By Trevor Busch
Dawn on June 25, 1968 broke bright and clear for Canadians across the country, but would give way to sultry summer line-ups at polling stations as voters readied pencils for the big opportunity to mark their favourite “x”. On that day, Canada’s summer of love gave way to a love affair of another kind, with the youthful Pierre Elliot Trudeau leading the Liberal Party of Canada to a majority government, leaving droves of swooning female devotees in his wake as Trudeaumania took hold and vaulted the former justice minister into 24 Sussex Drive.
Besting Canadian underwear king Robert Stanfield leading the Progressive Conservatives, Trudeau also had to contend with the feisty and moralistic leader of the federal NDP, the saintly Tommy Douglas. In the end, 75.7 per cent of eligible voters turned out for the election, which Canadians didn’t know at the time (but we now know better) would usher in almost two decades of virtually uninterrupted Liberal dominance in Ottawa and make Trudeau the Elder a respected national and international personage.
Now 47 years later in 2015, Trudeau the Younger has managed to achieve what all of his detractors had said was impossible for so long. Stepping into daddy’s shoes with a Liberal majority, Justin Trudeau is still something of an enigma to Canadian voters who seem to have caught glimpses of his pedigree during the 2015 election campaign, but would probably admit the jury is still out on his leadership capabilities. In stark contrast to his father’s first majority win in 1968, Trudeau has never sat on the government side of the house, never held a cabinet position, and is decidedly short on the political bona fides his father would surely have enjoyed as a former member of Pearson’s minority government in the mid-1960’s.
There are many critics that have decried this perceived lack of experience as an ominous warning sign of bad fiscal moons on the horizon. But then again, Stephen Harper didn’t have much past experience as a cabinet minister or as a member of a previous government when he first ascended to the commanding heights of political power in Ottawa, and most conservatives didn’t think he turned out all that bad. Before we condemn the man for being a former drama teacher, white-water rafter, or “just not ready” — it shouldn’t be out of the realm of possibilities that we should at least give Trudeau a chance.
And let us not forget there are some strong similarities between the 2015 federal election and the almost now fairy-tale days of the summer of 1968. For instance, in 2015 Canadians turned out in numbers (almost 69 per cent of eligible voters) that were only slightly less than 1968, and while the Conservative hardcore (largely seniors) remained mobilized and engaged, what can only be considered as a large proportion of the youth vote swung the election decidedly in Trudeau’s favour.
While stopping well short of predicting a new two-decade dictatorship for the federal Liberals, we have seen the end of more than a decade of Conservative dominance, including most recently a majority government — and many voters have now proven themselves to be open to more left-of-centre ideas. Just how long that mentality will hold sway at the ballot box will depend largely on the leadership capabilities of Trudeau the Younger.
While conservatives will no doubt still be fond of attacking the background and reputation of our new prime minister, we must be willing to give credit where credit is due. Trudeau, despite incessant Conservative attack ads making him out to be a limp-fisted, milk-fed momma’s boy with wavy chestnut hair his only attractive leadership quality, surprisingly the Liberal leader has managed to stuff a sock in the mouths of critics.
Not only did he soundly defeat a long-standing and respected political enemy in Stephen Harper, he has achieved majority status for his government, virtually eviscerated Mulcair’s NDP and the party’s former gains under the late Jack Layton, and taken a crushingly-defeated Liberal Party from third party status in Parliament to a majority government. Not bad for a guy many had considered to be a dull-witted shadow of his father.
As a post-mortem for the Conservative campaign, in retrospect it might be considered a mistake in future to so repeatedly attack an opponent’s character and reputation that when he begins to show glimpses of leadership capability, it comes as a resounding surprise to the entire electorate that he might not be what the other parties are making him out to be. It also shows disturbingly that the power of propaganda has lost little of its ability to influence in the 21st century, even amongst a highly-educated and engaged electorate.
Although most conservatives probably detest the phrase, the Liberal Party of Canada is often considered to be “Canada’s natural ruling party”. While the Conservatives were a post-Confederation powerhouse in the late 19th century, the 20th century was an entirely different story.
Holding Liberal sway under Sir Wilfred Laurier from 1896 to 1911, the Conservatives saw a brief blip of power during WWI under Robert Borden before giving way to the Liberal Party’s William Lyon Mackenzie King from 1922 to 1925, followed by a brief Conservative minority parliament in 1926 under Arthur Meighen, before falling again to King’s Liberals from 1926 to 1930. The disastrous Conservative Depression-era majority government of Richard Bedford Bennett was again wiped out by King in 1935, and would hold power until 1948, before handing over the reigns to Liberal Louis St. Laurent, who would hold on until 1957. The Conservative’s Saskatchewan lion, Dief the Chief, would only manage one majority term in office before suffering defeat at the hands of Pearson’s Liberals. That was followed by the Trudeau dynasty, a brief correction in the market under Joe Clark in 1980, and then the Conservative glory years under Mulroney in the mid to late 1980’s. For most of us, the Liberal governments of Jean Chretien and later Paul Martin in the 1990’s are still in living memory.
But what does that all mean? Liberal governments have held sway in Canada in the 20th century about 70 per cent of the time. While the 1980’s might arguably suggest otherwise, strong evidence points to the fact that many Canadian voters have often viewed the Conservatives with suspicion, or simply out of step with the general political direction of the nation.
The first decade of the 21st century seemed to suggest it might belong to the Conservative Party, but a majority Liberal government in 2015 might now call into question that tentative assertion.
Whatever the country’s political destiny, back here in the present, the fallout from the 2015 federal election will probably be harsh for the two parties that missed the limelight of an election victory.
In the NDP camp, mutterings and clandestine meetings of caucus members behind closed doors are probably already circling the wagons for the ouster of the stodgy — and now politically failed — Thomas Mulcair as the scion of the left-wing party. Harsh questions are already being asked about the party’s fall from its 2011 grace, when it had come within a hair’s breadth of defeating the incumbent Conservatives.
On the Conservative side of the house, besides the failure to gain a majority government and the party’s relegation to the ranks of the opposition, Stephen Harper probably saved many in his party the grief of potentially forcing him from the leadership by announcing his resignation on election night.
While this opens the door for a fresh new face at the helm, Conservatives should remember how long it has taken the Liberals to transition back into power following their dynasty years in the 1990s, with a series of failed leaders and lacklustre performance in elections.
A Liberal correction in the market and a quick turnaround to majority power may not be as easy as some Conservatives choose to believe.