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Less is more: Smaller Atlantic Canadian Liberal contingent positioned for clout in minority Parliament

People pass near Parliament Hill the morning after the federal election in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada October 22, 2019. REUTERS/Patrick Doyle

You would think sending fewer Liberals to Ottawa would mean less clout for Atlantic Canadians and their members of Parliament.

But political scientists say it might be just the opposite.

Every riding in the region went red in 2015 and MPs had to compete with a lot of Liberal voices in government. Six fewer Liberals won in Monday night's vote but experts say the new political landscape might be even more beneficial for Atlantic Canadians.

“Atlantic Canada plays a more crucial role than it did last time,” Don Desserud, University of P.E.I. political science professor told SaltWire.

That may sound counterintuitive: the Liberals now have fewer federal seats, and less support from the provinces, with both New Brunswick and P.E.I. electing Progressive Conservative governments since 2015. But Desserud said Monday's results, especially in Quebec and the West where Liberals new and old fell by the wayside, have have demonstrated the dangers of alienating a region and taking support for granted, especially while trying to survive as a minority government.

“When you're in a minority situation and every vote counts, things are fragile. You don't want people breaking ranks, you don't want people crossing the floor,” he said.

“That doesn’t mean Atlantic Canadian MPs have any more power than B.C. MPs, but it does mean that all the MPs will probably have a lot more clout in caucus meetings in dealing with cabinet ministers.”

On the topic of cabinet, with no red seats in Saskatchewan or Alberta, the Liberals may end up looking to Atlantic Canada to fill more cabinet positions.

“I think it’s still too early to tell specifically who's going to be staying in and who's going to get shuffled into what position but I would expect some representation from Atlantic Canada, and some meaningful representation,” said Dalhousie political sociologist Howard Ramos.

At the same time, Desserud said the Liberals will also be looking closely at places where they have lost support, like Quebec and Alberta, and trying to figure out how to win over voters in those provinces.

“The power shift is definitely moving out west and I think that's been on for some time,” Desserud said.

And although they each only took one seat in Atlantic Canada, the Green and NDP contingent in the region may play a bigger role than their numbers might suggest in shaping the agenda.

“The Liberals are going to have to start looking at why the Greens are doing well here,” Desserud said. “It’s possible they'll start to take the climate change file a little more seriously than they have.”

Meanwhile, Cape Breton University political science professor Tom Urbaniak said all eyes will be on the NDP to see what kind of demands they will make of the new government in propping up a minority, floating electoral reform and pharmacare as possible options.

“Atlantic Canada's going to be in a good place in all of this, because Atlantic Canada elected MPs from multiple parties, and even though the Liberals met their expectations for the campaign in Atlantic Canada, there were competitive races all over, and that means that the region cannot be taken for granted.”

A country divided?

Ramos also noted that Monday’s election results paint a picture of a Canada that is extremely split across regional lines, especially in Western provinces where separatist talk made its way into the national dialogue Tuesday and in Quebec where the Bloc saw a major resurgence.

“There are regional differences from Atlantic Canada, Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, and B.C. so for any leader going forward, it's going to be very important to recognize how regional the vote was and to begin to start creating more bridges,” he said.

One route to that reconciliation, Ramos said, will be addressing the core issues that extend across regions around affordability, the environment, and health care issues all of which are top of mind for Atlantic Canadians.

Despite the divided result nationally, Liberal MP-elect and one-time cabinet minister Bernadette Jordan, who will represent the rural Nova Scotia riding of South Shore-St. Margarets, said the major issues faced by Canadians aren’t all that different from coast to coast.

“I think that will lend itself more to working together to try and solve those issues,” she said.

Rob Moore, former Conservative MP-elect who won back Fundy Royal from the Liberals said he believes sending a minority parliament to Ottawa is a mandate from Canadians for co-operation.

“We didn't all run on the same platform, we don't all have the same views on issues, but in a country like Canada, we have to look out for the best interest of our region. And I'm prepared to...work with anyone that wants to better the Atlantic region,” Moore said.

“We need to show that we can be partners in certain cases and we need to be opposition in other cases, but we need to find a way to respect each other,” said West Nova Conservative MP-elect and former Nova Scotia PC MLA Chris d’Entremont.

The region’s only Green Jenica Atwin, who defeated the Fredericton Liberal incumbent, said, from her perspective, the forthcoming political landscape is ideal.

“The is the outcome that we've wanted. I really wanted that Liberal minority situation and I wanted a healthy swath of NDP to be part of team Canada as well as we share a lot of similarities,” she said. “I think it's just about aligning in the areas that we do agree...and negotiating some of our differences and really focusing on unity in Canada and the Atlantic provinces.”

Meanwhile, longtime Coast of Bays-Central-Notre Dame MP Scott Simms, who was also re-elected on Monday, said peace and productivity can only be obtained through respectful dialogue across party lines.

“I have had quite a bit of experience in minority parliaments. I can honestly say that bridge building can only be done if you have a critical mass of adults in the room,” Simms said. “And if we stick to the narrative that was threaded throughout the campaign, it's not going to work very well.”

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