Is there any debate about “The Big Shift”?

One advantage of retirement is the time to read books languishing on my shelves. Last year, columnist John Ibbitson and pollster Darrell Bricker, CEO of Ipsos Reid Public Affairs, released The Big Shift (Harper Collins, 2013), which they billed as “the seismic change in Canadian politics, business and culture and what it means to our future.” The authors wrote the book as a “polite provocation [We are, after all, Canadian.] to start a debate.” I remember the first reviews of the book, but have heard little debate.

In a nutshell, the authors see the 2011 federal election as a watershed. In that election, the federal Tories put together a new coalition of seats from the west and from the middle class suburbs around Toronto to secure a majority government even without Quebec. This new coalition reflects the fact that, for over twenty years, Canada has imported 250,000 new immigrants per year, “a new Toronto every ten years.” These immigrants are the New Canada: energetic, pragmatic, cosmopolitan, global, using English as the language of business, primarily from Asia (India, China, Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines), oriented to the Pacific (or the Indian) Ocean, middle-class, suburban and thriving on diversity. They argue that these immigrants “found common cause with Old Canada ­– the white and often rural stock who were the descendants of the settler culture” in rural Ontario and the West. Their issue was, and is, all about the economy and who was, and is, best placed to manage it.

In the New Canada, power has shifted to the West. And “the capital of western Canada, the seat of its power and influence, is Ottawa.” There, they argue, “The West dominates the power centres of the federal government today the way Quebec did under Pierre Trudeau,” and that “today’s Ottawa is increasingly a city of Western values and Western priorities, dominated by western politicians who lead the first truly Western government in this country’s history.” The authors argue that this “big shift” is the new reality which will shape the future of the country.

This change is from what they call the “Laurentian Consensus.” Although the Liberal Party came to epitomize the Laurentian Consensus, they argue that it was bipartisan, based in Central and eastern Canada, committed to a strong national government, preoccupied with Quebec, equalization of the rich and poor provinces, protection from Americanism, oriented to the Atlantic and the “old countries” of Europe, and to Canada’s role abroad “exercising soft power” through diplomacy, international aid and as peacekeepers. In their view, the “Laurentian Consensus” is dead and the “Laurentian elites” (whom they define as the liberals living downtown in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal who dominate the universities, media and cultural centers of the nation) are chafing at their loss of influence.

They argue that the Harper Conservatives have been the first to capitalize on “the big shift” and, because their values coincide with those of the newcomers, the Conservatives have now become “the natural governing party” federally, as were the Liberals before. The authors suggest that, were the Liberals and the N.D.P. to recognize the change as have the Tories, there is the potential to form a “progressive coalition” that could return to power with the support of the social democrats who have re-entered federal politics under the N.D.P. in Quebec. They postulate that the N.D.P. are the natural leaders of any such coalition and that the Liberals are destined to decline.

This grand theory does provide food for thought. But it raises more questions than it answers. How to account for the current popularity of the Trudeau Liberals? Or the strength of Liberal provincial governments across the country? It is interesting to note that those same ridings in the suburbs around Toronto who voted Tory in the 2011 federal election voted Liberal in the 2014 provincial election. Ontario voters choosing different parties at the federal and provincial levels is a well-established pattern which reflects their pragmatism. To what extent is Western power based on its place as the economic engine of the nation and the source of its current growth? That economy, however, is resource-based and vulnerable to overseas demands, changing prices and the need to reach foreign markets. The assertion of “western values” and “western priorities” assumes that the West is monolithic. I would suggest that what we see in Ottawa are “Alberta values” or “prairie priorities” and not necessarily those from over the mountains on the west coast where most B.C.-ites live. Just as “the west” is not monolithic, neither are immigrants. Newcomers to Canada come from different political traditions with different political perspectives. History also shows that the second generation soon integrates into the mainstream, with minds of their own, and opinions as diverse as they are.

And so the debate goes on. In the context of the federal election year ahead, the more debate the better.

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  1. Michiel Horn

    I think you’re right to be sceptical, Marion. The 2011 election may have had a good deal less to do with the creation of any new consensus than with the Conservatives’ successful demonization of Michael Ignatieff and the ineptness of the Liberal campaign. In any case, however, 40 per cent of the electorate do not make up a “consensus”.

  2. Fred Irvine

    Two things: Quebec partly took itself out of the federal equation for two decades by voting in so many ridings for the Bloc Québécois. Second, Ontario is and remains the pivotal point in federal elections owing to the number of seats it has. And now that it has more, that should be the case even more than it was in the recent past. The Idea of a Laurentian Consensus describes Ontario and Quebec more the way the authors imagined the electorate in those provinces to have been, rather than that electorate actually was. An Ontario pivot to the federal Liberals and a recovery of Liberal fortunes in Ontario, sufficient to elect a Liberal minority government, seems well within the realm of possibility. It just will not mean the return of a Laurentian Consensus that if it ever existed, has not existed at least since the time when Louis Saint Laurent was prime minister. Do you remember our Prime Minister Diefenbaker? If you ask me my opinion my opinion would (to put it bluntly) in relation to the so called Laurentian Consensus; my Aunt Fannie.


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