National Security & Defense

The Return of Politics as Usual in Canada

(Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty)

The victory of Canada’s Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau in Monday’s election was only surprising to those who were keen to present the election as a close horse race. Writing a few days ago, I foresaw a Liberal near majority, while I feared what proved to be the actual outcome: a solid Liberal majority.

On the adage that governments defeat themselves, after almost ten years of Conservative government, 2015 was likely to be a Liberal year. This was only obscured by the anomalous result of the 2011 election, which saw the left-wing New Democratic Party installed as the official opposition and the Liberals as a third-place rump.

The election marks a return to form for Canada’s politics. A dominant Liberal Party, a strong Conservative opposition, and the New Democrats permanently in third place. The parties shifted places almost exactly from 2011. In popular vote in 2011, it was roughly Conservatives 40 percent, New Democrats 30 percent, and Liberals 20 percent. In 2015, Liberals won 40 percent, Conservatives 30 percent, and New Democrats 20 percent. The 2011 outcome was almost entirely due to the volatile Quebec electorate; this time they gave Liberals a majority of the province’s seats, but again showed their eccentricity by giving the Conservatives twelve seats, up from five in 2011. The Conservatives lost seats in every other province and were wiped out in four.

Despite the Liberals’ three successive defeats by Harper’s Conservatives, they held power in five of Canada’s ten provinces, including the biggest, Ontario. Their networks were intact.

The puzzle was that none of the Liberal Party’s experienced heavyweights sought its leadership, preferring to serve on corporate boards or as university presidents. In 2013, the leadership was Justin Trudeau’s for the asking, though he had been in politics only five years after working as a school teacher, a bouncer, and an actor in one movie, and studying engineering for two years. His name and his fame were his only qualifications.

On the vacuous slogan ‘Real Change,’ Trudeau was able to ride a wave of anti-Harper sentiment fueled by a media that criticized the Harper government relentlessly.

Some skepticism in the media, combined with Conservative attack ads impugning him as “not ready” and implying that he might one day be ready, served to set expectations for Trudeau low. But his acting talent helped him play the role of a political leader during the campaign, and, on the vacuous slogan “Real Change,” he was able to ride a wave of anti-Harper sentiment fueled by a media that criticized the Harper government relentlessly while going gently on the opposition.

As evidenced by the Liberal platform, “Real Change” doesn’t amount to much. It seems to be a bit more tax on the rich and a small tax cut for the “middle class,” a willingness to return Canada to deficits in the interest of “stimulus” and “infrastructure,” though most of what is proposed (such as increased child-care benefits) is not infrastructure. The rest is a checklist of everything that has been in the news, from mail delivery to veterans’ benefits to Syrian refugees, with a promise to do better. Government phones will be answered more promptly. We’ll see.

As the son of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, young Trudeau knew from family connections many Liberal politicians, and he attracted budding operatives pleased to know a pleasant celebrity. Dominic Leblanc, first elected to Parliament in 2000, son of Romeo Leblanc (the governor general from 1995 to 1999), is four years older than Justin and babysat him and became a close friend. Gerald Butts, one-time principal secretary to Dalton McGuinty (the Liberal premier of Ontario from 2003 to 2113) met Justin at McGill University in 1990 and now serves as his chief adviser. It is such people who will feed Justin his lines as he plays the prime minister.

Among Liberals elected or reelected on Monday are several notables likely to feature in Trudeau’s cabinet. There is the former Financial Times journalist Chrystia Freeland, tipped for foreign minister, whose Ukrainian roots may make for interesting relations with Russia. Also noteworthy is lieutenant general Andrew Leslie, former chief of staff of the army, who will probably learn there is no more money for defense; he may have to find an alternative to the F-35, first signed on to by the then Liberal government in 1997 but now political poison as cost estimates have soared.

Stephen Harper has indicated that he will step down as leader of the Conservatives. There will ensue a lengthy and unpredictable contest for the leadership while the party’s members are led in Parliament by someone whose chief qualification will be that he does not want to be leader. For some time, the opposition in Parliament will be ineffectual while the media preoccupies itself with Justin’s wonderful story.

There is no obvious successor to Harper, though the front-runner might be Jason Kenney, Harper’s minister of defense. From 2008 to 2013, Kenney was a successful immigration minister, and he oversaw strategies that saw the party gain strong support from immigrant communities that had traditionally voted Liberal.

The New Democrats will also be seeking a new leader and may not easily find one. The winning personality of Jack Layton led them to their triumph in 2011, when Layton died of cancer, but his widow, Olivia Chow, was soundly defeated in her attempt to return to Parliament (from which she had resigned to run for mayor of Toronto, a race she lost). The party’s faithful and public-sector-union backers will prevent it from moving convincingly to the center.

The greatest change on the horizon might be Liberals’ promise to adopt some form of proportional representation before the next election. It is part of a package of institutional tinkering that Trudeau announced in the spring under the title “A Fair and Open Government.” He proposed no particular scheme but decreed that experts would study alternatives. The issue did not feature in the election. Proportional representation has been repeatedly defeated in provincial referendums. Trudeau does not propose a referendum. When the idea was announced, it seemed that the Liberals had lost their nerve and simply wanted an electoral system that would assure them a chunk of power, however long they might languish in the polls.

But if proportional representation is adopted in Canada, 2015 will be the last year in which Canada’s voters will have been able to choose a government, throw out a government they had tired of, and make a decision. In time, a European-style politics will evolve, with parties in power in coalitions permanently, niche parties exercising disproportionate power, stagnation, and instability. It is one real change that would assure that there will never be change again.

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