Voters delivered a moral judgment on Stephen Harper

Posted on October 20, 2015 in Governance History – News/Federal Election 2015 – The Conservatives left too many Canadians with a bad taste in their mouths.
Oct 19 2015.   By: Thomas Walkom, National Affairs

In the end, the voters delivered a moral judgment.

It wasn’t that the majority of Canadians had suffered materially under nine and a half years of Conservative rule.  Most hadn’t. And while Prime Minister Stephen Harper did exaggerate his government’s successes, it is true that Canada came out of the 2008 financial meltdown relatively unscathed.  Rather Monday’s election results were a repudiation of Harper and his entire style of governing.

In electing Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, the voters were saying they’d had enough of mean-spiritedness in politics.

Some may have sympathized with specific Conservative positions — such as the government’s attempt to ban niqab-wearers from taking the citizenship oath.  But in the end, Harper’s practice of wedge politics, such as his attempt to demonize Muslims by outlawing “barbaric cultural practices,” or his hard line on Syrian refugees, left too many with too much of a bad taste in their mouths.

When these voters looked at Immigration Minister Chris Alexander defending a law that could deprive dual nationals of their Canadian citizenship, they didn’t see a former diplomat doing his best to keep Canada safe.
They saw raw ugliness.  It is telling that Alexander was one of those to go down in flames yesterday, defeated in his Ajax riding by Liberal Mark Holland.

Lulled into a sense of false security by past successes, the Conservatives assumed that none of this would matter — that in the end Canadians would vote for them to secure income-splitting, or tax breaks for volunteer firefighters, or any of the other boutique goodies lavished on the electorate.  The Conservatives assumed that the Mike Duffy scandal, like the prorogation of Parliament scandal or the Afghan prisoner mistreatment scandal would just go away.  They assumed that Harper’s feud with the Supreme Court would be ignored. They assumed the Conservative practice of answering legitimate questions with a barrage of irrelevant talking points would irritate only the media.  And for a long while, they were right.

But over time, the steady drip-drip-drip had an effect. The Conservatives, like most Canadian governments, never had the support of a majority of voters.  But by this election, that non-Conservative majority was determined to see them gone.  Political scientists and newspaper columnists will write much about the Liberal victory — about when the turning points occurred, about the strategy employed, about which adviser advised what.

But underneath all of that were two realities. First, in spite of their humiliating demotion to third place in the 2011 election, the Liberal brand continued to rank high among voters.  The pundits may have speculated that the Liberals were finished for good. The voters never did.

The second, and related reality, is that the much-vaunted orange wave of 2011 that vaulted the New Democrats into second place was a Quebec phenomenon, not a national one.  After becoming official opposition, the NDP may have assumed that it was the logical alternative to the Conservatives.  But the voters never did. In particular, the voters of Ontario never did.

Tom Mulcair’s NDP did its best to show that it was as fiscally sound and pro-business as the older parties — perhaps even more so.  But faced with a choice between the Liberals and a social democratic party posing as Liberals, voters opted for the real thing.  In Toronto they trashed even well-known New Democrats like Olivia Chow.

Finally, Justin Trudeau.  The Liberal leader is hardly a radical. His father, Pierre, wasn’t either. But Trudeau senior governed at a time when leftish ideas were in vogue. He could be pushed to adopt interventionist policies, like foreign investment screening, in order to meet the tenor of the times.

Trudeau junior will be prime minister in a more conservative age. Expect him to keep much of Harper’s economic policy — including his insistence on low business taxes and passion free-trade deals.  But the Liberal leader is different in style. He is sunnier; he exudes optimism; he seems more open.

We shall see what a Trudeau government ends up looking like. My guess is that it will be as centralized as Harper’s.  But it almost certainly won’t appear to be as mean. That, as much as anything, is what voters were looking for from this election.

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