Why Prime Minister Justin Trudeau needs to learn from the downfalls of Stephen Harper and the current electoral system
Canada woke up on October 20th to a strange brand of nostalgia. The name of the prime minister was again Trudeau, although not quite the same one. Justin Trudeau, son of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, recently won a resounding election at the helm of the Liberal Party which was in power under his father in the 1970s. The big win for the Liberals was also a big loss for outgoing Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party. The election never was a referendum on Harper’s position, who is leaving after nearly a decade in power, because polling had been clear for a long time that this election was going to be bad for him. Change was a given – but voters were deciding who should be next. Heading into the House of Commons with a majority government, Trudeau became the man for change.
Part of the magic behind Trudeau the Younger is the broadness of his appeal. He is liked across Canada. And in a country as large as this, that statement is more significant than you’d think. The country’s national motto is “From Sea to Sea to Sea” since few countries border three oceans. The distance between Vancouver, the major centre on the Pacific coast, and St John’s, a major centre on the Atlantic coast, is about 5,000 kilometres. To put this in perspective, St John’s is closer to London, UK, than to Vancouver, and Vancouver for its part, is closer to Hawaii than St Johns. Apart from the sheer size, there is also the variance between the regions. Papineau, the seat of Justin Trudeau, contains about 100,000 people in 10 square kilometres. The riding in which I grew up, Cypress Hills-Grasslands, contains approximately 70,000 people in an area about the size of Scotland. That isn’t a total anomaly either. The largest Canadian electoral district, Nunavut, is bigger than France, Spain and Germany combined. Some regions are heavily industrial, while others get by on farming. Some are run by oil and mineral extraction and others thrive on tourism. This inevitably makes for sharply divided interests.
Regionalism fosters different feelings towards the federal parties. The legacy of the elder Trudeau is the finest example of this. Easily one of the most divisive figures in Canada, Pierre Trudeau has come near the top in polls of both the greatest and worst Canadians in history. The outgoing prime minister, Stephen Harper, will likely inherit a similar legacy although not as extreme. Such polarised sentiments of admiration and loathing –simultaneously and fiercely – is just part of the Canadian political experience.
The success of Harper in the last election was likely the seed of his demise in this 2015 election. He was handed a majority government, which, in the Canadian variation of the Westminster system, gives him a virtually free hand in governance. The mostly unwritten Canadian constitution requires that any member who votes against the party is automatically expelled from the party. Canadian voters have a custom of punishing such stray parliamentarians, making opposition from within the party unlikely and ineffectual.
Harper’s initial breakthrough came largely on his credentials for running the economy. Although Canada managed to weather the financial crisis of 2007 very well under Harper, Canadians recognised severe changes: Peacekeeping with the UN, which Canada was instrumental in developing, was abandoned; Canada pulled out of the Kyoto Accord and diminished environmental regulation; the economic policy focused more on oil extraction than an industrial or knowledge economy; the Conservative Party was found formally in contempt of parliament for misleading the Commons on budget proposals; and the national daycare program was pulled back. Many Canadians didn’t feel at home in their own country and had had enough.
The younger Trudeau should carefully consider the demise of Harper that allowed his own victory. Without a strong opposition party to second-guess his policies, the Canadian electorate may second guess their choice of prime minister. An important detail in the Canadian electoral system is that an unrestrained majority nearly always comes despite falling short of 50 per cent of the popular vote. It makes for a precarious position. Another politician who should look to this experience with caution is Britain’s David Cameron, elected on the votes of only 24 per cent of the electorate. If he seeks out a conservative agenda aggressively then the electorate may snap back.
The most critical element of lasting political change in Canada within the Liberal Party’s platform is a promise of electoral reform that would prevent four out of 10 Canadian voters giving so strong of a mandate. The First-Past-the-Post system that frustrated so many during the years of Harper, and against which Trudeau campaigned vigorously, has put him in the highest spot. I hope his principles have the wherewithal to adjust to the system which so many people hope will end. A failure to initiate a prompt effort for electoral reform may be the beginning of the downfall of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Image from: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/10/canada-justin-trudeau-election/411415/
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