This election is about change. Some 70% of us say we want it. But Canadians have been up and down on who they trust to deliver it. It’s made the last year a wild ride, but the end is in sight and I think some important lessons are emerging for progressives of all stripes.
Let’s start with Tom Mulcair. When the Duffy story broke, he surprised everyone with his remarkable skills in Question Period. He was relentless, intelligent and highly effective; and his performance won huge accolades.
But it was his attacks on Harper’s security bill, C-51, that really shone. The bill followed a summer of atrocities and military advances by ISIS, culminating in Michael Zehaf-Bibeau’s attack on Parliament Hill last October. In the months leading up to C-51, security had become a political juggernaut and Stephen Harper seemed to be controlling it.
Mulcair stepped right into its path. He made the case against Harper’s security bill, fiercely, consistently and brilliantly, bringing a big part of the country along with him. Canadians obviously saw something genuine in this performance and shortly after Mulcair was leading in the polls.
So what’s happened to the NDP campaign?
From the beginning, Mulcair chose to play the cautious front runner, refusing even to take questions at his campaign launch. If this style-change was jarring, it now appears to be part of a pattern.
Next came the hard line on balanced budgets, a neck-snapping about-face for the NDP and a conspicuous nod in Harper’s direction.
Then there is the issue of governance style. If Mulcair rightly savages Harper’s penchant for secrecy and centralization, what has he proposed to change this? Whereas Justin Trudeau has a long list of Open Government reforms, Mulcair has offered no such document, leaving many to speculate that an NDP majority would govern much like the Harper Conservatives.
The push on Senate abolition was another misstep. The more Mulcair tried to defend it, the more it looked like a constitutional quagmire. His insistence this could be overcome through “hard work” sounded disingenuous and politically opportunistic.
Finally, there was the niqab. While Mulcair has defended the choice to wear it in a citizenship ceremony, his explanation leans heavily on “the court’s decision,” rather than an appeal to basic human rights. As a result, his defence sounds half-hearted and conditional—perhaps to assuage his Quebec audience.
These missteps have a common theme. All suggest a preoccupation with strategy over authenticity. Unlike the fiery attacks on C-51, Mulcair’s campaign message on change feels crafted and coached. Canadians appear to be drawing the same conclusion.
What about Trudeau?
Far from the flibbertigibbet some say he is, Trudeau’s has turned out to be disciplined, deliberate and strategic.
After winning the Liberal leadership three years ago, he settled on a long-term plan to anchor the Party’s policy platform in progressive values and shape it through ongoing discussion with Canadians.
In the first phase, Trudeau spent a year traveling the country, meeting with Canadians, and talking with them about the values they thought were essential to the country.
In the second phase, he recruited some of our best young minds, established several policy groups, and gave them clear instructions, first, to come up with polices that reflected Liberal values; and, second, to find the ones that were right for Canada, rather than the ones that would win an election.
In effect, Trudeau took his party through an elaborate, three-year strategic planning exercise for Canada, driven by an overarching commitment to “get it right.”
He was also widely criticized for it. Opponents and observers complained that he was absent from Parliament and taking far too long to come up with policies. And he’s paid a high price for some of the Party’s policy choices, notably, the Liberals’ position on C-51.
But this lengthy, bottom-up process has had two huge advantages. It has helped him ground the policy positions in foundational ideas that resonate with progressive Canadians. And it has been a huge confidence-building exercise for the leader.
We are beginning to see the payoff.
When the election was called, Trudeau’s opponents—and many observers—were confident the five debates would expose him as a lightweight and finish him. In fact, in many of the exchanges, it was Trudeau’s opponents who looked flummoxed and confused.
During the Munk debate, in particular, Trudeau showed remarkable agility. While his opponents leaned heavily on policy and analysis to explain themselves, he moved easily between a compelling story about the country, its values, goals and people, on one hand, and policy and analysis, on the other.
Far from finishing him off, the five debates have revealed a very different Trudeau. As is now widely acknowledged, he is emerging as a superb communicator.
Moreover, until now, Trudeau’s age and youthful look have been mainly a liability—hence the “just not ready yet” slogan. In the last few weeks, however, that has changed. Trudeau is emerging as the authoritative spokesperson for generational change, making his opponents look old and tired by comparison.
Those who haven’t seen his speech at the Brampton rally last Sunday should watch it. You don’t have to be a fan to be impressed by the passion, confidence and skill with which he delivers his message. His critique of Harper’s politics of fear and divisiveness is devastating, not because it is clever or polished, but because it rings true.
And this, I think, is where the real difference between Trudeau and Mulcair lies. Trudeau now speaks about Harper’s leadership with the kind of authority and clarity that Mulcair brought to C-51. He has found the confidence to step out in front of Harper’s most basic assumptions and speak from a place of his own.
Rather than arguing against Harper, he is articulating a different vision of Canada. And increasingly, it will be Harper who must answer Trudeau.
Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate, Policy and Engagement, at Canada 2020, Canada’s leading, independent progressive think-tank. Don is an internationally recognized expert on democracy and Open Government. His recent projects include chairing an expert group on citizen engagement for the UN and the OECD; and chairing the Ontario Open Government Engagement Team. The views expressed here are those of the columnist alone. Don can be reached at: Don.Lenihan@Canada2020.ca or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan