journalists something to explain,” he argued, but polls cannot analyze public opinion on complex issues like Afghanistan and the environment.

Instead, the polls contain “leadership” numbers – usually unfavourable to Dion – and “journalists are driven by that,” said Cutler.

The Liberals are not the only ones who will have to regroup and rethink their strategy after the election.  Stephen Harper is again facing a minority Parliament with few possibilities for cooperation with the opposition benches.  Both Cernetig and Cutler argued that the difference between a minority and majority for the Conservatives was likely Harper’s failure to tone down the farther right-wing elements of the party’s policies and thereby appeal to more moderate “Red Tory” voters.

The smaller political parties also failed to make hoped-for gains.  Tupper described the NDP campaign as “tedious” and Cernetig questioned whether leader Jack Layton had reached his maximum potential.   “If he can’t do it this time, when is he going to do it?” he asked.

The Green Party and its leader Elizabeth May can be proud of finally forcing the national media to take them seriously.  But as another UBC political scientist, Gerald Baier, pointed out, the overall increase in the national popular vote “was not that impressive” considering the level of publicity.

Winners and losers

With the possible exception of the Bloc Québecois, no party clearly won the election.   But the Liberals undoubtedly lost most of all, and the blame for this is likely to fall on Dion.   All four panelists seemed to assume that a change in Liberal leadership was inevitable, but Tupper put it most bluntly: “Dion’s days are numbered.”

Cernetig predicts that a “bloody, messy” leadership convention is in store for the Liberals, with analysts expecting the party to edge back towards the centre of the political spectrum.

The seasoned political junkies at the UBC forum had some suggestions for possible centrist Liberal leadership contenders.  Cernetig named former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna as a potential candidate, while Baier mentioned former federal cabinet minister John Manley.

But it was Cutler who sparked the most interest from the university crowd attending the event, by suggesting that a star candidate would be “a representative for the riding we’re sitting in, at the provincial level.”  That would be the MLA for Vancouver-Point Grey, B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell.

No word yet on what he thinks of the idea.

(Photos: Aaron Tam)