Sunny, sunny ways
How Justin Trudeau’s campaign of hard work and hope landed him a whopping majority
Let us begin, against the mood sweeping much of the land, with a downer. The speech Justin Trudeau delivered on Monday night was long, 24 minutes long, three times as long as the concession his predecessor had just delivered four provinces to the west. It was full of greeting-card generalities and light on hints of first steps for a government that will be drawn from a caucus chock full of rookies who will need a little direction.
The man who will be Canada’s 23rd prime minister delivered his remarks in the exaggerated, portentous cadence his own campaign staff had worked for months to eradicate. As he spoke to a gleeful crowd in Montreal’s Fairmont Le Reine Élizabeth hotel, television screens flashed the names and earnest, smiling faces of squadrons of new Liberal MPs, almost every one a varsity jock, club president or McKinsey consultant, none of them much used to waiting in line for a promotion. Tonight was time for celebration, but tomorrow, the weight of their expectations, their egos, and the pent-up, uncorked yearning of every constituency and interest in the land would start to crowd in on this young man and his untested team.
These are the problems you get to worry about when you win big.
“More than 100 years ago, a great prime minister, Wilfrid Laurier, spoke about the sunny ways,” Trudeau told the crowd, pursuing a theme he has woven into his remarks for as long as he has been in politics. “He knew politics can be a positive force. And that’s the message Canadians have sent today. Canadians chose real change.”
He thanked his wife, Sophie, who beamed back and put her hand on her heart. He told his children, Xavier, Ella-Grace and the toddler, Hadrien, that he would “always be there for them” in the weird life that lies ahead. He thanked his campaign managers, Katie Telford and Gerald Butts, in greater detail than you usually hear on a night like this. (Jean Chrétien never used to go on about how great John Rae was.) He offered the hope that his victory would be “an inspiration to like-minded people to step up and pitch in—to get involved in the public life of this country and to know that a positive, optimistic, hopeful vision of public life isn’t a naive dream: It can be a powerful force for change.”
He talked about how much he’d learned from ordinary Canadians “in coffee shops and in town halls, in church basements and in gurdwaras,” from people who “know in our bones that Canada was built by people from all corners of the world, who worship every faith, who belong to every culture, who speak every language.”
Perhaps they’d been told it’s impossible to do better, he said, before delivering a line so familiar to his admirers, they recited it along with him: “Well, my friends, this is Canada. And in Canada, better is always possible.”
At the very least, he had shown it was possible to do better than polls only days earlier would have indicated. This was a sweeping victory, equal to Harper’s 2011 election in popular vote, more bounteous in its harvest of parliamentary seats than any he or Chrétien had seen. Every seat in Atlantic Canada. Every seat in the North. Seats in every province, including a majority of the seats in Quebec and Ontario. Four MPs from Alberta. Not since Arthur Meighen in 1925 had the leader of a third-place party won power. And Meighen’s minority government would not last a year. Trudeau’s, barring unimaginable political catastrophe, is here for four.
To Conservative supporters, now reduced in number to fewer than one voter in three, it must be galling. To be brought low by this pretty boy, to the manor quite literally born, the schoolteacher and snowboarder who smoked pot, took off his shirt at charity functions, kissed brides, watched a national campaign co-chairman resign in disgrace for counselling clients on how to reap the spoils of power before the race was even won. It’s all so familiar, it matches some of Canadian conservatism’s creation myths: that the head of the cheerleading squad gets everything on a silver platter while ordinary people work without reward. The temptation of fatalism will be strong.
That would be a mistake. To chalk Justin Trudeau’s victory up to luck or nice hair sells him short, though it really is nice hair. In earlier elections, plenty of gentry-class Laurentian valedictorians managed to lose. Stephen Harper beat two of them in his day. Paul Martin, shipping magnate, popular guy, silver-tongued, finance-minister son of a foreign minister, connected up the wazoo. Michael Ignatieff, of the Russian Ignatieffs, star of screen and seminar room, who was crestfallen as a child when his father was not appointed governor general. Their gilded Rolodexes and legion of admirers in all the right faculty clubs did not save them from Harper’s methodical labour, his calm reasoning, or the devastating critiques of his attack-ad machines.
That Trudeau met a better fate came as a genuine surprise to his many detractors and not a few of his supporters. He entered this campaign in third place and trending down. In the spring, he was spitting out policy documents compulsively, a new one every week like some wonky Stephen King, to counter the widespread perception that he was “in over his head” and “just not ready.” The nation had fallen into the habit, once again, of parroting Conservative ad copy as though they were original insights. Normally when this happens, it’s over for a Liberal leader. His tormenters in other parties, NDP and Conservative alike, sought to drag him over the hot coals of his own shaky rhetoric by making him debate two older men, Harper and Tom Mulcair, again and again. It was not only possible he would be squeezed again between Conservatives and New Democrats, as Ignatieff had been: It seemed his likeliest fate.
He won through hope and hard work, to paraphrase another of his favourite slogans. But who doesn’t hope? Who doesn’t work hard? That can’t be all of it. Perhaps it is not too audacious to declare, at the risk of being laughed out of the pundit guild, that Trudeau also won the battle of ideas.
The Harper decade was an argument for modest and shrinking government, at ever-smaller cost, with the savings passed on to the voter-as-consumer, whether through two sales-tax cents on the shopping dollar or through a constellation of targeted tax benefits. And it was an argument for protecting families and communities against assorted strangers and marauders, with tough penalties for wrongdoing and suspicious inspection of any newcomer’s credentials. These are, it must be said, good ideas. They carried three successive elections. They are handy proof against the empire-building excess of too many who confuse their interests with the public good.
Both Trudeau and Mulcair argued that something is lost when the national government throws off too many of its longstanding functions. Both sought to rehabilitate a belief that taxes are often worth paying, because government can be an agent for positive change. But Mulcair wanted to win the top job by soothing the skittish next voter who had never supported his party. It made him cautious, and made his ideas cautious. Trudeau wanted to move more quickly, to put activist government higher on his list of priorities than balanced budgets. Harper told him he couldn’t do it. He said he’d do it anyway. Voters got to decide. This is what a battle of ideas actually looks like.
There was, of course—spectacularly—also a battle of values. This is where Harper’s admirers make a second mistake when they chalk Trudeau’s success up to charm. It sells Trudeau short, but it also lets Harper off the hook. The most intellectually influential conservative leader of the last 40 years ran the stupidest Conservative campaign since Stockwell Day’s in 2000. It was a vindictive, short-sighted, flighty succession of slights, punishments and baffling sentimental indulgences, culminating in the leader’s astonishing decision to return, twice in the crucial final week, to the side of Rob Ford, a former mayor whose excesses had repeatedly disgraced him.
The decline of Stephen Harper is a complicated matter, but it begins with his greatest electoral triumph, the majority victory of 2011. He seemed unsure what to do with his sweeping new mandate. Eventually, he lashed out against the Obama administration, pivoted his export priorities to China, then pivoted right back upon hitting the first obstacle, and used the Mike Duffy scandal as an excuse to indulge his worst habits of suspicion, secrecy and sullenness. At the end of 2013, he let it be known that he had personally reached out to Dimitri Soudas, a third-rate schemer, to manage the Conservative party as it went into an election. Soudas meddled in his fiancée Eve Adams’s nomination battle and lost his job. Harper’s longstanding reputation for having a keen eye for talent was shattered. It never recovered. Who were the interesting new Conservative candidates in this election? Did he know any of their names? His imposing legacy—on limited government, on federal-provincial relations, on international trade—became harder to defend after he turned his palace guard into cheap soap opera.
And his decision to campaign in Quebec as a pale replica of Pauline Marois’s xenophobic Parti Québécois, and in Ontario as the latest of many to underestimate Kathleen Wynne, makes it harder to defend his political judgment. His defeat is “my fault and mine alone,” he said. Indeed.
This is the story of that campaign. It was long and went through many reversals of fortune, but it comes down to two men: one who turned out to be something more than simply charming, one whose refusal to charm poisoned his judgment. The others—Mulcair, Elizabeth May, Gilles Duceppe—found themselves elbowed aside in the final confrontation.