No surprise, and several big ones, as Canada’s Harper is re-elected

In an election outcome that surprised both political scientists and the public, Canada’s pro-business Conservative Party has formed a majority government for the first time since 1988.

May 4, 2011

But the dramatic results of the third federal ballot in five years went beyond Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s success in finally winning control of the House of Commons, with 167 of 308 seats, after leading minority governments in 2006 and 2008.

The election also saw a historic shift in French-speaking Canada toward a federalist party it had previously ignored, and the near-collapse of two major political parties.

The Conservative Party, which marginally increased its share of the popular vote to 39.62 per cent, stood on a platform that promised C$11 billion (£7 billion) in cuts in public spending.

But there are some indications that new investment could be available for higher education. A budget put forward by the Conservatives in March contained C$10 million for the development and implementation of an international education strategy.

It also set out plans for 10 Canada Excellence Research Chairs, with additional funding for neuroscience, genomics and climate research, as well as for the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, and it has promised more support for part-time students.

In a press conference on 3 May, Mr Harper stressed continuity. “We got that mandate because of our record. One thing I’ve learned in this business is that surprises are generally not well-received by the public,” he said.

But there were surprises nevertheless: jubilation for the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP) as it surged from fourth place to second, and humiliation for the centrist Liberal Party and the separatist Bloc Québécois. Both haemorrhaged support as their leaders lost their seats.

In a House of Commons set to welcome 100 first-time MPs, the NDP’s Quebec cohort will be among the least experienced.

While its traditional strengths elsewhere in the country mean it has numerous veteran MPs, its new Quebec team is laden with neophytes.

Among them are three McGill University undergraduates; Canada’s youngest-ever MP, a 19-year-old University of Sherbrooke student; and a bartender at Ottawa’s Carleton University who spent part of the campaign on holiday in Las Vegas before defeating a three-term Bloc Québécois incumbent by more than 10 percentage points.

In capturing Quebec, the NDP, which won 102 seats, was instrumental in the collapse of the Bloc Québécois. The separatist party headed by Gilles Duceppe shrank from 49 seats to a rump of just 4, losing official party status in Parliament. Mr Duceppe tendered his resignation as party leader on the night of the election.

Unlike the Quebec-only Bloc, the Liberal Party’s woes were played out coast to coast as it dropped to third-party status for the first time in Canada’s history.

Led by Michael Ignatieff, the former Harvard University and University of Oxford academic, the Liberals slipped to 18.91 per cent of the vote, shedding 43 seats to finish with 34.

Dr Ignatieff replaced Stéphane Dion as leader after the 2008 federal election, endorsed by Liberals who saw the high-profile “public intellectual” as a prime minister in waiting.

But, like the ex-academic he supplanted, Dr Ignatieff was later criticised for an aloof manner that lacked the common touch displayed by the NDP’s Jack Layton, himself a former professor of political science.

Resigning his post as leader on 3 May, Dr Ignatieff said, “Democracy teaches hard lessons and we have to learn them all.”

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