Division of Power #1 Breaking down a long election cycle

Division of Power is a biweekly exploration of politics and federalism as it pertains to Winnipeg

Joan Grace, associate professor in the department of politics at the University of Winnipeg, asks her second-year Canadian politics class the same question every year:

“Is Canadian political culture like the engine of a Boeing 747 or a bowl of spaghetti?”

After the ritual hand-raising, Grace describes the fundamental difference between the two.

While the engine is incredibly complex, it can ultimately be understood logically with enough instruction and engineering acumen.

A bowl of spaghetti, on the other hand, is an odd aesthetic and flavourful agglomeration of various ingredients, coupled with temperature, mood and, ultimately, the love and care of the cook. For this reason, no two bowls taste exactly alike.

Canadian political culture is like a bowl of spaghetti.

And, in the aftermath of a long election cycle in Manitoba, voting intentions should be similarly understood.

While it is easy to look at voting trends across Canada, and in particular Manitoba, as a result of a collective suspicion for change in the face of severe global economic challenges, the voting dynamics are far more regionally specific and complex.

Within a year, Manitobans have opted for the status quo in no less than three elections. In the civic election, all incumbent councilors and mayor Sam Katz were re-elected to office. In the provincial election, the NDP was awarded its fourth consecutive majority government (a first in provincial history) with a seat distribution that barely changed.

In the federal election, the governing Conservative Party of Canada won 11 of Manitoba’s 14 seats, with only one seat actually changing from red to blue.

It is clear, and many have argued this point forcefully, that Manitobans opted for the status quo in part because of the macro-level political climate. This is an attempt to reconcile the fact that Manitobans elected a Conservative government federally, and a huge NDP majority provincially.

But it could have easily been the fact that the primary challenger in all three elections was fundamentally deficient.

Judy Wasylycia-Leis failed to articulate an alternative vision for the City of Winnipeg, often stealing measures from Katz’s 2004 and 2006 campaign play-book. Incumbent councilors largely ran better campaigns and had a built-in base of voters.

Hugh McFadyen failed to distinguish his party from the NDP on virtually every front, with the exception of Bipole III, which failed as a defining issue largely because of its abundant complexity.

Similarly, Manitoba was too far West, and too accustomed to the NDP, to get hit by the federal Orange Wave and we have largely lost interest in the federal Liberals, who increasingly stand for nothing and represent no one.

The status quo and stability argument doesn’t hold water in the rest of the country, either.

Although Ontarians embraced Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals for a third term on Thursday, they also shifted radically blue federally and, before that, brought the much-maligned, ultra-conservative Rob Ford to power in Toronto.

In Quebec, changes have been immense and swift as the sovereigntist movement collapses and new parties emerge from the wreckage. Much of that political dynamism was precipitated by the aforementioned Orange Wave, which alone is an odd and fragile political force with a sparse organizational structure in Quebec.

In British Columbia, a lively young premier waits patiently until the HST referendum, where the B.C. public radically turned against the government, vanishes from the public memory.

And, last but not least, Alberta has embraced two enigmatic and progressive leaders with premier-designate Alison Redford and Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi

Although stability in uncertain times was definitely a factor in Manitoba and elsewhere in the country, it is difficult to square the many provincial, civic and national changes with what Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson wrote shortly after the Manitoba provincial election:

“Whether federally or provincially, people appear determined to go with experience. It is a testament to how narrow is the ideological divide in this country that they have no problems voting Conservative one day and NDP the next.”

This argument, which has been repeated countless times elsewhere, disregards the fact that individuals, and communities, vote for abundantly different reasons. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Quebec, Alberta and Ontario.

Many in Canada’s punditocracy are confusing a cold and calculated 747 engine with a bowl of spaghetti.