I started writing this blog in December 2005, which coincidentally was during the federal election campaign that first brought Stephen Harper to 24 Sussex Drive.
That was a long time ago and after last night it would seem that a man who always seemed to be a master of political calculus made a final, serious miscalculation.
Even though buckets of ink have already been spilled and barrels more will be emptied in the days ahead writing his political obituary, I think it’s far too soon to evaluate his tenure. Part of the reason for that is that he was always a bit of a hard guy for the public to like and last night that caught up to him.
He ran a fiscally principled government in difficult economic times. He assembled a formidable front bench of cabinet ministers – like Flaherty, Baird, MacKay – and he kept a close watch on every major file and most of the minor ones.
He was criticized for not engaging directly with the provincial premiers, but politically that was astute frankly because the premiers would do nothing but ask for stuff that a) he probably couldn’t afford to give them and b) politically would be divisive and distracting.
Foreign policy and defence were steady but unremarkable even if Canada’s place on the world stage shrank. The record on the environment was lamentable. There were things like the Duffy/Wallin scandals and ham-fisted elimination of the long-form census and other small-ball irritants.
But overall, the Conservatives ran a decent government, albeit one far too distracted with politics and eliminating its enemies, who were often, frankly, doing the job for him.
To me, his terms seem utterly defined with crushing opponents – especially the Liberal party — and he almost succeeded and actually might have accomplished it if he had left office a year or so earlier.
But he didn’t, and the son of the man he loathed most as a young conservative moving up the ranks is the man who brought him down as a host of issues – C-51, ISIS, niqab debates (who even knew what a niqab was six months ago), the economy, subtle and not so subtle racist wedge issues, Duffy and more piled up into a formidable ball of hate.
Justin Trudeau didn’t win. Stephen Harper lost. That’s how it works. And this is no small moment of irony that Justin Trudeau is our next prime minister.
There are lots of smarter people than me. But for me, here’s there thing. If pressed over a dinner table to say something nice about Brian Mulroney’s nine years as prime minister, I would say Canada-US free trade, North American free trade, the GST, a courageous if doomed effort to bring Quebec into the Constitution, participating in the Gulf War, and Canada’s internationally unpopular very vocal stance opposing apartheid in South Africa. That’s a lot to show for two terms. Mulroney had big majorities and a lot of political capital and he burned through it all. If not for Airbus . . .
Similarly, if pressed over a dinner table to talk about Jean Chretien’s accomplishments, I’d say three consecutive majority governments, the Clarity Act to bring some rules to Quebec sovereignty debates, balancing the federal budget and actually paying down debt, and his decision to not participate in the invasion of Iraq. Again, that’s a substantial historical record.
If the same dinner party asked me to tick off Harper’s accomplishments, the things that political scholars 15 or 20 years from now will say endured and defined his time and made Canada better, well . . . help me out. It was steady, stable stewardship and he shrunk federal spending as a share of GDP and reduced taxes but where was the nation building? As I said earlier, it’s probably too early to fairly say.
Trudeau and the rest of us are about to find out if he is, contrary to those CoC ads, ready. He better be.
As Harper and Martin and Chretien and Campbell and Mulroney and Turner and Justin’s father all learned, governing is hard. Scandals and missteps are as inevitable as turnovers in a hockey game. Mistakes happen and often define the day. The response to the mistakes define the leader.
When Stephen Harper started campaigning with the Fords – Rob Ford, the disgraced, boozing, crack-using racist, misogynist former Toronto mayor – I knew it was over for the CoC. I never imagined a Liberal majority, but with the benefit of hindsight, Harper must have known. Why else would he debase himself with the Fords, and engage in the stupid game-show like spectacle of his final week? It was pandering for votes at its worst and it’s the stuff prime ministers should be above. He was desperate and voters smelled blood in the water.
Trudeau doesn’t get a honeymoon. He has to draft a cabinet of regional balance and intellectual depth, with men and women who can deliver on his promises. That alone will be a staggeringly difficult task.
ISIS is still there as is the European refugee crisis, a moribund economy and the Leaf Stanley Cup drought.
It was his father who said “just watch me.” And now our eyes are fixed on the son.
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The personal highlight of the night for me was closer to home. I had my hands full at work helping run the seat calling desk – teams of journalists pouring over data coming in from ridings to declare who’s elected in each of the 338 constituencies – and Laura was home with laptop, blackberry, iphone and landline in hand for personal entertainment and education.
In north Toronto, Chris watched with deep interest and kept firing texts at us with questions around the process and what’s next and why is this done and more. It was great to be able to feed that beast the answers and it felt nice to know that we had raised a bright, aware and engaged young voter.
It was fun and I said to Laura this morning that no doubt there will be lots more discussion around this on the weekend.
I can’t wait.
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I didn’t go to the gym today. I did manage to get in a workout before election night Monday but hitting the turf at 6a this morning was a bridge too far.
I’ll try to get back into routine starting Wednesday. I don’t think I can make it out of here in time make the late-afternoon class, as much as I’d like to, and I be lying if I said I have much energy for that today.
But hey — my body is healing while I rest, right?