In many regards, Tuesday in Montreal was not that different from Monday. The strange winds that have kept the traditionally bitter January cold in check continued and kids with hockey sticks were still wondering when they might return to the outdoor rinks.
Of course, in Ottawa, in the corridors of power between Monday and Tuesday, the contrast was stark. Suddenly, a Conservative government-the first since 1993-was at the country's helm. It was "time for a change," or so the mantra went; this was repeated often enough to become the knell of Liberal demise. Newspapers, radio shows, TV panels and blogs-all were trying to get a handle on what exactly was changing; their exhaustive lists and colourful maps processed the people, the positions and the geography. But amid the facts a more cerebral reality regarding the country's future emerged. Stephen Harper's Monday-night victory, despite caveats about seat totals, marks the return of ideology in Canadian politics.
The easiest places to find evidence of this new reality were in Tuesday's media reports, which described Harper as an "ideologue." Such a characterisation of Harper has long been the source of fear about the man; a politician with a firmly outlined set of values has been such a rare commodity in the government's front benches that when one finally emerged to lead the Opposition, suspicion was the gut reaction. In throwing the Liberals out of office, Canadians punished a party whose most successful policies were mined from every other political body on the continent but their own.
But fear of the ideologue remains high, witnessed in Harper's slim plurality. He is now faced with the delicate balancing task of trying to implement as much of his program as possible without triggering his government's defeat-or at least without triggering it at a precipitous time. It might be said that the Liberals managed to stay in power as long as they did by convincing Canadians they were the only mature and responsible federal option. If the Conservatives want to translate their present minority into a majority, they will have to succeed in selling enough of the country on an alternative method of keeping it together.
Harper is presenting a very different federalism than that which was embodied by his predecessors. It is textbook Conservative: a smaller Ottawa. However, behind the idea is not simply the notion that the provinces deserve to have their jurisdictions respected, but that the regions themselves are actually better equipped to deal with the needs of their respective populations. Harper's decentralized federalism, embodied in his day-care plan, and his willingness to deal with fiscal imbalances completely blindsided the Bloc Québécois. Every federalist in the country should take note that, in the dying days of the campaign, references to Paul Martin and the Liberals all but disappeared from Gilles Duceppe's speeches. Suddenly the defeated look was gone from Jean Charest's eyes and André Boisclair was referring to the Tories' ten-seat take as a warning sign.
To be clear, the significant beast that emerged during Monday's election was not an invigorated Conservative party, but an "option." In many ways the Tory victory saved Canadian democracy-what self-respecting democracy re-elects a party marred by scandal ... twice? The Liberals knew it; even their most ardent supporters didn't expect them to govern perpetually. They had simply confused the nation's interests with the party's.
The Tories won with a policy-laden campaign and a lot of new ideas, and that sets an encouraging precedent. There is nothing wrong or shameful in the progressive elements in this country celebrating the defeat of a "culture of fear." This doesn't mean that Harper should be embraced as the Second Coming; it simply means our democracy is maturing-a fact that should be celebrated.
The stage is now set for the next election-come when it may-which will feature a renewed Liberal Party, helmed by a new leader; an NDP dealing with growing relevance; a Bloc Québécois desperate for momentum before a provincial election (and possibly a referendum); and, finally, a Conservative Party, ready to be graded on its test-run around the track. Yes, the next election will be a violent clash of ideas, and Canadians deserve every bit of it.