“Oh…wow,” dead-panned Liberal contender Kris Stewart Monday night, her eyes fixed on the TV above her, as national voter tallies rolled in.
Liberals, she was learning with the rest of the country, weren’t going to paint the town red in victory. They were in the middle of a civilized version of a political bloodbath which, while not unforeseen locally, was unprecedented on a national stage.
“It’s disappointing,” she said, as the Conservatives took a majority that ended in 167 seats. The NDP slotted into the official opposition with 102 seats, and Liberals fell to a paltry 34 seats.
Locally, in Kelowna Lake Country, MP Ron Cannan slid into a comfortable lead with 34,566 votes compared to Stewart’s third place showing of 7,069.
“This NDP surge was unexpected,” Stewart said. “I haven’t quite wrapped my head around it all.”
Stewart wasn’t the only one having a hard time coming to grips with the historic turn of events.
Murmurs of surprise fast became a feature of the 30-plus Liberal supporters gathered at Hannah’s to mark the end of a vigorous campaign effort.
Among their ranks was 18-year-old Michael McDonald who, decked out in Liberal red for his first election, was noticeably rattled by the night’s results.
“This is mind boggling,” he said. “We now have a right wing government like Canada’s never seen.”
Stewart’s campaign manager, Dr. Islam Mohamed, offered a measured view of the shift in power.
“Come fall, when the party meets, there will be a lot of looking back at this, and a lot of looking to the future,” Mohamed said.
“The Liberal Party has a great history. So much of what it’s done is at the core of this country.”
Problem is, he said, it wasn’t a message Canadians were taking heed of this election.
“The national platform was solid, blending fiscal conservatism with a strong social policy, but clearly we didn’t reach Canadians with our message,” he said. “We’ll have to look at how we can do that in the future.”
According to UBC Okanagan political science instructor Wolf Depner, the party is going to have to find those answers soon, because it may not have much gas left.
“Saying the party is dead is a little bit exaggerated, but it’s on life support,” he said, pointing out that the Liberal’s 18.9 per cent national showing closely mirrors 1993 election results. Then Progressive Conservatives, under Kim Campbell, got 16.4 per cent of the vote and the party was all but eliminated from the House of Commons and its future was put on a downward trajectory.
The Liberals ended up with more seats this time around, but unless they can get a grip on who they are, he said, or they may not fare much better in elections to come.
The problem of ineffective communication, however, isn’t new and can be traced back more than a decade.
“It started in the Jean Chretien and Paul Martin years, where there was a preoccupation with personality,” he said.
In those years, the message of what it means to be a Liberal wasn’t pronounced, but their standing in Canada was taken for granted.
Subsequent party leaders were weak, which continued to erode the party’s standing.
And this time around, it was structural problems, like a lack of money and inconsistent messaging, that ultimately landed them in third.
“I can look at the NDP and the Conservatives and know what they stood for, but I can’t do that with the Liberals,” Depner said, pointing out that some of the weak messaging could be due to a lack of ad dollars. At some points in the campaign, the Conservatives were outspending Liberals 15:1.
“Now they have to start from scratch, burn the policy book, open a rigorous debate about what the party stands for in the future, then settle on the political personality to sell those ideals,” he said.