Canada: a three-horse race

Susan Delacourt

With a general election due next year, the Liberals, New Democrats and Conservatives would all have it that they stand a good chance of winning 

During his high-profile trip to Israel in January, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper sat down at a piano and belted out a serenade to his host, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The song was the Beatles’ Hey Jude, and so Harper’s Israeli audience was treated to this Canadian politician’s musical ruminations about playing it cool, the world upon his shoulders and, above all, making things better. 

The audience may have been an international one, but making things better is very much a domestic goal for a politician entering his ninth year in power – as well as for his government, which spent much of 2013 promising its citizens that it was getting “back on track”. 

The average lifespan of governments in Canada is roughly ten years – a statistic that is lifting the spirits of the opposition New Democratic and Liberal parties and dampening the back-on-track aspirations of the ruling Conservatives. 

The next federal election is not set to take place until October 2015, but that has not stopped speculation that Harper may find a reason to call one sooner or even that this Prime Minister, known for cool, even chilly calculation, will take a bow and make his exit, recognising that re-election odds are not in his favour. “One day I open the paper and see that I’m planning to resign, the next day I open the paper and see that I’m calling a snap election ahead of the legislated date,” Harper said in a year-end interview with the Global television network in December. 

“We have an election scheduled in 2015 and I plan to lead the party in that.” 

As the late John Lennon might have advised Harper, the Beatles’ fan, however: life is what happens when you’re making other plans. Politically, Harper and the Conservatives have been damaged by a long-running scandal that has reached into the highest levels of government. In less than a year, this scandal has claimed the careers of Harper’s Chief of Staff, Nigel Wright, as well as several well-known senators and a clutch of advisers in the inner circles of Harper’s office. 

It has been called the “Senate scandal” because it originates in questionable expense claims within the unelected body of parliament, but it has transformed in popular parlance into the “PMO-Senate scandal” because of the extraordinary ways in which Harper’s office has tried to contain the controversy over the past year. 

A Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigation has unearthed a significant volume of emails, remarkable for their glimpse into the minutiae of how this government handles communications crises. The clinching development was the Chief of Staff’s decision to write a personal, $90,000 cheque to cover the allegedly improper expense claims of one senator, former broadcaster and journalist, Mike Duffy. The year ahead could well see formal charges laid in connection with this political mess for Harper. 

So this is the steady drumbeat behind any tunes the Harper government is singing about making things better – whether it’s their promises to take the nation’s finances out of deficit, to bring in more “consumer-friendly” legislation or secure Canada’s future prosperity through oil-sands and pipeline developments. Meanwhile, the opposition New Democrats (NDP) and Liberals are locked in their own struggle to be seen as the most likely successor to the Conservatives. 

If politics is a battle of hearts and minds, it seems that the Liberals are gambling heavily on passion, while the NDP, under the steely focus of leader Thomas Mulcair, is concentrating on steady, measured, strategic gain. 

Mulcair, who has turned the House of Commons into a courtroom with sharp, harsh questioning on the Senate scandal, says his party will be the champions of “affordability” for stretched Canadian households in the next election. 

The Liberals, who governed Canada for much of the 20th century – only to be reduced to third-party status in the 2011 election – have pinned huge hopes on new leader Justin Trudeau, son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and the closest thing the country has to a rock-star, celebrity politician. 

Though not a parliamentary performer in Mulcair’s league, Trudeau instead is casting himself as an outsider-type politician who will shake things up – stunning the capital in late January, for instance, with a decision to fire all Liberal senators and ban these long-time, unelected loyalists from any official roles in party organisation. 

It was a body blow to the 32 senators cut loose by Trudeau, but it was hailed by friends and grudging foes alike as a powerful act of symbolism in Canada’s ongoing saga over the unelected Senate. One of the exiled senators, Charlie Watt, was even appointed by Trudeau’s late father. 

“This wasn’t about short term,” Trudeau said in an interview a few days after his surprise announcement. “It was very much about making sure that we have a parliamentary democracy that is effective in the 21st century for Canadians in a practical way.” 

Polls in Canada have notoriously been, embarrassingly wrong over several elections in recent years, overestimating challenges to ruling parties and underestimating the extent to which Canadian voters have tuned out of politics altogether. At this point, with polls showing all parties with varying claims to one-third or so of the population, it is not unreasonable to imagine a win for the Conservatives, New Democrats or Liberals when Canadians go to the polls in 2015 (or sooner). 

For Harper, that means getting beyond the PMO-Senate scandal. For Mulcair and the NDP, it means persuading voters to trust power to a party that has never held it federally before. For Trudeau, it means demonstrating that he’s a serious, heavyweight politician and that the Liberals are not the party they were in the 20th century. 

Or, to put it in the lyrical language of the Beatles, it’s all about taking a sad song and making it better.

About the author:

Susan Delacourt is the senior political writer for the Toronto Star. Based in Ottawa, she has been covering federal politics for more than two decades


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