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Sweeping change as Tories clinch majority, NDP seizes Opposition

Source: The Globe and Mail

Written by: Patrick Brethour

Canadians have handed the Conservative Party its long-coveted majority after a game-changing election that boosted the New Democrats to the Official Opposition, decimated the Bloc Québécois and humbled the Liberals.

Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe lost his seat and resigned. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff lost his seat. Both leaders were pressed, like so many of their candidates, between growth in Conservative support and Jack Layton’s surging New Democrats.

The night belonged to Stephen Harper, who put an end to five years of Tory minority government and becomes just the third Conservative leader since Confederation to win triple victories. The electorate has given Mr. Harper what he has campaigned for since 2004, and his opponents have long feared, a secure majority that gives him a freer hand to implement the Conservative agenda.

NDP Leader Jack Layton made history, too, displacing the Liberals to become the Official Opposition after seizing the majority of seats in Quebec from the separatist Bloc Québécois.

“I’ve always favoured proposition over opposition,” Mr. Layton told a cheering crowd. “But we will oppose the government when it’s off track. I will propose constructive solutions focused on helping Canadians.”

The extent of the shakeup was startling. The Liberals hold just three seats west of Guelph, Ont. The Conservatives, formerly shunned by Toronto voters, were set to win nearly half of the seats in that city, twice as many as the Liberals.

The Bloc, which defined Quebec federal politics for two decades, no longer qualifies for official party status. And the Green Party made history itself, with leader Elizabeth May winning the its first seat, and the right to a place in the next election’s debates.

“We need hope over fear, compassion over competition,” Ms. May told a jubilant crowd, before focusing on the wider Parliament of which she is now a member. “We are elected to serve the people of Canada, not one ideology.”

The Conservatives were leading or elected in 166 seats, up from 143 at dissolution and comfortably ahead of the bare 155 needed to form a majority government.

The NDP was leading or elected in 103 seats, more than double its best historical tally. The Liberals were on track to be reduced to the lowest seat count in their history, leading or elected in just 35 seats.

The Bloc was leading in just four.

“I’m leaving, but others will follow, until Quebec becomes a country,” Mr. Duceppe said.

Parliament has been radically transformed. The fragmentation of the 1993 election has been reversed, with the Conservatives and NDP emerging as national parties with support across all regions of the country. The Bloc has been reduced to a shadow, and the once-mighty Liberals consigned to redoubts in Atlantic Canada, Montreal and urban Ontario.

“Democracy teaches hard lessons,” Mr. Ignatieff said, adding he did not plan to step down as Liberal leader.

The next Parliament will return to the traditional shape of majority government, but it will be a much transformed House of Commons, with the Official Opposition well left of centre, the regional agenda of the Bloc largely excised, and the wild card of a Green MP.

Worries (and hopes) that the NDP’s jump in the polls would fade at the ballot box did not materialize. Jack Layton and his party saw support climb nationwide to 31 per cent in early results.

The Conservatives’ popular vote edged up to the 40-per-cent mark, continuing the steady growth of the last three elections. But the Liberals saw their popular vote plummet from what was thought to be the nadir of 2008, falling to just 19 per cent from 26 per cent. In Quebec, the Bloc polled just 23 per cent, the lowest the party has ever received.

Mr. Layton will have a large and inexperienced caucus to manage, including Ruth Ellen Brosseau of Berthier-Maskinongé, an assistant pub manager who barely speaks French, doesn’t live in the riding and vacationed in Las Vegas during the campaign – but still won by double digits over the Bloc candidate.

Mr. Harper faces a different challenge: Newly elected members, particularly a high-powered contingent of newly-elected Ontario MPs, will give the prime minister ample cabinet material, and give the rest of his caucus ample scope for disappointment. Seasoned diplomat Chris Alexander will surely be on the short list for cabinet. And Bernard Trottier, the francophone Albertan who defeated Mr. Ignatieff in his Toronto riding, will at least have that singular accomplishment for Mr. Harper to consider.

Across the country, the jump in NDP support was decisive, but its effect varied dramatically in Canada’s two biggest provinces. In Quebec, the New Democrats swept to a decisive victory. But in Ontario – the key to the Harper majority – the NDP surge appeared to benefit Conservatives in tight three-way races.

The NDP’s rise began early but slowly on election night, with the party gaining two seats in Atlantic Canada. Those gains came at the expense of the Liberals, who also lost two seats to the Conservatives.

Vote splitting on the left, a consequence of the rise of NDP support, gave the Conservatives a gain of three seats in Atlantic Canada, including Madawaska-Restigouche, where Mulroney-era cabinet minister Bernard Valcourt staged a successful comeback.

In Quebec, 18 years of Bloc dominance crumbled. With a few polls still to be counted, the NDP was leading or elected in 61 of 75 ridings. But the NDP was also grabbing seats from the Conservatives and Liberals, in a sweep akin to that of the Bloc in 1993, or the Progressive Conservatives in 1984. Conservative cabinet minister Lawrence Cannon lost to the NDP candidate in Pontiac.

The Conservatives needed to win in Ontario to gain a majority, and did so handily in early returns. The Liberals were in full retreat from the suburban ridings ringing Toronto, with the Conservatives projected to make substantial gains.

And the Tories pushed deep into the Liberals’ Toronto fortress, competitive in at least a half-dozen urban ridings – including Mr. Ignatieff’s riding of Etobicoke-Lakeshore. Other prominent Toronto-area Liberals, including Ken Dryden in York Centre, lost their seats. It was a dramatic reversal for the Liberals, who swept Ontario several times in the 1990s.

On the West Coast, early results showed the New Democrats making gains at the expense of the Liberals, who were fighting to retain two downtown Vancouver ridings, with three other seats already lost to the New Democrats.

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