Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

Why the Maritimes Matter

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning (Tuesday November 15, 2005 at 5:44 pm)

There’s already talk of “Battleground Ontario” flying around as a new federal election looms in Canada. The Liberals would be nowhere without Ontario, it’s true. But they’re already doing well there, and although they’re likely to pick up a few (Ottawa Centre, now that Ed Broadbent’s backing out) in the next campaign, there’s little chance they’ll take the twenty or so additional seats they need to make a majority.

Of course, the Tories aren’t likely to make up much ground there, either. Harper hasn’t shone, there’s still no clear appeal to Ontario (if there can ever be such a thing), and nothing suggests that the voters are about to dump Grits en masse.

So where do the Liberals go? The BQ looks fairly safe, if not set to grab a few extra seats in Quebec. Between the buildup over the PQ leadership and the attacks, from inside and out, that the Liberals’ Quebec wing has undergone, not much change is likely in Quebec.

The West isn’t likely to prove fertile ground for Liberal hopes, either. They haven’t far to drop; and, the Minister of Finance’s personal visits notwithstanding, not much has been done to sway the region. Does anyone west of North Bay trust Liberal tax cuts over Conservative ones? Does anyone east of there? No. But they don’t care as much. . .

Leaving the three territorial seats aside, that just leaves one region; and it’s more interesting than you might think.

Consider:

  • NDP seats in the Maritimes have gone from 8 in 1997, to 4 in 2000, to 3 in 2004
  • Conservative seats in the Maritimes have gone from 13 in 1997, to 9 in 2000, to 7 in 2004
  • Liberal seats in the Maritimes have gone from 11 in 1997, to 19 in 2000, to 22 in 2004

Was 1997 the Liberal nadir? No, 2004 was. A gain from 1997 to 2000 makes sense, but the continued trend points to something more than just recovery from a temporary local beating. Remember, it’s not as though seats are theirs for the taking. The other parties fight, too. The Conservatives’ performance over the period should have more to do with recovery than the Liberals’. After all, the Liberals swept the Maritimes in 1993, taking twelve Tory seats, which was the lowest Atlantic showing of that party since 1968. Both were due for recovery, but only one did.

So what’s going on?

The NDP’s showing in the region had a lot to do with a series of local leaders who built a strong base in Nova Scotia. Jack Layton’s approach in the last election, an appeal to an undeveloped urban left/anti-war coalition, held nothing for the region, and may have squandered political capital there.

The PCs lost a strong local candidate and former leadership candidate to the Liberals, which accounts for at least one of the three seats gained by the latter in 2004, and possibly some extra oomph. But the biggest surprise may have been Peter McKay’s lack of impact in the regional campaign. It may have been the party’s (or just the leader’s office’s) wish to minimize McKay’s presence in an attempt to boost Harper as a national leader. It may have been that McKay didn’t want to deliver to the credit of his once and future rival for control of the newly-merged party. It had to have been at least partly due to Harper’s comments on the region.

Those parties’ failure to capitalize have been consistently to the Liberals’ advantage. Sure, they couldn’t win a government by winning in the Maritimes, but if they had lost ten of those seats, split between their two opponents, the complexion of the house would be radically different. And a 12-12-8 split among the three parties in the Atlantic region isn’t unreasonable or unattainable, by recent or longer-term standards.

Besides which, the rules about election reporting first imposed in the 2004 campaign mean that the Maritime results might have an impact on election day. With public reporting as polls close locally, eastern results can be available to those rushing to the end of polling in Ontario, those having dinner on the Prairies, and those still at work in BC.

What the effect of such reporting might be is still uncertain. Did news of the Liberals’ Maritime success in the 2004 election send angry Conservative voters to the polls in the West, or did it keep them at home, and disillusioned? Did Ontarians even realise that the results were becoming available in the last hour of voting? Will people care more this time around?

With all that, there seems to be good news for both the Liberals and the NDP. The one region where Liberal support remained dominant in the wake of the recent Gomery report? The Maritimes. The Liberals have remained consistently strong in the region since the last election.

However, recent polling has shown some surge in NDP support out east. If support is concentrated in the right places, and if the NDP can take advantage of the legacy of their last leader, they have a good chance of returning to form. Two big ifs.

The Liberals must keep the Atlantic at all costs. There isn’t anywhere for them to rely on picking up replacement seats should their position out east return to more historic proportions. The region, therefore, is crucial to their hopes for forming government after the next campaign, whether minority or majority. There might not be much to gain, but there is a lot to lose.

Some good news, perhaps, for those in the Atlantic.

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