Op-Ed| Election 2015: The Three Big Contenders

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Well, the puck has been dropped, the scramble is on. The political spinmeisters are huddled in dank basements, weaving their magic. It’s election time in Canada, people!

Prime Minister Stephen Harper ‘dropped the writ’ on Sunday August 3rd, and it didn’t take long for the bullets to start flying. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, still stinging from Harper’s rejection of her proposed pension plan for Ontario, fired off a salvo, calling for Harper’s defeat. Harper then took it upon himself to fire a shot at the new NDP government in Alberta, calling Rachel Notley’s administration a ‘disaster’, after only a few brief months in power! But hey, look on the bright side – it proves the Prime Minister is actually communicating with the provinces. That’s progress, right?

Current polls show a tight race between the NDP and the Conservatives, with the Liberals slipping a bit, but still in striking range. The Conservatives enjoyed a slight boost in their numbers when millions of Canadians received checks in their mailbox from the enhanced Universal Child Care Benefit. But this will likely only be a temporary phenomenon, because hard-working Canadians cannot be permanently dazzled by a few bucks, right? ….. right?

While we wait for the parties to get their long-distance legs in shape, we will continue on our quest to fill in the blanks and bring Canadians up to speed on the political landscape, in an effort to re-engage those who feel alienated from the democratic process. The sad truth is, if we don’t participate in democracy, can it really continue to exist?

Let’s look at the players.

How much does the average Canadian really know about Stephen Harper? What path led him to the Prime Minister’s Office? And what about Thomas Mulcair? Does the average Canadian even know who he is, where he comes from? And then there is Justin Trudeau. Most Canadians are familiar with his famous father, but what do we really know about him?

If there is one thing true about Canadian politics, it is that Canadians don’t like surprises, when it comes to our leaders. We like to chose their leaders, and react badly when a leader is suddenly dumped on us. Just ask Kim Campbell, or John Turner, about this basic truth. So, to make this election as fair and successful as it can be, we need to know who we are dealing with, before walking into that voting booth. And we aren’t likely to get that information from the candidates while they are embroiled in the fury of an election fight. That’s where we come in!

Today, we will look at Stephen Harper, Thomas Mulcair, and Justing Trudeau. Hold on a minute, you say! What about Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Quebecois, or Elizabeth May, of the Green Party? Aren’t they running in this election as well?

Yes indeed, they are. However, I will not be writing about them, for a couple of reasons. First of all, they have no chance of winning the election. So, there’s that. And we will have our hands full as it is, with a historic election that is a three-way race; the stakes are simply too high. Canadians have slipped away in voter participation in recent years, and this must be rectified. Having to digest and analyze three candidates is plenty.

Then there are my own reasons for not writing about Duceppe or May. These are more personal, and may prove offensive to some. This is your spoiler alert!

I will not write about Gilles Duceppe, because his sole reason for political existence is the destruction of the country I love. If he wants to come back from the political dead to take another crack at splitting up Canada, all the power to him, but I won’t waste a word talking about his platform, policies, or aspirations. I don’t like the Separatist Movement, but I will put my faith in the people of Quebec to decide to stay in Canada for their own reasons, not mine. They are free to decide their own fate, but I will not assist the mechanisms of separation by perpetuating the Bloc agenda.

I will not write about Elizabeth May, because quite frankly, I think she is a flake. Don’t mean to offend those of you who feel energized about the Green Party movement, but the idea that Elizabeth May could, or should ever be trusted to run any government, let alone the Canadian government, is patently absurd. Her debacle at the Gallery Press Dinner showed me everything I need to draw this conclusion. Whether sleep-deprived, or drunk, or both, she had notes prepared, and her cell phone cued to deliver the idiotic tirade she unleashed in a very public place. To suffer fools is the polite Canadian way, but that doesn’t mean we need to entertain the idea of letting them run the country.

There, now that we have those minor housekeeping issues out of the way, let’s get down to business!

Up first, the incumbent.

Stephen-Harper-January-26-2012Prime Minister Stephen Harper

Born -1959

Birthplace – Toronto

Background

In 1979, while still a teen, Stephen Harper did what many young Ontario men did – struck out West, to seek his fortunes in the oil fields of Alberta. He worked for a couple of years in the oil industry, but in the early 80’s, the boom went bust. Landing on his feet, Harper left the oil industry and went to work for Conservative MP Jim Hawkes as an executive assistant, until 1986. During that time, Harper earned a bachelor degree in economics.

In 1987 a new political movement among conservatives led to the formation of the Reform Party, under Preston Manning, and Stephen Harper was on the ground floor of that movement. What followed was a complicated series of developments in which the Conservative base in Canada underwent paradigm shifts and evolutions. Stephen Harper remained intrinsically involved in politics in one capacity or another, carefully navigating his way through the Reform Party under Manning, which transitioned into the Canadian Alliance Party under Stockwell Day, and ultimately came full circle and formed into the ‘new’ Conservative Party.

Stephen Harper was integral in all of these developments, and emerged as leader of the Conservative Party in 2004. In the election that followed, the Conservatives formed the Official Opposition. In 2006, Stephen Harper was elected Prime Minister of Canada, and the rest is history.

Strengths

Regardless of what people think of his politics, Stephen Harper’s path to the Prime Minister’s office is nothing short of remarkable. Anyone who underestimates the man’s intelligence does so at their own peril. Intelligence will get you so far, but Harper’s incredible display of self-determination and tenacity led a teenager who was working the oil fields of Alberta, to a residence on Sussex Drive, in a relatively short period of time. And he did it all on his own, educating himself along the way, and navigating an incredibly complex political landscape, to arrive at his ultimate destination of winning a majority Conservative government in 2011, and devastating his political nemesis, the Liberal Party.

It can be argued, in fact, that Stephen Harper is singularly responsible for the re-invention of conservatism in Canada. Quite a series of accomplishments!

Weaknesses

Stephen Harper is one sharp cookie, and a formidable political opponent, but there is a downside to his leadership. Ideologically driven, and resolute in his opposition to liberal or progressive ideas, he has not proven to be a strong ambassador for Canadian values on a representative scale. He remains doggedly anti-media, anti-union, anti-environment, anti-progressive. He controls his party with an iron fist, and essentially dictates policy from a singular point of view. Many of his moves within Parliament border on unethical. One might hope that with a majority government, Harper could afford to soften his approach, and be more inclusive with the Canadian public and its desires, but this does not appear to be the case, and he remains tight-lipped and aloof, resulting in the majority of Canadians calling for change in the upcoming election.

Prognosis

Harper is definitely vulnerable in this election, but anyone who underestimates him, given his remarkable legacy, is being foolhardy. He is the incumbent, which provides him a defensive position, and he will use every weapon at his disposal, to stay in power. He is most definitely a real contender in the upcoming election.

TMThomas Mulcair

Background

Born – 1955

Birthplace – Ottawa

Thomas Mulcair grew up in a large Irish-French family in Laval, just north of Montreal. He studied law at McGill University, and became active in student politics while there. In 1979, he was admitted to the Quebec Bar, and embarked on his legal career, which included teaching law at the university level.

Mulcair’s political career began at the provincial level. In 1994, he was elected in his Laval riding, under the Liberal banner. He won re-election in 1998 and 2003, and advanced within the Liberal Party ranks. He was instrumental in developing the Sustainable Development Act, a piece of environmental legislation that was adopted into law in 2006. Shortly after this, Mulcair’s relationship soured with the Charest Liberals, and he made the transition to federal politics, under the NDP banner.

Mulcair won a by-election In 2007, for the riding of Outremont, and was re-elected in 2008 and 2011. He was the first NDP candidate ever to win a riding in Quebec during a general election. The 2011 election also saw the NDP become the Official Opposition for the first time in Canadian history. When Jack Layton passed away, Mulcair became the leader of the federal NDP Party.

And today, with the NDP leading the polls in the current 2105 election campaign, Thomas Mulcair is poised to become the first NDP Prime Minister in Canadian history!

Strengths

Thomas Mulcair is a highly skilled, well-seasoned politician. A trained lawyer, a scholar, and a devastatingly witty orator, he has proven himself a serious political opponent under two party flags, at two different levels of government. His breakthrough in Quebec led to a tidal wave of NDP wins in the 2011 election, launching the Party into Official Opposition status. His involvement in environmental issues has energized younger voters to become politically active, under the NDP banner.

Weaknesses

Although it hasn’t been raised much so far in this election cycle, Mulcair’s transition from Liberal to NDP might be perceived as a weakness. Dedication to a particular political movement traditionally plays a role in voter approval, but so far it hasn’t seemed to hurt Mulcair’s popularity. The fact that Mulcair is a Quebec lawyer and a grizzled veteran of the precarious political landscape in that province may cause him difficulties in certain corners of Canada, where long memories and conservative sentiments still linger. Perhaps the most serious weakness in Mulcair’s armor is his stance on Quebec Separation. He advocates the position that a simple majority vote of 50% + 1 should be sufficient to legitimize legal separation. This sends chills down the spine of those who dread another showdown with the Separatist Movement. And finally, there is a perception that Mulcair is a loose cannon, prone to outbursts and displays of hostility but so far, that has not emerged in this election campaign.

Prognosis

Mulcair’s NDP have enjoyed sustained dominance in election polls, ever since the idea of an election started floating around. His skill, experience, and success in Quebec, coupled with the remarkable upset by the NDP in Alberta, render him a very serious contender to win the prize on October 19th.

JTJustin Trudeau

Background

Born – 1971

Birthplace – Ottawa

Justin Trudeau was literally born into Canadian politics. The eldest son of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Justin grew up in the epicenter of Canadian political culture in the 1970’s. But as he came of age, Justin Trudeau chose a different path. As a young adult, he studied literature at McGill University, took a one-year sabbatical to travel the world, then returned to McGill to begin studying as a teacher. He then moved to British Columbia, finished his degree, and began a career in teaching, which lasted until 2002.

After several years of teaching, Trudeau returned to central Canada and sought to further his education. He studied engineering, then environmental geography, and became involved in the Katimavik youth program, before politics finally came calling for him.

Trudeau became increasingly involved with the Liberal Party, and was nominated to run in the riding of Papineau, where he defeated a Bloc Quebecois incumbent, in 2008. He remained active in the area of youth development after taking office, and won re-election in 2011, where the Liberals fell to third party status for the first time in history. In 2013, the Liberal Party elected Trudeau as party leader, in what amounted to a virtual acclamation. All Liberal hopes for a return to political dominance, rest squarely on Trudeau’s shoulders.

Strengths

Trudeau’s strengths may appear either superficial or abstract, but to underestimate them, would be a mistake. Just want to clarify that, before proceeding.

Justin Trudeau is the youngest of the three candidates. As such, he has the potential to attract a large number of younger voters. The challenge to his success will come from whether or not the Liberal Party can energize young voters, in a period when voter apathy is at an all-time high in Canada. Trudeau relates strongly to the student population, and hails from a relatively modest background, when you set aside his father’s legacy. He is not perceived as a career politician, and did not jump immediately into politics as an adult, which may work to his benefit among voters.

The obvious elephant in the room is Trudeau’s famous father. Pierre Trudeau still evokes a nostalgic response among die-hard Liberals, who remember the charismatic intellectual as a leader who gave Canada a distinct personality and image on the world stage.

But there is another memorable Liberal that looms in the backdrop of a Trudeau campaign. Jean Chretien led Canada to a series of consecutive budget surpluses, the only Prime Minister in modern history to do so. And with Stephen Harper’s Conservatives running deficits since he came into power, this point looms in the forefront, and adds to the hope that another Liberal government can return Canada to a fiscal balance.

And then there is history, which plays a key role here. As mentioned in an earlier article, the Liberal Party of Canada has dominated the political landscape for the past 80 years. While Trudeau may be relatively new on the political stage, the infrastructure of the Liberal Party behind him is a formidable machine.

Weaknesses

Some of the very same points that give Trudeau strength, also render him a weak opponent. Not every Canadian remembers Pierre Trudeau with fondness, and many people seem to forget that Chretien was the most fiscally responsible Prime Minister in modern history. And still others may fail to see the connection between Trudeau and his father, or any hopes of a return to fiscal balance under his leadership. After all, Pierre Trudeau did play loose and fast with the Canadian purse.

And Trudeau is young. He is relatively inexperienced in politics, when compared to the other candidates. He was basically pushed out onto the stage and handed the Liberal banner. He has yet to define his policies or platforms in a meaningful way. He must struggle to define himself between the surging NDP, and the entrenched Conservatives, who both champion well seasoned veterans in this race. He is going to need more than hopes, memories, and nostalgia, to prevail on October 19th.

Prognosis

It may seem crazy, given the current polling numbers and everything I just said, but Trudeau is still a serious contender in this election. Perception does play a key role in politics, and if he can find a way to forge a distinct platform to stand on, the massive Liberal machine might just propel Trudeau to the front of the pack. Youth, hopes, and dreams may not be tangible things, but they can be carried into a voting booth. And Trudeau has the longest election in Canadian history, to sort it all out.

So there you have it, a basic breakdown on the three main horses in this race. Credit must be given to thecanadianencyclopedia.ca, for their stellar work in chronicling the backgrounds of these candidates. Many of the facts presented here, were derived from that source.

*****

So, after all this, are you still confused? Still not sure who to vote for, or why? Not even sure where you fit on the political spectrum? Let’s see if we can remedy that, with a little high-brow intellectual exercise, shall we?

The political spectrum swings left to right. You’ve heard the rhetoric, “She’s a lefty”, or, “He’s a right-winger”. But what does that mean, exactly?

The three parties in this race, all have a specific place on the left-right spectrum. The Conservatives are more to the right end of the spectrum. The Liberals are slightly to the left of the center of the spectrum. The NDP are more to the left end of the spectrum, further left than the Liberals.

But how do we know that this is where these parties sit? Who decides this, and how is it determined?

One key measuring stick for determining the political spectrum is a concept called ‘individualism vs. collectivism”. It sounds complicated, and it can be, but the basics are actually pretty straightforward. The best way to illustrate it is to use a practical example that everyone can understand.

Back in an imaginary time, a group of immigrants come to Canada from an imaginary country, to start a new life. There are six families altogether, and they hail from modest peasant backgrounds. They are farmers in their homeland, and seek to build their own farms in this new land.

The six families don’t have enough money to purchase a farm by themselves but together, they have enough money to buy one farm and work it as a group. They buy a farm with a large parcel of land, and divide it up into six plots. Each farmer decides what he wants to try to grow. They decide, as a group, that when harvest time comes, they will bring their crops to market, and will divide the proceeds amongst themselves equally. In this way, they are true partners in the enterprise, and if one crop fails, or if some crops don’t fetch good prices, they will all still share in the bounty, and take care of their families.

After several years, the farmers fall on hard times. Crops fail, prices drop, and debt begins to accumulate. The situation doesn’t improve, and the bank seizes the farm.

A wealthy landowner buys the farm. Seeing the potential in keeping existing infrastructure in place, he offers to hire the farmers to continue working the land. But he makes it clear that they will be working for a wage, one that he will determine. He is risking his own money now, so he will also decide which crops to grow, and how to best run the farm. Any profits derived will be his own, the farmers will have to be satisfied with a working wage.

The farmers, devastated that their dream has been taken from them, must decide whether to work for the new owner in order to keep making enough to survive, or strike out again, to seek their own fortune elsewhere.

Now, based on this short example, how does it make you feel? Do you sympathize with the farmers, or do you feel that the new owner was perfectly justified, and deserves all the profits?

How you work through this analogy, the thoughts and feelings it generates, will go a long way to determining where you fit on the political spectrum. If you feel sorrow for the farmers, you might just be left-leaning in your political persuasion. If you feel the new owner is actually a hero, who gave the farmers a chance to make a living from a failed experiment, you might lean more to the right on the spectrum. If you sympathize with the farmers, but feel perfectly comfortable with the new owner taking over, you might sit closer to the center of the political spectrum. In other words, if you think collectively, you sit further left on the spectrum. If you think individually, you are more to the right.

So, there you have a basic explanation for political theory in Canada, and the history of Canadian politics suddenly comes into much sharper focus. Traditionally, Canada sits near the middle, which explains the Liberal dominance over the last 80 years. In recent years, people have backed the idea that corporations and industry should take the lead, and that we will all benefit from a more profit-driven mentality. Thus, the Conservatives have been in power. Today, the NDP are surging in the polls, because Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have not demonstrated that a right-leaning government is of any real benefit to average Canadians, and hasn’t led to a balanced budget.

And then there are the Liberals, who offer the middle path, a blend of both left and right leaning sentiments and policies. Do we stay to the right, or swing to the left? Or do we opt for something safer, something that lands us firmly on middle ground? Perhaps now you can understand why the Liberal Party is still in this race, and why this race is far from over.

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