Who says Canadian politics are boring?

By Steve Paikin - Published on Oct 19, 2015
Justin Trudeau will be the 23rd Prime Minister of Canada.

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What we saw happen Monday night in Canada has never happened before. Not in almost 150 years of federal elections have we seen a party catapult from third place to government in one election. Never.

Arthur Meighen went from third to first in 1925, but the wily William Lyon Mackenzie King, who came second, denied him the government. King met the House, and governed for awhile from second place with the backing of the Progressive Party.

So going from third place to a majority government is simply astonishing.

But this year's unprecedented results happened during our 42nd general election because of some decisions Prime Minister Stephen Harper made which at the time seemed clever but 11 weeks later we now know totally backfired.

What was Harper’s goal going into this election? To be sure, making some history of his own by winning a fourth consecutive mandate, something no one had done since Sir Wilfrid Laurier turned the trick back in 1908.

But beyond that, Harper also wanted to put the Liberal Party of Canada out of its misery. The Liberals’ 2011 showing was its worst ever. If Harper could kill the Liberal Party, or at least render it a spent force, Harper could create a much more favorable scenario for Conservatives going forward.

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If future Canadians elections were essentially contests between Conservatives and New Democrats, Harper figured his side would win those contests eight out of ten times. Who wouldn’t be happy with those odds?

That strategy is now in tatters. Long-time Tories such as Brian Mulroney and William Davis had warned that Conservatives underestimated Justin Trudeau at their peril, and they were right. Trudeau’s “happy warrior” campaigning style, his risky strategy of being prepared to run deficits, and his successfully exploiting a massive desire for “real change” in the country ultimately carried the day.

And what about irony? We find it at every turn in Campaign 2015.

Rather than shoring up the Conservative Party, whose numbers essentially didn’t move throughout the campaign, Harper’s anti-niqab rhetoric ended up hurting Tom Mulcair and New Democrats in Quebec. That resulted in NDP polling numbers tanking, which further emphasized the narrative that the Liberals were the better anti-Harper choice. Harper’s attempt to play wedge politics with a “values” issue totally backfired. 

Harper also figured his party’s healthier bank account would ultimately advantage the Conservatives over a long campaign. So he decided on a 78-day affair, figuring his team would win a financial war of attrition. That backfired too. It gave Canadians that much longer to decide that Trudeau actually was ready for prime time. And it gave the Liberal leader more time to improve.

After Kathleen Wynne won the 2013 Ontario Liberal leadership, she told me leaders aren’t born, they’re “forged” through tough campaigns. Ironically, Harper’s historically long campaign gave Trudeau the extra time he needed to forge his leadership chops.

But New Democrats also made mistakes. They misjudged the appetite for change, which was so intense, the public gave Trudeau a mulligan on the Dan Gagnier-Energy East Affair.

The NDP also mirrored the Conservatives on balancing the budget. They didn’t appreciate that Canadians were prepared to be a lot more progressive than they thought, and got outflanked on the Left by the Liberals, just as they did in the last Ontario election.

And so, 11 weeks later, we’re left with the most ironically unprecedented conclusion to a Canadian general election ever.

Who says Canadian politics are boring? 

Image credit: Facebook/JustinPJTrudeau

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