Canada has just concluded one of the longest electoral processes in its history. For 78 days, Canadian politicians at federal level riveted the electorate and energized civic democratic engagement across the country. By the time all was said and done, not only did the Canadian electorate mint a brand new youthful Prime Minister, they recorded a healthy increase in voter turnout. Canadians rejected Prime Minister Stephen Harper of the Conservative Party and charged Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party with the task of forming the next government with a majority mandate. The Liberals secured 184 out of 338 seats (54%) in the House of Commons. Harper has been the face of Canada for over a decade since 2006 when he led a reinvigorated conservative constituency to wrestle power from the Liberals. Before then, the Liberals had been in power for over a decade. They took Canadians for granted, claiming to be the exclusive custodians of the elusive Canadian values. Infighting and corruption (yes, corruption) made the Liberals to lose their hold on power. It has taken a decade before they returned.
The Canadian election had been an ideological contest for the most part. It was also a referendum on Harper and his style of governance. Yet a few dramatic interjections during the campaigns helped to shape the outcome. For Harper, his strength lied in his economic stewardship. He ran on a record of balanced budget. He was a steady hand that shielded Canada against the 2008 global economic meltdown as one of the G8 countries that rode the waves unscathed. His Conservative Party loathes tax hikes. They insist on a leaner government that would allow citizens to keep their hard earned money. For all of his stewardship, Harper did not irritate Canadians with tax increase; instead, he provided them creative avenues to save their incomes. However, just before the elections were called, oil (Canada’s major export) price took a historic downward plunge and with it the value of Canada’s petrodollar. Canada’s economy slid into recession, with creeping unemployment; casting long shadows on most of Harper’s argument as a dependable economic manager.
Trudeau’s ‘tax and spend Liberals’ capitalized on the crisis on Canada’s economic horizon. For them, this is not the time to talk about balanced budget. Trudeau was upfront. Since the economy is in dire stress, what it required was injection of funds through robust infrastructural renewal. Such an approach would create more jobs. It was easy for the municipalities and provinces to buy into this reasoning. Trudeau did not shy away from insisting that he would run budget deficits in the first part of his mandate. He would also redraw the tax code and get the wealthy to pay more. In uncertain economic times, Canadians did not seem to care about Harper’s decade long steady hand on the economy. It would seem that the hunger for change was voracious.
After ten years, it did not look like Harper had much to offer. He chilled Canada’s leadership on the environment, stoked fear over national security, alienated the Aboriginal Canadians, and cared little about ‘non-old stock Canadians’. His government’s relationship with the judiciary and the public servants was mostly tense. His serial appointment of errant senators did not help his cause. Some of Harper-appointed senators were and are still facing criminal trials, while others were and are subjects of criminal investigations. These only helped to convince the electorate that Harper’s Conservative party might be in need of a forced hiatus from power. Everything else appeared to have turned full circle. Harper, a Prime Minister with a reputation for tightly controlling his caucus and managing the message, was for most of the campaign forced out of message by different events, not the least of those was the role of his office in the “Duffy Crisis”. Harper’s Chief of Staff, Nigel Wright, had written a personal cheque of $90,000 to refund an allegedly illegal expense claimed by Senator Mike Duffy (a Harper associate) in order ‘to make the crisis away’. Harper insisted that he did not know about the deal. A Prime Minister who ran on ethics and integrity remained on the defence of the unethical throughout the campaigns.
Another supervening event that marked Harper’s exit had to do with his military activism in Syria against ISIL. Putting Canadian Air Force on combat mission on that undefined turf had remained problematic for most Canadians who prefer a more moderate role that would emphasis humanitarian commitment in the Syrian crisis. It was fortuitous that the Syrian global refuge crisis peaked at the time of the campaigns. The refugee crisis caught Harper and his conservatives on the unpopular side. While his opponents, the Liberals and the New Democrats, wanted robust and fast-tracked refugee absorption strategy, Harper preferred a slower and steady approach that would ensure sufficient security filter and scrutiny. Reason and emotion are often the stuff elections are made off. On this count, it is easy to see which of the two triumphed. Yet, even his critics could not deny that Harper was a focused and disciplined leader. Perhaps he was too fixated ideologically, more conservative than progressive.
But Trudeau ran an intelligent campaign. He went in as an underdog. Harper told Canadians that Trudeau was a rooky, who’s not ready to be Prime Minister. Harper made Trudeau’s journey to the PM’s office easy. Trudeau’s Liberals were not the official opposition. They were third in line. The best Trudeau could have done was to move the party a step further. But he exceeded that expectation. He shined through the debates. The Trudeau gene (his father, Perre Elliot Trudeau, was a charismatic PM in the 1960s-1970s) showed forth. The underdog, the Cinderella (as Harper framed him) rose above the shadows and warmed himself into the heart of Canadians. Chance, charisma, opportunity, circumstance and thirst for change all conspired in Trudeau’s favour. The irony is that Stephen Harper, who was the nemesis of the Liberal Party, whose mission in politics could well be characterised to include the destruction of the Liberal Party provided the basis for the latter to rise from the ashes. It is bitter sweet for both the Conservatives and the Liberals. A Trudeau has sacked a Harper as Justin Trudeau is now set to occupy, in a 2.0 fashion, Number 24 Sussex Drive, Ottawa, Canada PM’s residence. Perhaps Harper’s greatest miscalculation was the failure to know when to quit. These ten years was all about Harper, with no chance for alternatives from within his party. For Canada and Trudeau, it is morning after. For all his efforts, no one can deny Harper’s place in Canada’s history.