Sunday, May 22, 2011

Watch this space

So, we have the composition of the House settled. We know the government, we know the Cabinet and we know that the 41st Parliament will start work shortly reviewing a budget we have more or less already seen. We also know that we should not expect another election until 2015.

But for all we know, there is still a lot to learn over the coming months and years. And for me, the biggest unknown is what happens to what has been most valuable piece of property in Canadian politics - the centre.

Politics watchers in this space.

The combination of a Conservative majority, an NDP opposition and the decimation of the Liberals and the Bloc has put the centre on the market.

For the first in a long time, the political centre - the space within which the majority of Canadians have historically felt the most comfortable - is truly up for grabs. And following the results of #elxn41, the battle for it is between the governing Conservatives and the opposition NDP.

For the NDP, capturing the centre would mean overtaking the Liberals as a true national alternative. For the Conservatives, it could mean taking another step towards becoming the 21st century version of the "natural governing party."

All to say, there is a lot at stake. So what should we be watching?

1. Whether the Conservatives move to the centre

Personally, I don't see this as being something deliberate within the government. I believe that Mr. Harper's views on the role of government are so entrenched that it is unlikely that he will move his party closer towards the centre and all that it means from a policy perspective.

I think on an issue-by-issue basis, he may consider subtle policy shifts which would continue the de-mystifcation of the Conservatives in the eyes of some voters. I just don't expect something more dramatic.

2. How the new NDP caucus performs

As noted in a previous posting, the newness of the NDP caucus has made them the de facto green party. There is not a lot of experience among their ranks.

What will they do with this new caucus? Will it be error-prone, or will they capture the energy that such significant change can produce to make a mark in Ottawa? Count on something in between. The key for the party will be to avoid wide-sale errors and gaffes.

The Liberals are not an alternative for at least an election, likely two. The performance of the NDP as the "government in waiting" is therefore critical. Demonstrate professionalism and competence and they could inch further towards the centre; demonstrate incompetence and a lack of judgement and they could be marginalized and leave the centre to the Conservatives.

3. What the NDP decides to be when they grow up

In an earlier posting I asked whether the NDP knew what they wanted to be when they grew up. While somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the question is still an important one. Do the NDP stay in their traditional space, or do they start to move into the more centrist-space once occupied by the Liberals.

If it is the former, the Conservatives will be pleased. Should the NDP decide to shore up their core and continue to focus on the more left of centre issues, they will cede the centre to the Conservatives. Put more bluntly, to the middle-of-the road voter, they will make the Conservatives look like the more reasonable, measured party.

If it is the latter, the NDP could further marginalize the Liberals by offering a more balanced and centrist alternative. In other words, they could cement their role as the alternative in Canada.

It is also interesting to note that the NDP actually have less power as the official opposition to a majority government, than they did as the fourth party in a minority Parliament. No longer a balance of power player, the NDP needs to find ways to influence government policy. This is what Reform did in the 1990s in areas like deficit reduction and the Clarity Act. The question now is whether the NDP can do the same.

Should they demonstrate more influence, they could de-mystify views about the NDP and make themselves appear more credible in the eyes of those voters who, faced with a Liberal collapse, went Conservative instead of NDP.

Yes, a combination of the Conservatives sticking their their game and the NDP tempering the Conservatives and offering more centrist and voter-friendly policy options could see the NDP start to challenge the Conservatives. This won't happen in four years, but over the next ten? It is possible.


My money is on the Conservatives hoping for two things: an NDP that regularly displays its inexperience; and an NDP that focuses on its core constituent issues, and stays more to the left. Why take the centre when it is ceded to you...

Of course, the advantage for all parties now is time. The fact that we have relative political stability for four years and are no longer being held hostage to the election around the corner means that parties have time to recalibrate, and focus on more of a long game. It should be fun to see what happens.

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