High-road approach may pay off for Liberals

Posted on in Governance Debates

TheGlobeandMail.com – Globe Debate
Oct. 14, 2015.   Lawrence Martin

“The Conservatives are not our enemies. They are our friends.” – Justin Trudeau, Oct. 4, Brampton, Ont., at what the Liberals say was the largest political rally of the election campaign.

The Liberal Leader has spoken often about his desire to reach out, to bring Canadians together. It sounds hokey, but it contrasts with the Conservatives, who acknowledge their fondness for divisive wedge issues, the niqab being only the latest example.

If Mr. Trudeau wins on Monday, it will be an unprecedented accomplishment in Canadian politics. No party has ever come from third place to win a federal election. And if he reaches the goal, it will be in part because of his constructive and positive approach.

This not only sets him apart from Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, but also from Pierre Trudeau, who could be acid-tongued and polarizing. The son has never been as confrontational as the father, whose politics left Western Canada alienated. This in turn gave rise to Mr. Harper’s enmity and the Reform Party. How remarkably ironic would it be if the offspring of the prime minister who helped to create Mr. Harper is now the one who takes him down?

It was only a week or two ago that Justin Trudeau’s reaching-out approach looked to be in trouble. Opinion polls were showing that the issue over the wearing of the niqab was turning the campaign in Mr. Harper’s favour. But since last week, the Liberals have shot ahead of the Conservatives in most polls.

Stature was a problem for the untested Mr. Trudeau entering the campaign, but the niqab debate appears to have elevated it, putting him on the high road, while Mr. Harper, who has warned that he might extend the niqab-wearing ban to federal government workers, is decried for using race-baiting tactics to win votes.

Harper cabinet ministers Chris Alexander and Kellie Leitch fuelled the fire, announcing the establishment of an RCMP tip line. It’s more like a snitch line, you might say, in that it’s for Canadians to report on one another if they suspect neighbours are engaging in barbaric cultural practices.

This country’s academics have generally, for a variety of reasons including fear of retribution, steered clear of challenging Mr. Harper’s autocratic tendencies. But 587 of them have issued an open letter in protest against tactics “that betray the values of mutual respect and toleration that lie at the heart of civil democratic discourse.”

The niqab controversy followed the Duffy scandal, which revealed a Prime Minister’s Office concocting cover-up schemes, planning to falsify audits, blatantly misleading the public. Mr. Harper’s ratings on trust were already below Mr. Trudeau’s and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair’s to begin the campaign. They could cost him dearly on election day, but he appears oblivious to criticism.

Almost 70 per cent of Canadians tell pollsters that they want change. But Mr. Harper has essentially run a no-change campaign. No change in terms of major policy direction. No change in terms of the way he runs his operation. Not a single promise to clean it up.

Hubris is an occupational hazard of prime ministers long in power. Mr. Harper appears to be no exception. “It isn’t about me,” the leader frequently accused of running a one-man, all-controlling government said last week. Not about him? He might try telling that to public servants, who were instructed by his office some years ago to use the appellation the “Harper Government” in their correspondence, as opposed to the traditional “Government of Canada.”

Mr. Trudeau says the comportment of the Prime Minister’s Office should reflect the decency of the Canadian people, not a political war zone. Many top-office seekers make these platitudinous, high-sounding promises only to forget them upon being crowned.

Mr. Trudeau could be the same, but maybe not. Not only are there lessons learned from his fractious father, but he represents a younger generation of Canadians, a generation that will turn on him quickly if he starts playing the old cynical politics.

But first he has to win. If the high road versus the low road factors into much of the decision-making on election day, his chances will escalate.

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