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East vs. West: Political success involves pitting group against group

It seems to be impossible to conduct national politics in Canada without pitting one region of the country against the other. This can be dangerous, but it's also inevitable.

Some people believe that NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair is employing a clever but parlous strategy in warning that the oils sands development is distorting the Canadian economy.

Mr. Mulcair believes that oil and other natural resource exports are inflating the dollar, which is crippling manufacturing in Ontario. The solution for the NDP is to force resource-extraction industries to pay more of the environmental costs of what they do.

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Postmedia columnist Michael Den Tandt opined this week that Mr. Mulcair's jeremiads are mere political calculation. "The New Democrats are writing off the Prairies and staking all their future hopes of forming government on Ontario," he wrote. "...If he keeps his stronghold in Quebec, and establishes a solid beachhead in Ontario, dominated by Toronto, Mulcair can put together a winning formula."

Liberal strategist John Duffy made a similar argument on behalf of his party in a journal article a few months ago. The game plan for both teams appears to be the same: convince fickle Ontario voters to abandon their dalliance with Western Conservatives, and embrace NDP or Liberal Quebec instead. (Each party believes that it will dominate French Canada next time out.) This space remains skeptical of the notion that suburban Ontario voters will see their values more closely reflected in Montreal than in Calgary. But there's a larger point: Pitting West against East, the natural-resources sector against the manufacturing sector, the growing, flourishing New Canada against the troubled older economy is a recipe for polarization and paralysis and maybe even the breakup of the country.

This is why Stéphane Dion this week said he rejected a recommendation when he was Liberal Party leader to campaign against the West in hopes of picking up votes in Ontario.

"I care about every square centimetre of our country," he declared. "...Calgary is in my heart just as much as Montreal, and Edmonton even as much as my hometown: la ville de Quebec."

Anyone who has the privilege of travelling around Canada is prone to ending up caring about every square centimetre of it. Canada gets to you that way.

But the essence of politics is disagreement over how things should be done. Those disagreements are rooted in class, in culture, in ethnicity, in history, in geography. All of those reasons help to explain why the American South is rock-ribbed Republican while the Northeast and Pacific Coast are Democrat; why the affluent southeast of England leans Conservative and the troubled Midlands leans Labour, why Alberta votes almost nothing but Tory and Quebec votes, well, almost anything but Tory.

Victory lies in first establishing your base and then identifying and winning over that narrow band of voters who can be persuaded by either side. Stephen Harper is very good at it. Thomas Mulcair believes he can be even better. So does a Liberal to be named later. But invariably, success involves pitting group against group.

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The thing to remember, when tempted to despair over political divides, is that they mask the deep bedrock of consensus that supports them: the Constitution and the unwritten laws that we respect, the lessons that parents teach their children, the great well of values that was share rather than the shallow pools that divide us.

Canadian politics is a vicious game. But it's vital to remember that things are only vicious at the margins.

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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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