The Dauphin Beats the Devil

Justin Trudeau

Against all odds, what was once the “natural” order of the Canadian House of Commons has been restored. Stephen Harper’s historic mission as our Prime Minister was to detach Canada from its Liberal identity. He recedes into the background now, knowing that, although he leaves the leadership with his own party in much better order than most recent PMs have, he has failed to extirpate the Laurentian-empire DNA from the Canadian genome. It will be a bittersweet fate for him to appear as a humble backbencher in a House that looks so much like those of the 20th century: a Liberal majority with tendrils in every province, a hundred or so Conservatives anchored in the West, and few dozen rabble-rousing NDPers.

On election night the Conservative Party rammed hard against the firm upper limit of voter support some analysts had warned they were facing. It had seemed all along that somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of Canadians were, after the Harper Decade, determined to vote for change. If it was more like 60, the CPC could count on its data-driven turnout machine and on its ability to operate, to borrow a military strategy metaphor, on interior lines. If the figure were closer to 70 well… they were in trouble no matter what.

But the Conservatives could choose which front to fight on with their fixed resources. If Tom Mulcair or Justin Trudeau seemed especially vulnerable, they could plan attacks to hit the stronger of the opponents. A historian might say they were able to pursue Britain’s traditional offshore grand strategy in Europe: consistently assisting the second biggest power.

The shape of the election, in retrospect, does look something like that. When the writs went out, there seemed every chance that Thomas Mulcair would have to find a plug-in for his beard-trimmer in the master bathroom of 24 Sussex. The NDP surged in the August polls as the Tories suffered through Mike Duffy doldrums and the Liberals endured the quite effective “Just not ready” ad campaign.

For a year the Conservatives had treated Justin Trudeau and the Liberals as the chief adversary, and it soon started to become clear why. Mulcair’s transitory strength concealed obvious weaknesses. The New Democrats had built a Quebec stronghold under Jack Layton, then switched to an ex-Liberal who had once been at the forefront of the province’s fierce anglo-rights movement. Mulcair’s strong stance against deficits – at a time of sluggish economic growth and low borrowing costs – cut against the culture of his own party, raised questions about whether he was opportunist (much less a smart one), and let the Liberals contrast themselves to everyone else. The return of Gilles Duceppe as the authentic voice of hard Quebec nationalism came at the right moment: CPC tacticians could be confident Duceppe would get his usual boost from French-language television debates.

The niqab blow up

And then the niqab card turned up. Stephen Harper always seems to have appreciated, in a way Conservative and Liberal politicians mostly don’t, that Quebec sees itself as the indigenous home of a nation – a distinctive variety of humankind with its own language and its own way of life. Melting-pot politics are never going to work there, at least until Quebec passes some undefinable demographic tipping point and adopts the same GDP-driven civilizational aspirations as everyone else.

Quebec is the ideal place to deploy a narrative built on ideas of security and preservation – in one French word, survivance. That term has receded from its prominence in the life of those who analyze Quebec, from inside and outside. But the concept lingers. It is the ghostly presence that explains why Quebecers refuse to see what liberals elsewhere regard as “reason” on issues of immigrant accommodation.

The niqab grenade went off when the pin was pulled, and it sent New Democrat voter support into Quebec crashing. It probably even succeeding in hurting the NDP with anglo-Canadian voters who find a decorum issue like the niqab not at all clear-cut. (News flash: it’s not!) But the tactic allowed change voters to flock to Justin Trudeau with confidence. Trudeau’s position on the niqab in citizenship ceremonies, and his willingness to chide the Conservatives for opposing it, was indistinguishable from the New Democrats’. But he had less to lose in Quebec, and more to gain from change voters in Greater Toronto or B.C. who had been thinking about latching onto the Orange Wave.

Right now you can go anywhere else in the land of media to hear people talking about how Justin Trudeau was underrated, particularly by the Conservatives. Everyone expected that in a long election campaign he would have many opportunities to replay gaffes like “Too many Albertans” or his off-the-cuff praise for the Chinese government. That is an important reason the campaign was made so long.

But Trudeau not only proved that he was capable of being trained to an adequate standard of coherence for a politician; he showed that there was unanticipated merit in his oft-derided experience as a drama teacher. It turns out the high-pressure environment of a campaign puts a premium on showmanship as well as articulacy. The Liberal ads featuring Trudeau were literal show-stoppers, capable of bringing chit-chat in a pub to a total halt.

What civilians may not understand is that the press and electronic media had underestimated Justin at least as much as the Tories did. The Conservatives have made themselves personally unpopular with the press, but that is something Conservatives accept and welcome. If their relations with the reporting corps are terrible, that makes their master narrative of central Canadian liberal conspiracy – recall Ezra Levant’s “Media Party” coinage – all the more convincing.

But it is natural to underestimate the degree to which national politics reporters have been skeptical, even contemptuous of Justin, too. In private they have always spoken of him as a lightweight, an unsound, dubious flake. They are congenitally suspicious of his charisma, and perhaps envious of his origins. His record of scholarship is so humble that some reporters might potentially be justified in feeling intellectual superiority – an opportunity so rare for them, it would take a saint to overlook it. One does not fully appreciate these feelings until one sees Justin Trudeau at a press conference, stepping around crude verbal traps laid by journalists who stop just short of jeering.

Trudeau was readier than expected

When it turned out that Justin Trudeau’s campaign style was not, after all, going to resemble a muskrat zigzagging through a minefield – and when, moreover, the Liberals turned out to have a relatively defensible economic platform and competent people making their ads – the vulnerability of the national press was naturally just as great as its skepticism once was. It fell for the underdog. And what is true of the press may well be true of a big part of the Canadian general public.

In an odd way the 2015 election seems to represent a reassertion of power by what we call “the media”. From the inside, of course, the media isn’t some sort of featureless monolith. It’s a hierarchy, with an undifferentiated class of left-wing worker bees at the bottom; a politically diverse layer of editorialists, columnists, correspondents, pundit-managers, and stars above them; and, at the top, where the money resides, a mostly conservative (and actively pro-Conservative) elite.

The ordinary reporters, produced by a homogenizing university system, impart a left-wing colour to the news pages. (There is obviously some truth to the idea that news reporting is always in opposition to whomever is in power.) The brass will pull strings for a conservative party as far as they are able. In this campaign they broke new ground in ordering up queasy endorsements from harassed editorial boards and permitting aggressive Conservative advertising down the stretch. It probably did more harm than good.

The Conservatives could have made a stronger effort to keep the tone-setting middle class in the media on side. Non-partisans in the press have continued to respect Harper even as his tacticians put the boots to them. This remorselessness lost or discouraged natural allies who, it turns out, still have some vestige of control over ballot framing.

Editors saw, in the Duffy trial, the chance of an all-hands-on-deck effort to create a Canadian Watergate. This initially seemed like a failure, even a waste of resources. After the trial adjourned, the name “Mike Duffy” was all but forgotten in a matter of days. But if the trial proceedings had failed to establish any easily described instance of active wrongdoing, the evidence did tend to suggest that the Prime Minister’s Office wields enormous concentrated power that is unelected and, almost by definition, irresponsible.

This picture of an out-of-control PMO harmonized with the critiques Michael Chong and Brent Rathgeber had been making, in their different ways, for years. The retirements of other high-quality Conservative MPs like John Baird and James Rajotte started to seem like implied recriminations. And the latent danger to the Conservative electoral cause became obvious when the topics of Syrian refugees and the niqab were force-fed into the electoral narrative.

Stephen Harper had welded together two parties into an amazingly successful centrist electoral force; he had neutralized wild Old Reformers and restless pro-lifers, and run a substantially clean, efficient federal government. The explicit “scandals” of Harper’s government – things like Bev Oda’s orange juice – were paltry by Mulroney and Chretien standards. Even the misadventures of the Senate do not add up to much in money terms, and we simply do not know how bad the Senate used to be before accountants were turned loose in the Red Chamber like a sack full of ferrets.

So Canada, to the degree it remembers what Chretien and Mulroney were like, might well trust Harper personally to carry on. And that was the bargain Harper tried to offer on the campaign trail. But events quickly began to hint that Conservative Canada was governed, not so much by Stephen Harper, but by a gang of callow, spin-obsessed freelancers surrounding his person and carrying out his unspoken wishes.

Perhaps it is ever thus. But Harper’s octopus of a PMO appears to contrast with an older Canadian system of powerful regional bagmen. It would be natural for the Liberals to revive that way of doing things, and it might be advisable. They have certainly got enough geographic breadth in the new caucus to do it; there are Liberal MPs to choose from everywhere on the map.

Too many hot buttons

Tight, data-driven central PMO control of the operations of government is a natural corollary of image politics, but it turns out to have limits. Readers familiar with American economics gadfly Nassim Taleb will notice that PMO hirelings do not have “skin in the game” the way leading MPs and ministers in a caucus do. There can be no substitute for the intelligence that comes from people whose careers will capsize if the CEO makes a mistake.

Over-dependence on fine data with a scientific patina helps to explain the mysteriously diffuse quality of Conservative messaging in this election. It might have been right to see the Duffy trial, in isolation, as a transitory dud of an issue. It might have been right to see the niqab as a winner. It might have been right to see the Canadian public as being suspicious and fearful of a possible mass refugee airlift from Middle Eastern countries wracked with clan hatred and cousin marriage. It might have been right to keep applying the horsewhip to the media. But no one, until it was too late, seems to have seen the fatal interaction that all these seeming vote-winners might have with one another.

Jabbing the fear button is fine, but a lab rat can tell you that any repeatedly applied stimulus eventually loses force. Canadians started to whine about the long campaign less than halfway through it, and perhaps that was because no party was really telling an optimistic, feel-good story in a world in which, after all, there is much to feel good about.

Even the Liberal program was predicated on middle-class angst about the economic future. They hammered economic security as hard as the Conservatives hammered political security. How, one wonders, were they allowed to get away with this? Just a year ago, the New York Times had a headline announcing that Canada’s median household income was the world’s highest, give or take Norway’s. For an incumbent government to lose under such circumstances seems awfully careless.

The Conservatives stickhandled their late-arriving Trans-Pacific Partnership in such a way as to perform very well in Quebec, holding up their vote share there in the face of a surprising Vague Rouge. Holding onto a kernel of Quebec MPs might be the most important Conservative electoral accomplishment of the night. But the Tories’ demi-protectionist approach, their need to show excessive care for privileged industry sectors, meant that they could not sell free trade to the whole country as a grand ideal.

The Canadian public is probably not exactly panting for free trade, but free trade was one possible way for the Conservatives to appear positive and buoyant about the future, not to mention open to the wider world, conscious of the evolution of global markets, and socially concerned. (We can probably take or leave the TPP, but it will do an awful lot of good, and not just for the economy, in Vietnam.) Instead, the enduring memory of the election is likely to be a contrived squabble about niqabs. The bad taste be a while washing away.


Colby Cosh is a columnist for the National Post.


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