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By-elections reflect paradox of federal politics

Calgary Centre is likely to remain Conservative after Monday's by-election, and not because of the comments of Liberal MPs Justin Trudeau or David McGuinty about Albertans taking over the country.

The likelihood of the Conservatives holding their seats in Calgary and in Durham, outside Toronto, with the NDP retaining Victoria, reflects the entrenched stability of Canadian politics at the federal level – a stability that has been manifest for at least five years.

This appears to contradict another reality: that politics in Canada is becoming increasingly polarized between left and right, progressives and conservatives.

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How to reconcile this paradox? That is the question.

As previously reported, the latest Nanos leadership index – which measures voter attitudes toward political leaders based on questions of trust, competence and vision – has Prime Minister Stephen Harper back at his traditional score of about 100.

It has been at that level, more often than not, since Nik Nanos created the index almost five years ago.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair scored in the forties. That's about how Jack Layton performed when he was leader, except for a big upward spike in the May, 2011, election. The currently leaderless Liberals are a bit lower, but what matters is this: An assortment of Liberal and NDP leaders have had a score about half that of Mr. Harper's for much of the past five years. Stability.

Yet over the past seven years, the Conservatives have gone from opposition to majority government while the NDP has soared from a poor third place to official opposition, suggesting an increasingly polarized electorate. Change.

How can the leadership scores be so consistent, in a political environment characterized by so much tumult?

For Darrell Bricker, political polarization and political stability are twin sides of a coin that voters have been tossing now for two decades.

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In the 1990s, observes the head of Ipsos Reid Public Affairs, voters placed their trust in a competent Liberal government that managed the economy and preserved the social framework. Meanwhile, conservative opposition parties flailed against each other, proving that they were far from ready to govern.

But then the Conservatives united against a scandal-plagued and internally divided Liberal government.

At the same time, waves of immigration from culturally conservative Asian countries, growing economic uncertainty and the rising power of the West produced a new conservative coalition of voters. The result is that Conservatives are now seen as more competent, with the divided progressives left to flail, far from ready to govern.

"Think of a duck swimming. All the action's under the water," is how Mr. Bricker puts it. Stability on top, churning below.

(Full disclosure: Mr. Bricker and I are co-authors of a forthcoming book.)

Akaash Maharaj, the former national policy chairman of the Liberal Party, takes a different view.

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"The governing party and the opposition parties have chosen a common narrative: that the other parties are scoundrels," he explains.

"And the public has chosen to believe all of them."

In such a poisoned and polarized environment, he believes, the great majority of Canadians have lost any interest in politics, wishing only poxes on everyone's house.

By default, they place their trust – what little there is of it – in whichever party is governing, provided that party is not demonstrably incompetent or corrupt.

According to the reasoning you prefer, voters are unlikely to care about Monday's by-elections, and to the extent they do care, they are likely to stay with the status quo: the Conservatives in Durham and Calgary; the NDP in Victoria.

The electorate may be increasingly polarized thanks to economic and demographic shifts, and partisan rancour may be at a historic high. But until a united, credible opposition with a compelling agenda faces a Conservative Party that no longer seems in control, nothing is likely to change.

Mourn or celebrate as you will. But that's just the way it is.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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