This was a federal election that was lost, not won. Neither of our leading parties can be fully satisfied with the results. They had an opportunity to establish, or re-establish, themselves as a natural governing party, and neither proved up to the challenge.
Voters have clearly expressed their preference for Stephen Harper's Conservatives over Stéphane Dion's Liberals. It was a fair and reasonable verdict: The Tories ran a mostly competent government in their first term, and the Liberals did not make a strong case to replace them. But the fact that Mr. Harper was restricted to another minority government, albeit a marginally stronger one, means that this campaign can only be viewed as a personal defeat.
Mr. Harper has now led the Conservatives in three winnable elections. In the immediate aftermath of the sponsorship scandal, he was only able to reduce the Liberals to a minority government in 2004. Two years later, with the Liberals increasingly directionless, with a strong public desire for change, and despite a dubious mid-campaign intervention by the RCMP, he could do no better than form a minority government of his own. And in 2008, up against by far the weakest Liberal campaign since John Turner's disastrous 1984 effort, Mr. Harper was unable to gain the majority mandate he called the election to seek.
For Mr. Harper, these results should be cause for reflection. He has chosen to build his party around himself, failing to follow the example of past prime ministers who built a national coalition by sharing the spotlight with strong party members with authority and credibility in their home regions. This strategy has been a failure, in no small part because of Mr. Harper's prickly personality. Meanwhile, his much-vaunted tactical and strategic acumen must be called into question, given the myriad errors made during this campaign. A weak debate performance, the failure to release a platform until the campaign's final week, and a failure to quickly grasp the depth of public fears over the global economic crisis, exacerbating this with gratuitous investment advice and a failure to live up to his makeover as sweet Steve. It all served to reinforce rather than ease voters' reluctance to hand him a majority government.
None of this should impact Mr. Harper's short-term future. The country needs a strong hand at the helm to steer it through uncertain economic times, and this period will give the Prime Minister an opportunity to demonstrate that he is continuing to grow into the job. Mr. Harper may yet prove that he is able to better delegate responsibility; that he can keep his less appealing impulses in check; that he is able to connect with enough Canadians to eventually earn greater trust.
But it may also be that, having long ago exceeded early expectations by converting a fractured right into a party capable of forming government, he will need to hand over the reins to someone able to take his handiwork to the next level.
In the public mind, he may have grown as much as he can.
For Mr. Dion, decisions must be more immediate.
He is a decent and intelligent man who was handed the difficult job of revitalizing a party reluctant to embrace him as leader. But the reality is that he failed miserably in that task, falling below the 30- per-cent "floor" for Liberal support. In this campaign, and in the two years that preceded it, the Liberals looked less like Canada's natural governing party than at any other point in their modern history. Having careened too far to the left, they pegged their electoral fortunes to a complex carbon tax/wealth-transfer plan that Mr. Dion was unable to credibly sell. Meanwhile, their organizational and fundraising efforts have been in shambles. The result has been the continuation of the Liberals' slide from Canada's strongest national party to a largely regional party that lacks relevance in much of the country.
The Liberals' problems run much deeper than Mr. Dion, who has perhaps shouldered disproportionate blame for them. He might argue that even Mr. Turner was given a second chance, as was Edward Blake, the only Liberal leader to contest a federal election who never served as prime minister (Mr. Dion notwithstanding). But it is difficult to foresee the rebuilding process beginning in earnest until a stronger leader can first win the confidence of the party. Rather than subjecting the Liberals to yet another protracted struggle for control, Mr. Dion should gracefully step aside and allow the next leader to be selected with minimal acrimony. In turn, other Liberals must recognize that replacing the leader is only a small part of the equation. Of paramount importance is devising a modern and comprehensive policy agenda that returns the party to its centrist roots with national appeal. And at the same time, the Liberals must do the organizational groundwork required to once again serve as a legitimate national party.
Through most of Canada's history, it has had at least one and often two strong national parties to choose from. Three straight minority governments have laid plain the void that exists today. While the Conservatives must focus first and foremost on the business of government, they must join the Liberals in considering where they have gone wrong.
Dion should go; Harper should ruminate
For Mr. Dion, decisions must be more immediate.