Every 10 years or so, Canadian voters take a broom and clean house on Parliament Hill. They often rearrange the furniture in ways unexpected by those who had grown comfortable in the backrooms of power.
Think back to 1984 and the ushering in of a Quebec/Alberta coalition crafted by Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives. At the time, a Conservative sweep of the Liberal fortress that Quebec had been under Pierre Trudeau was almost as unthinkable as the 2011 orange wave. Only five years before, in 1979, Quebec had so massively voted Liberal as to deprive Joe Clark of a majority.
Then, a bit less than a decade after Mulroney’s first victory, the Bloc Québécois and the Reform party took crowbars to the house he had built, leaving the Tory party in ruins and clearing the way to a Liberal decade under Jean Chrétien.
At the time of the latter’s retirement, most Liberals expected to stay in power indefinitely under Paul Martin. They dismissed the notion that Stephen Harper could ever be prime minister or that their party could fall to third place behind the NDP.
It is in the nature of successful ruling parties to develop a blind spot for the rot that tends to set in over their time in office. At some point they stop seeing themselves as voters see them and become agents of their own electoral destruction.
Harper’s Conservatives are precariously close to having reached that point, if they have not yet. At a minimum they seem to be blind to every warning sign of imminent danger.
There has always been an army of voters — usually a majority — that would not be caught dead supporting the Conservatives. That has been par for the course for the past decade. But there is mounting evidence that the anti-Conservative vote is more solid while the pro-Harper vote is frittering away.
Anecdotally, the sense that it is time for a change is rampant (and growing) in just about every region of the country. The Conservatives seem hell-bent on solidifying that sense at every step of the way to the campaign.
There is no rationale for the prime minister to boycott — as he is currently set to do — the leaders’ debates that will be produced by the country’s main networks in the next campaign. Most voters can only construe that as hubris.
In the same spirit, there is no justification for spending millions of public dollars on self-serving pre-election advertising.
It can only come across as behaviour symptomatic of a party that has come to think its interests and those of the government are one and the same and that they share the same purse.
At this rate, regime change could easily trump policy as a ballot box issue next fall.
What is certain is that a pre-election budget designed to shore up the Conservative advantage in the lead-up to the campaign has instead fallen flat. A month after its presentation, the ruling party is back at or below the 30 per cent mark in national polls.
At the same time, the security issue that the Conservatives see as a trump card next fall may not have the electoral traction that they had hoped.
In Quebec, where terrorism has been consistently high on the radar for months, a CROP poll published on Friday in La Presse found that the high profile of the anti-terrorism debate had failed to turn it into a ballot box issue.
That same poll reported a steep jump in NDP support over the past month. Based on CROP’s numbers, another Quebec orange wave next fall is not out of the question.
The New Democrats can thank Rachel Notley for that. In the wake of the NDP victory in Alberta, more voters are seeing Thomas Mulcair as a potential prime minister — and not only in Quebec.
Some Conservative strategists welcome polls that predict a three-way national race next fall because they think a more competitive NDP will create more opposition splits in their favour.
Fair enough, but the subtext of those polls is also that an electorate increasingly driven to regime change by a singularly tone-deaf incumbent team is willing to look at more than one option in the quest for an alternative to the current prime minister.
Chantal Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.