The turnout in the last Canadian election was the lowest ever, under 60%.
I did not bother to vote myself—although I could have, by absentee ballot. Who cares? It seems to matter so little who wins, in Canada—the policies are the same regardless.
This suggests that Stephen Harper's main strategy, as leader of the Conservatives, is wrong.
Harper, following conventional Canadian wisdom, has been tacking to the centre, serene in the knowledge that there is nobody to his right to split the small-c conservative vote.
Mistake. As Karl Rove showed in George Bush's two election victories, and John McCain demonstrated by losing this year, when turnout is a major factor, covering the centre ground is not the best strategy. Often, the better idea is to fire up your own base. If you can get your supporters more motivated to come to the polls that the other side, you win.
This, surely, would have been the case this election year. With such low turnout, and Stephane Dion failing to light fires among his Liberal colleagues, had Harper been significantly better at inspiring small-c conservatives, he probably could have snagged his majority.
It is conventional wisdom that Canada is not a conservative country, that it is instinctively centre-left. If so, by being clear and conservative, Harper might have inspired two liberal voters to come out and vote against him for every one conservative he drew to the polls. But is that really true?
The West, we know, is perfectly amenable to “conservative” doctrines; Reform showed that, even if Diefenbaker didn't. But Ontario, supposedly the Liberal heartland, can also respond to a clear, consistent conservative message. Mike Harris proved that. Ernie Eves and John Tory, trying triangulation instead, have in fact done less well. This is “Tory Blue” Ontario we're talking about: home of the thirty-year provincial Conservative hegemony, not so long ago.
The Maritimes may have become addicted to Liberal equalization payments; but they are at heart deeply socially conservative. They are Canada's “Bible belt.” They ought to be reliably conservative in just the same way as the US South. Like the Atlantic provinces, the South bought the dole for a while, under the New Deal. But they have grown out of it. So could Halifax and St. John's.
This leaves Quebec. In Quebec, in recent history, ideology simply has not mattered—it has been overshadowed by the question of sovereignty. But, once a tipping point is reached, the Conservatives can represent that option just as well as the Liberals. The relative success of the ADQ in the last provincial election suggests there is some real appetite for a straight conservative option. On a full-blooded conservative platform, ADQ took 31% of the vote. Last federal election, in Quebec, the CPC took 21.7%. They are running well behind the conservative ideology per se.
Who does that leave? Nunavut?
All that is required, I suspect, is a leader who is a leader: who does not follow the present opinion polls, but seeks to change them. That's what Margaret Thatcher did, in Britain, that's what Churchill did, and that's what Ronald Reagan did in the US. That's what Mike Harris and Ralph Klein did in Ontario and Alberta. A similar leader really could do the same in Canada as a whole.