Political scientists will tell you that a party system changes when a new party establishes itself on the scene or an old one departs. By that standard this year’s election, which saw the advent of the new Conservative Party resulting from the Alliance-PC merger, has created a new Party system.
It is also true that 1993 was the advent of a new party system with the introduction of Reform and the BQ. I am inclined to view 1993 as the real departure from the old system. The reality is that the old pre-1993 PC’s were, to over-simplify, a coalition on the right of economic liberals and social conservatives. Mulroney temporarily added Quebec nationalists, but this was an exception to a party system that went back a long way (especially if we ignore the Socreds and Créditistes).
The point is that this election, which produced a minority government, appears likely to have established a pattern that will be repeated as long as one large region, Quebec, gives substantial support to a purely regional party, the Bloc Québecois.
The Conservatives could finish ahead of the Liberals in the next election, but how will they win a majority? They have 99 seats now. Where do the needed 56 additional seats come from? Some gains in Atlantic Canada, plus 70 seats in Ontario, would give them the barest of majorities in some future election. The reality is that it will be exceedingly difficult to do.
The same is true for the Liberals. The Liberal performance in 2000 in Quebec looks now like an exception more than the rule, in part the product of general unhappiness in Quebec with a decaying PQ regime in Quebec City, as well as specific grievances such as forced municipal mergers. The Liberals won their majorities in the 90’s by taking nearly every seat in Ontario. This time Ontario returned to something closer to its long-term three party norm.
The three opposition leaders met recently in an attempt to find common ground and form an opposition “majority” in the House of Commons. This strikes me as unprecedented. It may ultimately turn out to amount to nothing, but thinking about how a minority House will work in the long run seems to me like a valuable exercise.