Liberal governments back in power, somewhat unexpectedly, in Quebec City and Toronto: does that help Justin Trudeau, or does it hurt him?
Depends who you ask. Conservatives are less preoccupied with what political scientists airily refer to as “alternation.” Liberals believe in it, as an article of faith. That’s why so many federal Grits are (publicly) claiming to be happy about the election of Premiers Couillard and Wynne – but are (privately) a bit apprehensive.
Alternation, if you are unfamiliar with the concept, is uniquely Canadian. It asserts that Canadian voters are (a) aware of the dualities that run through our politics, and (b) wisely offset said dualities to provide balance and harmony. So, for example, Liberals believe in alternating between French and English leaders. Conservatives don’t, although they seem to pay some heed to East-West leadership duality.
Alternation means that, whenever the Liberals have been in power in Ottawa, Conservatives have generally held sway in Toronto. The same holds true, more or less, for the Quebec City-Ottawa teeter-totter: whenever federalist Liberals have been ascendant in the nation’s capital, they have been moving in the opposite direction at Quebec’s National Assembly.
If alternation sounds like a lot of political hocus-pocus to you, you are not alone. There are clear exceptions to the alternation rule. For example, Liberal Dalton McGuinty first won power while Liberals Jean Chretien and Paul Martin ruled federally, an alternation aberration that went on for two years. And Grits haven’t always adhered to the alternating French-English leader rule, either: recently, and fleetingy, they had two back-to-back anglos as leader (Ignatieff and Rae).
That all said, Team Trudeau may admit that alternation causes them some indigestion. For the next four years, Premiers Couillard and Wynne will govern and, one hopes, be obliged to make difficult decisions. For the next four years, then, much of the Liberal action – fundraising, media attention and the better political staffers – will gravitate toward the provincial capitals.
Trudeau may argue that he is responsible for some of Wynne’s big win. He helped her out at a big mid-campaign rally, true, and he stumped for some Ontario Liberal candidates. But Trudeau could not stem the anti-Grit tide in February by-elections in Toronto or Niagara Falls, nor before that in Windsor or London in August. The Ontario Liberals were humbled in those places, Trudeau’s beneficence notwithstanding.
As he surveys the Ontario-Quebec results, however, Trudeau is certainly entitled to form the opinion that the Liberal brand is back. After 2011’s federal rout, many pundits were claiming that Liberal parties were doomed. But now Liberals rule the roost in B.C., Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and P.E.I., and big “L” liberalism looks anything but dead. Canadians seem to be migrating back to the political centre.
Three things stand in the way if Trudeau’s journey back to 24 Sussex, however. One, Stephen Harper is no Tim Hudak or Pauline Marois – he knows how to win, and Grits underestimate him at their peril. Two, Tom Mulcair’s New Democrats have not withered on the vine in Quebec – there, the NDP remain as popular as the Liberals, or more so. Three, Wynne and Couillard have revealed themselves to be disciplined, capable campaigners – and neither are guilty of verbal gaffes about abortion, the Ukraine, Chinese dictatorships or balanced budgets.
Alternation: it may simply be debate fodder for political scientists, sure.
Or, it could be the main thing that keeps Justin Trudeau from power in 2015.