Big as the seat change was in the federal election, the sea change was even bigger. However many Liberal seats were lost or Conservative, NDP and Bloc seats won, the new moment showcases the deep-set inability of Canadian politics to support a viable two-party system. And this means more momentous shakeups are looming.
That's because, ironically, the Liberals - who remain a "big-tent" national party faring relatively well across all regions and among all social groups in the country - no longer have a national big-tent competitor.
The botched reincarnation of the Conservative party was shut out of Quebec, the Maritimes and urban Ontario, much like the Alliance and Reform before it. Though the Liberals, suffering from a combination of a $100-million sponsorship scandal and Paul Martin's failure to find a groove, seemed beatable, the Conservatives could not manage a simple break- through to mainstream stature.
At the very moment when the polls showed he had a chance to win, Harper started pressing the hot buttons. He couldn't control his inner lunatic fringe, and moved to shore up his regional base rather than reach out to a national audience, signalling that he has no interest in brokerage politics. Even his acceptance speech, usually an occasion for grace and alliance-building, was used to reaffirm the Conservatives' regional and ideological base. The West wants in, he said. Apparently, the Conservatives don't.
The situation a minority Liberal government now faces is different from that faced by those of the 70s, the 60s and even the 20s. In all those earlier situations, the Liberals had the advantage of a loyal opposition that was also a nationwide big-tent party. The threat of a viable governmental alternative on the Conservative side is what allowed the Liberals of those decades to regain control by marginalizing regional- or left-based critics.
Today's Liberals have no such threat to brandish against critics.
That's a problem for Liberal strategists trying to see their way to a straight-up majority mandate. In politics and business, as in dance, it takes two to tango. When there's only one big player, instability is inevitable.
That's why Eatons hung in as long as there was Simpsons, why British Labourites need Conservatives, and why the Cold War with Russia simplified the problems of U.S. foreign policy.
A social law of entropy dictates that organizations veer toward disunity within their ranks if they don't face a strong enemy who forces them to stick together. That's what we witnessed in Martin's ill-advised purge of the party.
Big-tent parties came into being as a way of beating back those centrifugal forces. Without the threat of a tight race against a big-tent Conservative majority to scare doubters, Martin's Liberals would have been in deep trouble. After all, the Liberals faced a significant threat from the left as well as the right. Jack Layton's resurgent New Democrats could have taken over at least 40 seats, as one extrapolation of polling data had it.
What if the Greens had cooperated with the NDP? There are 10 ridings or more where such unity would have changed the outcome. And what if the left- and green-tinged Bloc in Quebec had formed a working understanding with the NDP?
Any progressive drift was kept in line by Martin's last-minute, panic-induced plea to halt the Conservative march that, as it turned out, was storm-trooping to nowhere. The gimmick of polarizing the options worked particularly well in Toronto, where Team Martin's manipulation of a vibrant civic culture based on diversity, tolerance and consensus was tantamount to emotional abuse. Like good little boys and girls, Torontonians kept Liberal scandals a secret.
Big-tent parties are both obsolete and negative in today's world.
They're obsolete in part because of the transportation and communication revolutions characteristic of the Internet age. Abundant information, especially real-time information coming and going in all directions, was scarce before the Internet, so national parties served some function as intermediaries among people who lacked ways of linking with each other.
That function is no longer needed, leading to what Internet guru Don Tapscott calls "disintermediation" - the trend whereby intermediaries and wholesalers who create no other value are made irrelevant. Big-tent parties are chronically prone to disintermediation in this era.
They add no value to the discussion, and we don't need them any more. That's why the Internet generation doesn't care much for old-time party voting, creating the trend whereby 70 per cent of under-30s didn't vote in the last election, and 40 per cent of the population took a pass this time.
For anyone concerned about the future of democracy and engagement, that's a lot of people with no tent.
Equally negative, big-tent parties veer toward "wedge issues" - issues that can polarize people approximately equally in all regions, classes and demographic groups. That's why complex, sensitive, personal and emotional issues related to sexuality and crime make it to the top of the big-tent hit parade.
By contrast, issues related to child poverty, the labelling of genetically engineered foods, obesity, the outsourcing of homegrown jobs - just to name a few of the crucial themes that never rate a moment's airtime in this age of abundant information - are vigorously suppressed by the big-tent system because they disrupt Tweedledum-and-Tweedledee multi-class coalitions.
The first-past-the-post voting system, in tandem with the Big Threat gambit and Big Media enslavement to controversy that requires no learning curve, keeps this obsolete big-tent party system on life support.
If a move toward proportional representation becomes one of the terms of endearment in a minority accord (don't hold your breath), we can saygoodbye to big tents and start figuring out how to open dialogue based on diverse ideals and ideas.