Harper, Trudeau and Canadian Political Theater

If Trudeau wins leadership the next election will be the first of its kind

By: James Di Fiore

Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau all of a sudden have a lot in common: they are both starring in new roles in an old theater, Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

Harper is currently king, but his new role will be a majority government incumbent.Trudeau plays the role of the prince looking for the same crown his father once wore. It’s all very theatrical, don’t you know.

The scripts for both sides are being written, ancillary issues are being considered and then discarded or approved. Real-time scandals and audience polling carve out the plot. Remembering your lines is crucial. In Canadian politics, this is going to be about as entertaining as it gets.

Harper and Trudeau both have clear strengths in opposite disciplines. You won’t see the prime minister waxing poetic to a throng of youthful supporters, just as you won’t see Trudeau giving a speech about how interest rates and subsidies help foster growth in energy sector commodities. These differences are stark and may prove to be a generational difference pitting the young against baby boomers and seniors. At least, that’s what Harper is hoping for. Conservatives at all levels of government in Canada have something other than faux fiscal conservatism in common; they all believe in the tried and true theory that young people will always be apathetic. It never fails. Until recently, that is.

In 2010, Calgary mayoral candidate Naheed Nenshi was looking like a 2nd or even 3rd place finisher. All pundits and pollsters saw conservative Ric McIvor as the front runner. About two weeks before the election I had a meet and greet with McIvor and his chief campaign adviser. I asked the adviser how they plan on mobilizing the youth vote. He replied emphatically “We aren’t. They never show up.” Two weeks later Nenshi won the election, and all the pundits, including Nenshi himself, credited his victory to mobilizing young people with grass roots tactics and inspirational dialogue. The campaign should be in text books and considered required reading for every political science student in the country.

And while federal and municipal politics are worlds apart, the overriding lesson is still the same: if you speak to them, they will vote. We can already see Canadian conservatives preemptively brand Trudeau as an unproven messiah being propped up by bleeding hearts and hippies. This shows both the cynicism and desperation of staunch conservatives who genuinely despise Trudeau but understand he still may win an election for the Liberals. It’s a schizophrenic existence to believe your political rival is both unqualified and a serious contender.

Meanwhile, Harper is still in the honeymoon stage of his first majority government. More omnibus bills are being drafted, more environmental regulations are being scrapped and more scrutiny is being lofted towards the government in the form of tainted meat and abortion debates. Forever the pragmatist, Harper knows his reign cannot sustain itself through polarizing social issues or defensive posturing. He has a tangible problem right now: how do I feed red meat to my base, maintain crucial support and continue to be perceived as governing from the center? The answer is the same now as it was in 2006 when Harper won his first minority government: rely on voter apathy while incrementally indoctrinating Canadians to the conservative fold. It is not only an uphill climb, it’s also very unrealistic. When you lead a country to a majority government with just 39% of the popular vote, you have a shaky majority. And while electoral reformers see this as evidence to support ideas like proportional representation, the reality is this kind of majority government is difficult to maintain.

All of this posturing and media driven showdown may look like it leaves Thomas Mulcair out in the cold. The conventional wisdom is as follows: Mulcair needs to block the Liberals from eating up seats in Quebec while growing party support in Ontario. Trudeau could be problematic for Mulcair if he can charm Quebeckers into coming back to the Liberal fold, and Harper is quietly relying on the vote being split in a province where he is enormously unpopular. Naturally, this potential reality makes merger talk behind the scenes more prevalent, an annoyance to party faithfuls who still have hope in ideology or their party’s historical importance for the country.

There is one dormant caveat Trudeau is thinking about constantly. If the youth can become inspired enough to shed their apathy and become engaged in politics, he will change the political landscape in Canada, at least for one election. Like Nenshi in Calgary, Trudeau needs to inspire young people, give them a seat at the political table and tap into the moderate wings of student unions and the Occupy movements. A measured approach to both these demographics is a tight-wire act and a tough task for any politician, especially a relative rookie on the national scene. However, perhaps Trudeau is the first Canadian politician we have seen who has the ability to throw roses to all sides without coming off as pandering. Or, perhaps his efforts will be seen as opportunistic and without substance, echoing Trudeau’s current critics who already believe the heir apparent is in way over his head.

But it all makes for great theater.


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