The West woke up yesterday morning to find that change-hungry voters have handed a solid majority to the Liberals. It includes almost every region of the country, except the four western provinces. A look at the election map illustrates just how stark the contrast is. With the exception of its major cities, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the eastern side of British Columbia are all blue.
This is a new political reality, and one that fundamentally shifts the way in which western provinces relate to Ottawa. While the prime minister-elect happens to have the last name of Trudeau, however, there is good reason to hope that the West will not have the same experience it had under Pierre Elliott Trudeau in the 1980s.
So, for conservatives who are wringing their hands over this election outcome, here are a few thoughts that might help talk you off the ledge.
- Justin Trudeau is not the same guy his father was. Trudeau junior was dismissed by the incumbent Conservatives as a “just-not-ready” lightweight. Considering how he matured in style and confidence over the 11-week campaign, that criticism now seems grossly overstated. Instead, he is sincere and shows a level of humility his father never did. Critically, as well, he seems willing to listen and learn.
- Trudeau seems to understand his government needs the West to buy in. With the much-reviled National Energy Program in the early 1980s, Trudeau senior showed both gross insensitivity to the aspirations of the West and – worse – a profound disregard for the consequences that would ensue from the program. It effectively constituted a wealth redistribution scheme at a time when Alberta was already headed into recession. The economic downturn was devastating. Justin Trudeau knows the legacy his father left and went out of his way to distance himself from a policy that has many westerners bitter to this very day, three-and-a-half decades later. On the eve of the election, Trudeau came to Calgary and declared “Alberta matters”. Cynics will dismiss his comment as superficial pandering but I sense he means it. Trudeau has delivered a vow and we will wait to see if he delivers.
- The West isn’t as blue as it looks. Look closer at that sea of blue in western provinces and you will find little islands of red and orange in our cities: Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Vancouver (of course) and – extraordinarily Calgary, which elected two Liberals for the first time since 1968 – all tilted more left than rural dwellers. Western cities now reflect the social, ethnic and political diversity that comes with massive and ongoing migration from other parts of the country. This phenomenon also illustrates a rural/urban split not unlike what can be found in Ontario and to a lesser extent Quebec. Toronto went heavily red and its industrial towns, like Windsor, went orange. The rural areas, however, went predominantly Conservative, which suggests the West and Ontario may not be so different after all.
- The West can – and likely will – have significant cabinet representation. Yes, we lost a prime minister from Calgary but there is a rich field of newly-minted Liberals in western cities who are excellent candidates for Trudeau’s first cabinet.
The voters’ choice is as profound a course change for this country as the first triumph of a newly constituted Conservative government under Harper nearly 10 years ago. It signals not just a nation’s appetite for change but also a repudiation of the now much-reviled authoritarian rule of a man who had fallen so badly out of favour, even hard core conservatives like Conrad Black dismissed him as a “sadistic Victorian schoolmaster.”
While the legislative agenda will be dramatically different than it was under the Conservatives, westerners should know that Harper’s government fundamentally put the West on the map in a way it had never been before. Besides, as one colleague said today, “The Liberals campaign from the left and govern from the right.”
Trudeau’s efforts to reach out to the West are not motivated out of charity or altruism; Central Canada has learned that the West wields a great deal of political clout. Any government that hopes to hang on to the licence to govern can no longer write off this part of the country.
In 1980, Pierre Trudeau couldn’t hide his glee when he declared, “Welcome to the 1980s.” Some welcome. Today, we hope to see a much different reality under a new generation of Trudeau.
Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media.