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Gordon Campbell on the lessons of the Canada election result

Gordon Campbell on the lessons of the Canada election result for the Labour Party

So Canada has delivered a resounding goodbye and good riddance to Stephen Harper and his Conservative government. Yesterday’s ‘landslide’ victory for Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party was the outcome of a campaign that (a) started out as a likely victory for the more left wing NDP party of Tom Mulcair, (b) morphed mid-way into a three way tie and (c) ended up as a runaway victory for the Liberals. Who knew? Maybe only Kathleen Wynne, the Ontario governor who put all of her political capital behind Trudeau at a time when he was running a distant third.

The final result was a tribute to Trudeau’s cool – in all senses of the word – on the hustings, and to the level of anti-Harper sentiment among the general public. As soon as Trudeau looked like the more likely agent of change, the NDP vote simply collapsed, and went over to the Liberals. Are there any lessons here for our own Labour Party?

Well, for starters… Trudeau’s victory showed that by rejecting the cost cutting, budget-balancing mania, you can still win elections. One of the decisive moments of the campaign came when Trudeau said that, if elected, he would be willing to embrace modest budget deficits for the next four years and would use that leeway to build infrastructure, create jobs, and stimulate the economy. The sky did not fall in. Trudeau made modest budget deficits not only look like a credible option, but a more imaginative and attractive one. He was willing to challenge head-on the Conservative Party claim to be the only credible steward of the economy, withstood the obvious counter-attack that he was a dangerous political novice, and won decisively.

Fatally, Mulcair chose instead to play the ‘ responsible’ card and committed the NDP to budget surpluses (for the foreseeable) as part of the NDP’s attempt to woo support from the political centre. This strategy only succeeded in painting the NDP into a corner right alongside the Conservatives. Suddenly the Liberals looked like the genuine party of change, and the only alternative to a stifling status quo. Mulcair’s Big Mistake – driven by the fear of looking like a loony lefty out of step with the neo-liberal orthodoxy - was the kind of ‘play it safe’ centrist politics that we’ve come to associate with the likes of Andrew Little and Grant Robertson –and increasingly, with the Greens. In reality, there’s not much future in a convergence on the centre that’s driven by fear of your own shadow.

There were other similarities. In Parliament, Mulcair had looked like he had the measure of Harper and the rest of his team. On the campaign trail however, what had worked so well in the Parliamentary bearpit suddenly looked cranky, negative and divisive. Mulcair came across as the angry Christmas dinner relative you’d try to avoid, while Trudeau seemed like the agreeable young nephew who turned out to have a quite surprising grasp of the family business.

At this point, Little and his team have more in common with Mulcair and the process of Beltway point scoring than they do with Trudeau – who succeeded brilliantly in projecting a positive message of unity to the wider electorate. “We’re better than this” was Trudeau’s ur-message. Right now, the problem for Labour is that John Key is still more effective at conveying the sense of being someone who is above the political fray. Like Mulcair, Little’s strength is his bluff, no nonsense honesty. However much that quality appeals to the party faithful, its political expression has little in the way of crossover appeal – either ideologically or generationally – to anyone else. People respected Mulcair; they just didn’t like him much.

Footnotes: Thanks to the FPP system, the Liberals won the right to govern alone with only 39.5% of the vote ; compared to 31.9% for the Conservatives, and 19.7% for the NDP. Erroneously, RNZ was reporting this morning that Trudeau had transformed the 34 seats that the Liberals won in 2011 into a majority of 184 seats this time around. Not so. In reality, the result was 184 seats (Liberals) to 99 (Conservatives) to 44 (NDP) with the Liberals likely to pick up two more seats and the NDP ahead on election night in one other seat too close to call. (The magic number that enables majority government was 170 seats. That’s what RNZ scrambled together, in reporting that the Liberals had won a majority of 184.)

As for the others… the Greens, whose campaign platform included an interesting capital gains tax incentive for entrepreneurs (ie, a tax write-off if those capital gains were re-invested in another small business) won only one seat from 3.4% of the vote nationwide. The separatist Bloc Quebecois by contrast won 10 seats (mainly from the NDP) with only 4.7 % of the vote. Yep, that crazy FPP system truly is heinous.

Environmental policy. This will pose an interesting challenge for PM Trudeau. On the campaign trail, Trudeau supported the joint US/Canada Keystone XL oil pipeline development that has been vetoed for now – on environmental grounds – by US President Barack Obama. Yet unlike Harper, Trudeau has also promised to get serious about climate change and to pursue emissions-reducing alternative energy options. Given that Keystone XL is currently stymied and may remain so while Democrats are in the White House, Trudeau’s apparent support for it may well have been merely a no-consequences pitch to swing voters in the province of Alberta.

As for the TPP… The Japanese press is already sounding fearful.

The shift in power to the center-left party casts uncertainty on whether Canada will ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Trudeau, 43, has been critical of the TPP, a key election issue, calling it an understanding based on backroom negotiations. However, he has also publicly stated that he supports free trade.

The Japanese needn’t worry. Trudeau will sign the TPP. He’s pro business, pro free trade. Given that Canada sustained little damage (during the TPP negotiations) to its protected farm markets, the only question-mark would be over the auto parts local content deal cooked up by Japan and the US, which will do some harm to auto industry jobs in Canada and Mexico. Not enough for Trudeau to scrap the whole deal, though. For what its worth, here’s the Liberals early October statement on the TPP.

Note the concluding commitment by the Liberals to conduct a full, open and public debate in the Canadian Parliament on the contents of the deal. Will Key do likewise?

Song For Canada

None of the above should deter anyone from feeling the joy at the departure of the loathsome Stephen Harper, who tried every rotten political trick in the book – from fear-mongering about Muslims to embracing the former crack smoking, former Toronto mayor Rob Ford in a last desperate attempt to stem the outgoing tide. For now it's a new day, as Canada’s Mary Margaret O’Hara once proclaimed…


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