A Harper dynasty and the end of the Liberals? How the 2011 election didn't change everything
The federal election a decade ago turned out to be an outlier rather than a turning point in Canadian politics
In just a few weeks, Canadian politics changed forever. Or so everyone thought.
The Liberals, once the country's "natural governing party," were reduced to a smoking ruin. The Bloc Québécois' two decades of dominance in Quebec came to an abrupt halt.
Stephen Harper finally won his majority government — a "strong, stable, national, majority Conservative government," as he liked to say — and the New Democrats shed their perennial third-party status. The NDP was now in it to win it.
But 10 years later, the federal election held on May 2, 2011 doesn't seem as earth-shattering as it once appeared.
Today, the Liberals are where they usually have been throughout their history — in government — and the Bloc, while far from dominant, is a force again in Quebec. The Conservatives seem about as far away from winning a majority as they've ever been over the past 15 years, while the NDP is nestled once more in the back corner of the House of Commons.
The reverberations of that 2011 campaign can still be felt today, however — both in the lessons that still hold true and the false conclusions that were drawn in the immediate aftermath of an exceptional election.
The story of Harper's majority and 'le bon Jack'
Even as the 2011 election campaign was underway, the players couldn't agree on how it started. For the Liberals and New Democrats, the triggering event was the Conservatives being found in contempt of Parliament and losing a confidence vote.
The Conservatives, meanwhile, argued the election became necessary because the opposition parties couldn't support the budget and were hoping to revive their doomed 2008 attempt to form a governing coalition.
The first days of the campaign made it clear which narrative won out. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff spent a lot of the early campaign answering questions (or not answering them) about whether he would try to team up with the NDP and the Bloc in a coalition.
It all went downhill from there for Ignatieff, whose public image the Conservatives had spent years successfully undermining with highly effective ads that portrayed him as an opportunistic intellectual who had spent his professional life outside the country he wanted to lead.
As Harper waged a disciplined campaign with limited media access (and limited opportunities to be knocked off-message), the NDP's Jack Layton, leader of the party since 2003, finally began to break through. An appearance on Radio-Canada's much-watched talk-show Tout le monde en parle and a strong English-language debate performance helped propel the NDP forward in the polls.
The biggest shift took place in Quebec, where the NDP began to pick up a few percentage points on a daily basis — primarily at the expense of a tired Bloc campaign under Gilles Duceppe. By the final days of the election, Layton's NDP was solidly in second place, the Liberals and Bloc were in freefall and the Conservatives were knocking on the door of a majority government.
When the votes were counted, the Conservatives had secured the majority they had failed to win in 2006 and 2008, with 40 per cent of the vote and 166 seats in a House of Commons which then sat 308. The NDP formed the Official Opposition for the first time in its history, with 31 per cent of the vote and 103 seats — an astonishing 59 of which were won in Quebec.
The Liberals were reduced to 34 seats and 19 per cent of the vote, while the Bloc fell to just four seats. It was the worst result in both party's histories and it cost Ignatieff and Duceppe both their leaderships and their own seats.
A new era in Canadian politics had dawned. Or so it seemed at the time.
A reminder that, yes, campaigns matter
The 2011 election offered a practical demonstration of the reasons why parties can't take their positions in polls for granted. The New Democrats in particular have been fond of pointing at the 2011 result to argue that bad polls or low fundraising numbers shouldn't be taken terribly seriously.
But it also showed that the electoral landscape in Canada can change very quickly — and that if you assume things will stay the way they've been for a very long time, you can get blindsided by events.
There have been a few other examples of historic and unforeseeable breakthroughs in Canadian politics since 2011. In the 2015 provincial election, the Alberta New Democrats ended the Progressive Conservatives' 44-year run in office, coming from behind in the polls during the campaign to defeat an entrenched PC government.
In 2019, the Prince Edward Island Greens made history when they formed the Official Opposition in that province.
The 2011 election was also the beginning of a tumultuous time in Quebec politics. After Quebecers handed the Bloc a majority of the province's seats in six consecutive elections going back to 1993, Quebecers went en masse to the New Democrats — a party they had never supported in large numbers before.
But then Quebec voters pivoted to the Liberals in 2015. In 2019, many of them swung back to the Bloc. At the provincial level, Quebec went from a minority Parti Québécois government in 2012 to a majority Liberal government in 2014. In 2018, the Coalition Avenir Québec became the first party other than the Liberals and the PQ to govern the province since the 1960s.
Quebec is setting up to be an important battleground again in the next federal campaign.
The GTA is ground zero again
Quebec isn't the most important battleground, however. As in 2011, that title goes to the ridings in and around Toronto.
Ten years ago, the Conservatives could not have won their majority government without making significant gains in the Greater Toronto Area. About two-thirds of the seats the party picked up between the 2008 and 2011 elections were in Toronto and the surrounding suburbs. Without them, Harper would have fallen short of the 155 seats he needed.
Since 2011, the GTA has continued to be a kingmaker. Liberal gains in the 2015 federal election in the region handed them their majority. Had his party lost those seats in 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau might not have been in a position to form a minority government.
As a fast-growing part of Canada, the GTA is only going to grow in importance in future federal elections. That trend didn't start in 2011, but that election did prove that the Conservatives could win big in a region that had largely spurned them for 20 years.
The Conservatives were aided, however, by the weakness of their traditional foe. Ignatieff was an unpopular leader heading into the campaign — the New Democrats were able to take advantage of that.
The election was a shot across the bow of the Liberals, signalling that if they're weak enough, the NDP can replace them. The 2018 Ontario provincial election ended up making the same point. In Western Canada, the NDP long ago replaced the Liberals as the sparring partner for the main conservative parties in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and in Alberta more recently.
Unite the left? Not necessary
But there were many aspects of the 2011 federal election that proved to be one-offs, making it look like an outlier — an exception, not a new rule.
It's impossible to know how much of an impact Layton's death a few months after the election had on the future of the NDP, or whether he would have avoided his successor Thomas Mulcair's fate in the 2015 election.
But with Layton gone and the Conservatives in office, discussion in some progressive circles turned to the need to unite the left in order to put up a common front against Harper.
A few months after the election, former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien predicted that the Liberals and NDP would eventually merge. Nathan Cullen and Joyce Murray mounted bids for the NDP and Liberal leaderships on platforms embracing intra-party co-operation. (Cullen finished third in the 2012 NDP leadership race and Joyce Murray was the runner-up in the 2013 vote that tapped Trudeau for the Liberal leadership.)
But the desire to unite the left was based on some faulty premises. One of them had to do with turnout. Low voter turnout in 2008 and 2011 benefited the Conservatives and their disproportionately older base, so a divided left seemed at the time to be a huge obstacle for the Liberals and New Democrats.
But turnout spiked in 2015 and 2019 to 68 and 67 per cent, respectively, after registering around 60 per cent in the two previous elections. Much of that increased participation benefited the Liberals.
History doesn't always repeat itself but it has been a pretty reliable guide. The Liberals were able to win in 2015 and 2019 despite a divided left. They also managed wins in 1965, 1968, 1972 and 1980 when the NDP was putting up above-average results.
On top of that, the notion of an unbeatable Conservative Party ran contrary to Canada's political history. Not since the death of John A. Macdonald have the Conservatives enjoyed more than 10 consecutive years in government.
Reports of a party's death greatly exaggerated
Immediately after the 2011 election, however, the trend lines appeared to be going in the right direction for the Conservatives and the wrong direction for the Liberals. The Liberals had lost seats and votes in four consecutive elections as the Conservatives gained.
But the sample size offered by a few elections led to some premature political obituaries, based on the assumption that the Conservatives would remain strong, the NDP had finally arrived and that the Liberals and Bloc would be consigned to the dustbin of history.
There were reasons to believe at the time that 2011 marked the moment "when the gods changed" — the beginning of the end for the Liberal Party.
Ignatieff had become only the third Liberal leader — after Edward Blake in the 19th century and Stéphane Dion more recently — to fail to become prime minister. Western democracies were increasingly being polarized between left and right and in the United Kingdom — the "mother of all Parliaments" — the Liberals had been replaced by the Labour Party decades earlier.
With support for independence waning, the Bloc also seemed like an anachronism whose time had run out — if one ignored the fact that Quebec has a long history of distinct parties at the federal level.
The 2011 election hasn't turned out to be the kind of political re-alignment some predicted. The demographic changes that were supposed to make the Conservatives the 21st century's "natural governing party" haven't benefited them — because the Liberals adapted to those changes, as all successful parties do.
The potential for Quebec's social democratic traditions to form the foundation of a future NDP government, meanwhile, collided with an inconvenient fact: those Québecois social democrats also tend to be Quebec nationalists, aligning them with an ideology which the 2015 election suggested was incompatible with the NDP's position on issues like identity.
An abnormal electoral map
Many of the conclusions drawn from the 2011 election were based on what was a very unusual electoral map — one that upended the normal dynamics of Canadian elections.
For example, the Conservatives were able to win a majority government with very little representation from Quebec. The party elected just five Quebec MPs and would have secured enough seats in the rest of the country for a majority government without a single one of them — suggesting that the province need not form an important part of the party's electoral strategy going forward.
But the Conservatives have won majority governments without significant delegations from Quebec on just two occasions. The election in 1917 — when the country was fiercely divided between English and French Canada over conscription — was the first. The 2011 election was the second. Exceptional circumstances are rarely the foundation of a winning strategy.
The split between the Liberals and the NDP was particularly exceptional. In Quebec, the NDP was benefiting largely from lost Bloc votes, but in the rest of the country the swing was mostly between the Liberals and NDP.
But it wasn't a big enough swing. Outside of Quebec, the NDP still finished nearly 20 points behind the Conservatives and won 44 seats, only one more than Ed Broadbent had won in 1988 on a smaller map — the party's best performance prior to 2011.
This meant that in much of the country, the Conservatives were not up against the Liberals in their traditional two-way fights. Increases in support for the NDP at the Liberals' expense boosted the NDP in ridings across the country, but that boost tended to start from a very low floor.
Often, the result was the Liberals falling far enough to lose seats to the Conservatives, but not far enough to put the NDP in a position to win them instead. In the Greater Toronto Area, this shift in votes won the Conservatives many seats. Without it, they would not have gotten their majority government.
What's left of 2011 in 2021
While the 2011 election didn't produce a lasting political re-alignment, some echoes of that campaign can still be heard today.
Quebec remains a more multi-coloured battleground than it was prior to 2011 and the NDP has secured a toehold there — Alexandre Boulerice's seat of Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie — that survived the receding of the "orange wave".
The GTA is still where the makeup of the federal government is decided. Former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer's inability to break back into the region doomed his leadership. With the Conservatives still trailing the Liberals by double-digits in the polls in Ontario, it could very well doom Erin O'Toole's leadership as well.
But the most important takeaway might be the lesson the Liberals learned from their near-death experience. They're not the first political party to suffer a series of crushing defeats before realizing they need a fundamental change in their approach.
And they won't be the last. Since that one majority government victory under Harper in 2011, the Conservatives have failed twice to repeat it. Languishing in the polls at or below their historical floor of around 30 per cent, the party could be on track to fail a third time.
If so, the parallels between the 2011 election and a potential 2021 campaign might not be about what happened 10 years ago, but what happened next.
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