The release of The Big Shift last week, in which National Post columnist John Ibbitson and pollster Darrell Bricker document the shift of power in Canada away from a “Laurentian consensus,” prompted various media commentary over the past few days. The Ottawa-Montreal-Toronto elites have been “replaced by a new powerful coalition based in the west and supported by immigrant voters in Ontario,” the authors argue, resulting in a country “divorced from the tradition of its past” and moving in a much more conservative direction.
John Ibbitson has been making this argument since the May 2011 election, arguing that election was among Canada’s most significant in history. He has suggested that the twenty-first century may well belong to the Conservative Party in the same way as the twentieth belonged to the Liberals.
Cardus has been making similar observations for several years. Our 2006 Policy Options article “Replacing the Pan-Canadian Consensus” (a similar concept to Ibbitson’s Laurentian consensus) suggests that this fundamental change in Canadian politics was already well-underway when Harper was first elected. In 2011, we suggested in another Policy Options article that the upcoming decade would be one of “dissensus” as political parties struggled to reorganize themselves in order to better address this new political reality.
That we are on the cusp of significant political change is uncontroversial; finding agreement on what those changes are likely to be, however, is less straightforward. It would seem that earlier questions regarding the future of the Liberal brand are in the process of being answered by the coronation of Justin Trudeau as federal leader. The debate regarding whether there might be a Liberal-NDP merger continues to percolate although any conventional political analysis would suggest this is unlikely in the short term. Of course, similar prognostications were being made about the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives in 2003.
However, maybe the more significant question regards who is still paying attention. The erosion of the previously dominant consensus has been accompanied by declining voter participation rates and a decreasing focus on our parliamentary institutions. The Senate seems in shambles. Our House of Commons and most provincial legislatures are holding fewer sitting days to pass their omnibus bills. Prorogation has become an acceptable tactic to avoid confidence questions. Some of this is met with faux outrage on the airwaves but beneath the bluster, all parties are adapting to the new rules of the game. More significantly, voters have proven over the past few years to be quite indifferent to this all—no one has really been punished at the ballot box for playing these games.
This doesn’t mean that government is becoming any less significant in our lives—it is just that the political processes have become much less robust. Politics is much more about perpetual marketing campaigns subliminally shaping our attitudes to the partisan brands, with voter engagement reduced to a ballot-box verdict every four years determining which party gets to form government. The legislative branch has been effectively muted, reduced to a rubber stamp that does what it needs to do to make things official; the machinery of the state rumbles on with the executive and judiciary making all of the meaningful decisions.
There is, of course, evidence which would temper the starkness of the foregoing. Still, one cannot help but observe that political process matters much less to those who now hold the economic and cultural levers than it did to the Laurentian elites who were previously in charge. There is still a lot of sorting out to do as to which institutions will fill the vacuum and whether the state will have a larger or smaller role to play in the future architecture than it did in the previous arrangement. It’s not necessarily the renewal of social architecture that Cardus seeks as its mission but it is a sure sign the architecture is being changed.