”œOnce a generation, Canadians get the mumps. They always recover and return to the Liberal Party.” Jack Pickersgill (veter- an senior Liberal cabinet minister, circa 1958)
”œPolitics is too important to be left to the politicians, they [think] if they maximize the number of votes… that’s the be- all and end-all of success.” James Laxer (veteran NDP critic, Toronto Star, January 22, 2006)
What would you call a government that perenni- ally demanded more revenue from its citizens than it needed, while dumping its own spend- ing obligations onto others? Oppressive? Outrageous? To our political elites it is merely ”œfiscal imbalance.”
Canadians are fascinated by the question of balance, but rarely to the point of revolt. We compromise over the balance of power between governments. We fuss over the imbalance that our ”œwinner takes all” system delivers in lop- sided majority governments, but not enough to change the system. We attempt to balance those outcomes through casino card-counting we call ”œstrategic voting.”
Paul Martin owes his relatively mild humiliation at the hands of 2006 voters to this passion for balance and our commitment to compromise. For a while it appeared as if he was headed for a 1984 or 1993 style rout. He and the rather pathetic group of advisers he surrounded himself with may console themselves that it was their vicious scare-monger- ing about abortion and the risk of a ”œBush poodle as prime minister” that prevented a Harper majority.
It wasn’t. As focus groups conducted by our firm in the days following the election revealed, it was a Canadian con- cern for balance that kept Liberal seat totals higher than expected. ”œWe wanted to give the Tories a learner’s permit first,” was how one Atlantic Canadian put it, pleased that the gamble of a minority government on a short leash had paid off. (That choice of metaphor is interesting. It is not to be confused with a ”œtest drive.” You get a full license auto- matically when you pass your driving probation…)
Canadians were furious at what they usually called the ”œcorruption of the Liberals,” but hesitant about granting an unbalanced majority as a result of their anger. For older voters it may have been the memory of the arrogant behaviour of the early Mulroney years, for others " especially in Quebec " it was no doubt memories of the cocky referendum-era behav- iour of the post-1993 Chrétienites.
Now Stephen Harper has been granted a chance to find a new balance in Canadian politics. Galling as it is to the aristocratic elites on both the left and right, it is a very ordinary suburban man who has been given the keys to Sussex Drive at the moment of a shift in the balance of forces that govern Canada.
Economic power is shifting further west again. A new generation of confident Quebecers are weary of the axis between Quebec and Canada being the sovereignist/federalist divide. Canada’s economic future is shifting from a north/south axis to one whose fulcrum is the Pacific. The first post-boomer prime minister takes office as the first boomers retire, and power passes to generations not shaped by the 1960s.
For the first time since Mulroney’s efforts at Meech Lake and Charlottetown were rejected more than a decade ago, a Conservative prime minister can again attempt to find a balance between central Canada and the West, between Quebec and Alberta. He has the added credential of having roots in both places. For the first time since Trudeau, perhaps even Laurier, a Canadian prime minister may have enough willing partners and provincial allies.
It is the late-breaking strength of the Harper campaign in Quebec that is the real story of this election. Now that Harper has demonstrated his ability to win, this trend will likely accelerate. This is a revolution in the loyalties of Quebecers and is the predictor of where the tenuous balance of regional prejudice and aspiration that is Canada will now shift.
Looking back on the most excit- ing Canadian election in nearly two decades, one question that demands an answer is: ”œHow could this have happened? How did Paul Martin go from being the most popular prime minister since Pierre Trudeau to dis- graced defeat in less than two years?”
Even by the standards of the often-cruel political backlashes we inflict on leaders who have fallen from grace " R.I.P. Kim Campbell, John Turner " it is extraordinary to behold the shabby demise of the man whose accession to power most Canadians had been eagerly awaiting for nearly a decade.
To angry, self-styled ”œprogressive Canadians,” " Hargrove, Laxer, et al. " a greater horror was the phoenix- like rise of Stephen Harper and his social conservative hordes. How was it possible that a nerd many had declared dead and buried months before recovered so quickly, so power- fully? How were so many fellow Canadians deluded into voting for an anti-choice, anti-Kyoto, anti-same sex, and Bushite Star Wars fan!
Headhunters trolling for a new CEO fear one outcome over all: the ”œnumber two flameout.” The crown prince, groomed with care for years, who when handed the keys to the king- dom is an instant disaster. It is surpris- ingly common yet hard to predict. The Liberal Party was convinced, with near unanimity, of Martin’s potential, and they were wrong. Some Chrétienites sneered at Martin’s early stumbles: ”œWe told you so. After all, how hard is it to be a finance minister? You say no nine times out of ten, and you produce one big product a year! Leading a whole government is a little tougher.”
Well, they didn’t say it in advance. Martin’s role in the 1990s in turning around federal government finances, re-establishing Canada’s credibility at the World Bank and the IMF, and cre- ating new tests of public sector per- formance assessment " in Ottawa and on the world stage " were not trivial. But he also had a reputation for poor staff management, for working an issue endlessly, and for poor political judgment about the reaction to tough decisions: all fatal flaws that emerged immediately in the Martin PMO.
An early supporter watching his disas- trous campaign perform- ance said in some angst to a small group of Liberals at a Christmas party, ”œPaul has always surrounded himself with pygmies. He has never been able to discipline them when they inevitably screw up.” Toronto Star political analyst Carol Goar commented sagely on the PMs who gathered peers and mentors around them and their predictable suc- cess, contrasted with the inevitable failure of more querulous leaders and their nodding yes-men.
It’s hard to exaggerate what a disaster the Martin campaign was. Three perspectives " that of the media, can- didates and voters " give a flavour of the unmitigated failure of conception and execution.
Two things are non-negotiable for journalists paying nearly $2,000 a day to be on the leader’s plane: that they not get trumped by party announce- ments on the ground and they not be lied to. The Martin team broke both rules, failing to inform the media of events they knew were imminent, and then lying about it. This produced a toxic atmosphere, which was com- pounded by the Martin staff habit of being snarly or unavailable to their captive prima donnas.
Experienced candidates do not expect much from a national cam- paign, but they do expect it to do no harm. It should provide usable cam- paign material, on time; and it should stay out of trouble. This campaign gen- erated self-inflicted bad news at least once a week, did poor damage control, and then failed to apologize even pri- vately to the wounded candidates. Platform material that arrived for local use was late, inaccurate and incomplete.
Voters’ expectations of campaigns are similarly modest, but immutable. They should not be insulted, patronized, or lied to. Boastfulness, improbable claims of victory, ferocious ad hominen partisan attacks: fine. Incompetence and outright lies: not so good. From ”œbeer and popcorn,” to the lame denials of the intent and meaning of the infamous ”œsoldiers in the streets” ad, to the wild claims that Harper would pack the Supreme Court: voters were lied to, insulted and patronized again and again.
Election night punditry was like watching a slow motion news ticker endlessly replaying a loop of political clichés: ”œ…re-fought the last cam- paign…learned from their mis- takes…underestimated their opponent …believed their own propaganda… refused to change with the political weather…too arrogant to apologize… confused campaign management…” And yet, the overblown clichés were appropriate to this dramatic campaign. Like 1958, 1968, 1984 and 1993, this election marked the end of an era, a Canadian political turning of the page.
Once a decade our tectonic plates shift, in a campaign that sets the stage for a new alignment of political forces. The old Conservative Party was crushed a decade after Mulroney’s mas- sive victory. This campaign marked the re-emergence of a united national alter- native to the Liberals, an achievement that few thought possible.
Stephen Harper has already begun to indicate he understands both the hesitancy of his mandate and the need to present his own vision of a re-bal- anced Canada. He knows that the pundits will be asking: ”œCan he ”˜speak truth to Ralph’ about the cost of a role in governing Canada? Can he over- come Quebec’s angst about its place in the country and the world without alienating his new federalist support- ers in Ontario? Can he play Brian Mulroney in Quebec and Bill Davis in Ontario without enraging the new Alberta premier expected within months?”
There is a hinge moment in any conflict " a decaying marriage, a bitter strike, a civil war " when all the play- ers are fed up and ready to settle. That’s the moment a great negotiator seizes to force compromise and resolution. Mulroney’s years in Quebec labour law gave him a keen sense of those moments. Pierre Trudeau used the care- fully timed walk away from the table to force agreement in similar circum- stances. It may be possible for Harper to seize this moment of tilt in the bal- ance of forces governing Canada.
Quebecers have parked their irrita- tions with the Bloc for nearly two decades. But their payback has been poor, for voters who are famously sen- sitive to being on the side of a winner. The Bloc’s group of effective populist MPs is inconsequential in power terms. They could not even win enough allies to defeat Martin at his most vulnerable. For the bleu soft nationalists in Quebec " the Union Nationale, Mulroney Conservative, ADQ voters " a hard core of about 25 percent of francophone voters " the Bloc has always been a second choice.
As one former Blociste focus group participant put it, ”œThe Bloc always asks us to give them power, when they are powerless. It’s pointless.”
Harper now has an opportunity to give that considerable chunk of voters a more rewarding political home. Meticulously tutored by Mulroney, the master of Quebec coali- tion politics, Harper has been sending many of the right signals to restless Quebec federalists: an appropriate role in international organizations, an acknowledgement that Ottawa takes too large a tax bite from all of the provinces, including Quebec, and recognition that excess revenue has fed a federal appetite to interfere in provincial jurisdictions.
Mulroney’s star pupil has achieved a dramatic transformation from his Reform/Alliance roots. Three elections ago, in the 1997 campaign he sat out, his party ran ads with French Canadian politicians’ faces crossed out with a crude X, and the message ”œHad enough yet?” Today, improbably, Harper was the runner-up in the French language debate among Quebec voters, a dramatic turnaround in less than a decade.
He worked hard on his weakness- es, practiced his retail craft in a hun- dred unreported local events, and performed with consummate disci- pline. Now his challenge is to provide Quebec with a new federalist vision that builds long-term loyalty without irritating Ontario and the West. It is a balancing act that every post-war Canadian prime minister has ultimate- ly failed at.
Harper has a unique advantage: his biography. He is a Toronto-born, Alber- ta-seasoned, bilingual Conservative. Like Nixon on China, Harper has the ability to speak harsh truths to his true believers. He can help Albertans see Quebec’s grievances through the lens of their own aspirations and frustra- tions with Ottawa. He can show Que- bec that his Albertan roots make him an ally, not an enemy, in their struggle for a rebalanced federalism.
This campaign was replete with irony. Mulroney helped guide his one-time junior nemesis to power. Harper, galvanized into polit- ical life by the stupidity of the National Energy Program and its attack on Western sensibilities, may now have to negotiate a ”œson-of- NEP” as the price of his fiscal rebalancing exercise. It will not be possi- ble for other Canadians to watch $100-a-barrel oil deliver tens of bil- lions of dollars in spending and tax relief to Alberta and Newfoundland without a demand for Ottawa to do something to restore fairness.
The bandaids and duct tape that Martin applied to equalization and to resource-revenue sharing are already coming unstuck. Harper’s opportunity to add his name to the list of great Canadian prime ministers is to find the path through this constitutional and regional jealousy minefield. If he is successful he will have achieved something that eluded Mulroney and Trudeau. If he fails, he will quickly join the Meighen/Clark/Campbell club of failed Tory PMs, remembered by Trivial Pursuit buffs and no one else.
To demonstrate determination, he will need early on to find a fitting head for a prominent lamppost. He or she will likely be a hapless backbencher from Western Canada who doesn’t get the ”œdiscipline of power,” in Jeffrey Simpson’s immortal phrase. They will say something too harsh, or critical of com- promise, or simply dumb…and then be surprised at how quickly the Harper PMO publicly chops their head off.
Brian Mulroney was the Canadian master of caucus political manage- ment of the past 50 years. Lyndon Johnson’s incredible prestidigitation convinced his southern allies that he was really one of them " a segregationist " and his northern lib- eral converts that he would fight for civil rights. Similarly, Brian Mulroney welded together Quebec nationalists and Quebec haters, social conserva- tives and Toronto Red Tories, and fiscal conservatives and Atlantic Tories bred on buying jobs into a united and disci- plined caucus.
That it ultimately collapsed is no reflection on the achievement and its long run of success. Harper adviser Tom Flanagan’s attack on Mulroney for the split in his coalition is merely a reflection of his academic and other- worldly view of politics. ”œThe centre never holds” is a truth understood by serious political analysts. Two majori- ties and a caucus that held its angst internally even at 13 percent in the polls is gravity-defying in Canadian politics.
Mulroney marked his intention to use a combi- nation of carrot and stick to cre- ate a new-style Conservative caucus within weeks of his 1983 leadership victory. He signalled no tolerance for the back-biting, leaky, faction-ridden gang that had bedevilled all of his prede- cessors, while at the same time he slipped out of a finely laid Liberal trap.
The Supreme Court had urged Manitoba to strengthen French language rights. The NDP premier was trying to comply, against fierce Conservative resistance in the legisla- ture. The Trudeau government saw a way to wedge this smart-aleck new leader, who bragged about his bi- national roots and his labour lawyer negotiating skills. Their motion in the House expressed support for Premier Howard Pauley and was an implicit slap at former Tory Premier Sterling Lyon, who was leading the opposition. It was just the sort of cynical squeeze play at which the Trudeau PMO excelled.
Mulroney stalled, bobbed and weaved; and then negotiated a milder resolution that most of his caucus could support. Renegade Manitoba MP Dan McKenzie, came to him privately, no doubt in trepidation and sorrow, to report that there was, sadly, no possi- bility of unanimity.
According to those at the meeting, Mulroney fixed him with his famous glare and said in a quiet baritone, ”œDan, my caucus will be unanimous.” The unspoken message was that those who didn’t like that could find another polit- ical home. It was the beginning of an unprecedented unity of purpose among federal Conservatives. Stephen Harper has no doubt heard and absorbed the anecdote from his new tutor.
Another Liberal squeeze play of long tradition, used against the CCF/NDP, was the unsavoury practice of seeking trade union allies from among labour’s most fervent Leninists and/or corrupt leaders, as a means of challenging the CCF’s hold on union families. In the 1960s, these covert Lib/Lab pacts went into retirement in most places, though they were some- times replaced by deals with the Teamsters and the longshoremen’s unions. Paul Martin’s leadership cam- paign received tens of thousands of dollars from building trades and hotel employees union leaders, not often the most progressive elements of organized labour.
So it was not a surprise for old- timers in the NDP to see the Liberals seduce a trade union leader as a cam- paign shill. Even the echo of the old Communist Common Front language of the forties " ”œAll progressive voters must rally to anti-Fascist flag under the banner of the party of the working people” " was familiar. It was surpris- ing that the chosen naïf should have been a savvy veteran of these perils.
Buzz Hargrove should have known that there is no mercy for the actor chosen for this role, after the fact. He is mocked by the media, attacked by his former colleagues and sneered at by his new friends. Even more surprising was how ineptly Hargrove played his role. His call for Quebecers to choose their separatists over those led by Harper was a self- inflicted wound one would have expected from a neophyte, not a sur- vivor of 30 years of hand-to-hand political combat.
The behaviour of reformed Marxists like Jim Laxer and Toronto’s multi-millionaire Now magazine publisher Alice Klein is more understandable. Their commitment to Common Front politics has never wavered, even when they were nominally New Democrats. What was puzzling was their decision to make sui- cidal pitches to vote Liberal, in the closing days of an election in which the New Democrats were gaining. Political science professor James Laxer’s suggestion that ”œpolitics is too important to be left to the politicians” was exceeded in its vacuousness only by his condemna- tion of leaders who attempt to ”œmaxi- mize votes for their brand.”
Uh, Jim, in a democratic political universe that is the first obligation of a politician: to get elected. One hopes that they do so without bribery, lying or coercion, yes; but the only value of defeat is to provide the lessons that prepare one for a subsequent victory. Any other goal is a fraud on the voters whose votes one seeks.
As if to stick a finger in the eye of those on the left who savaged his naïveté, Laxer produced a post- election saccharine hagiography of Martin as the abused ”œdecent man” for a grieving Toronto Star.
Like Harper, Layton learned from his greenhorn gaffes, polished his stump skills, and delivered a tight, winning performance. The challenge for Jack Layton now will be to tell the old ”œmoral victory socialist caucus” of the NDP: ”œEnough! I lead a party preparing to govern. There are new rules.” If he can achieve a Blairite reform of the party that failed his two predecessors he will join a successful Stephen Harper on the list of transfor- mational Canadian political leaders. If he succumbs, he joins Audrey and Alexa and Buzz in the footnotes of the left’s political history.
His challenge is tougher than Harper’s: again as a result of his biog- raphy, which is much less helpful to his task. As a prime minister, being the son of a Tory cabinet minister, raised in a suburban town in Quebec, sea- soned in the tough school of Toronto municipal politics would all be valuable creden- tials. For an NDP leader attempting to drag a hes- itant and aging activist core into the 21st century, Prairie populist and trade union roots would have been more helpful.
The stars’ alignment may appear propitious: a weakened Liberal party about to enter its second bloody leadership contest in a decade, an unseasoned Tory PM with serious internal and external political chal- lenges, an energized new caucus fresh from what they see as a triumphant contest with the hated Liberals, a bank balance that is stronger than any post- election NDP has ever had, and a sea- soned and united group of advisers savvy enough to have rebuilt the lead- ership coalition that supported Ed Broadbent while developing a whole new cadre a generation younger.
The recruitment of hard-nosed business executives such as Paul Summerville, and the election of a tough trade union staffer and feminist community activist Peggy Nash " even in the face of her erstwhile boss Buzz Hargrove’s treachery " give Layton important, credible new allies to call on. (Quiet sighs of election night relief, at the news of Svend Robinson’s losing effort to return to his role of caucus troublemaker, could be heard from many in the leadership.)
Still, the challenges that Layton faces are legion: overcoming the ”œfunny money” reputation the party still carries, its perceived naIÌˆveté and irrelevance in Quebec, and the fear that it is home only to an aging cadre of boomer activists well beyond their ”œsell-by” dates.
History does not yet give suffi- cient credit to Neil Kinnock and John Smith for their roles in preparing for the dramatic party turn around Tony Blair has delivered the Labour Party. Kinnock picked the Trotskyite lice from their party sanctuaries with great courage and skill. Smith taught the trade union bosses the benefit of giv- ing up their anti-democratic hold over the party. Layton is the beneficiary of none of this house-cleaning by his predecessors.
And yet even Tony Blair, now in his third term in government, is still fighting ”œbacksliding” in the party and caucus by those who resent his crusade for a 21st century social democracy built on raising everyone’s chances of success, rather than levelling everyone down to a shared mediocrity. His fail- ure to get performance-based school reform through the UK Parliament was a shock to believers in the New Labour mission on both sides of the Atlantic. If a PM as powerful as Tony Blair can’t get as mild a reform as permitting par- ents to make school choice based on demonstrated success, what hope is there for Jack Layton facing a far more obdurate activist core?
Even Bill Clinton did not bequeath a Democratic Party genuinely committed to new thinking, despite eight triumphant years in govern- ment. The party is still struggling to develop a message that is believable to white middle class voters about securi- ty, economic priorities and values. The leadership of much of the centre-left in the Western democracies has still not accepted that statist solutions are not popular " especially among young voters " that choice matters to progressive voters even in selecting public goods like health care and schools, and that voters expect tough performance and accountability pledges from all their governments. For Jack Layton to convince voters that the power of traditional public sec- tor union leadership over NDP policy on health care, child care, and public spending has been broken will be hard. Harder still will be finding a message for social democratic soft nationalists that is credible to a cynical Quebec electorate. He will need to find a Quebec lieutenant who can begin the slow process of reaching the contestabilité threshold so essential to competitive Quebec voters.
Looking the troglodytes of social- ist orthodoxy in the eye will be hard for Jack Layton, but perhaps the fate of liberals and social democrats who flinched at the challenge " from John Kerry to Gerhard Schroeder to the pathetic ghosts of the French Socialist party leadership " will provide some zeal for the battle.
It is the Liberal Party that faces the most painful period in the political repair shop over the next few years. The party’s bankruptcy is laid achingly bare by an e-mail sent by a former party policy chair to several hundred party activists a week after election day: ”œCanadians wanted desperately to vote for the Party of Laurier, of Pearson, and of Trudeau, but reluctant- ly came to the conclusion that that Party was not on the ballot. Our Party’s long association with power has made us a magnet for Liberals of conven- ience, who have too often supplanted Liberals of conscience. However, Canadians are not the fools that some political operatives take us for…Above all else, we must engage in a process of reflection and candid debate, to nourish and re-energize ideas and ideals that will define and advance a Liberal agenda for the nation,” moaned Akaash Maharaj.
In the soul-searching years following the 1958 debacle, the 1960 Kingston conference of wise-men laid out an agenda of social change that provided a body of policy the Liberal Party in gov- ernment drew on for the next two decades. The party tried to recreate the exercise several times in the 1980s and 1990s, without the same success at draw- ing the best progressive minds or synthesizing the same political creativity. Indeed, the identity crisis of Canadian liberalism that began with Thatcher/Reagan, and continued through the end of the Cold War, has never really ended. Even Martin’s prodigious deficit-cutting in the late 1990s was hardly a contribution to a Liberal agenda for a new century. The party’s failure to sell a convincing new federalist vision to Quebec or an acceptable power-sharing deal to the West would have ejected it from government many years ago, but for one exogenous variable " the Canadian Conservative civil war.
Even the Liberal-dominated provinces " Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic " sometimes the source of new policy or leadership inspiration, failed to deliver in recent years. The faux- Liberals of British Columbia have led an attack on the ”œbastions of privilege” " from teaching, to law to their own employees " with great success. This is not an export product, even for a Conservative government in most provinces, and certainly not under the federal Liberal brand. Dalton McGuinty’s Ontario Liberals may yet leave a genuine legacy of Liberal reform in health and education, but so far the jury is decidedly out and divided.
Canadian Liberals have not engaged in the ferocious struggle between reformers and traditionalists that has wracked their American Democratic cousins since the Clinton years. The party’s thinkers slept through the Chrétien years, waiting for the Martin redemption to come. Now they are faced with the same bleak landscape as Tom Kent and his band helped the party traverse success- fully two generations ago.
Each party conducts an inquisition after their defeats, some more public and bloody than others. New Democrats should ask some searching questions of their leaders about the next steps to power. Even if the NDP had brought home all 50 of their target seats, that is still half of what is needed for unchallenged official opposition status. What is the ”œnext 50 strategy”?
Conservatives will need privately to explore how to keep the hard right among them in the tent, what leg- islative satisfaction they can be offered without injuring their now much broader coalition. Our post- election research indicates that even among their core it cannot be the ”œso-con” agenda.
The Liberals have named their chief inquisitor. He is Tom Axworthy, and a kinder or more thoughtful Liberal veter- an for the role is hard to imagine. A harsh critic of the intra-mural squabbling in the party, Axworthy remains an unvarnished Trudeauite, one committed to pushing the party towards social reform. In most democracies he would be a social-democrat or an ultra-liberal American Democrat. He will be fighting the rising tide of leadership strife as the spring becomes the summer barbeque warfare season. Leadership contests are famously poor times for open dialogue and new think- ing. If the party succumbs to a Martin II versus a son-of- Trudeau contest, Tories and New Democrats will cackle as the tumbrels roll.
If the contest is joined by a broad field of policy-focused candidates " Carolyn Bennett, Michael Ignatieff, Glen Murray, and/or Bob Rae " the race may parallel a process of policy renewal. If it becomes a political beau- ty contest, Axworthy will have a hard time keeping his review focused on the future, not retribution; and on the party, not the egos of its princes.
While the Liberals may decide that it is their left flank that needs protection and promote an activist, redistributive agenda to once again suck the momentum from the NDP, that would be folly. It is on their right that they are in mortal danger. If the Conservatives are able to deliver a program of moderate change in gov- ernment " some electoral reform, a clean-up program and simplistic tax relief " they will have wildly exceeded expectations.
If Harper can move from that early success to addressing Canada’s failing productivity and regional disparity challenges, look out. Such a record will make delivering an appealing new fed- eralist vision to Quebec easier. Granting Alberta the freedom to exper- iment with health care, post-Kyoto approaches to climate change and even partial Senate reform could well be rewarded by a new revenue-sharing agreement under its likely next pre- mier, the pragmatic technocrat and oilman, Jim Dining.
To centre-right economists and the business community, this decade’s policy equivalent to the deficit battle is Canada’s sclerotic productivity. Those who would argue that this could never be a ”œpopulist” political crusade should reflect on how bizarre it seemed to fret about public debt in the eighties. The impeccably Conservative Bay Street finance minister Michael Wilson could easily pooh-pooh the ris- ing anger about debt from the same crowd as those pounding the produc- tivity drums today. Only five years later, Paul Martin built a career on his deficit-fighting credentials. Productivity will be framed as a fight for our children’s future, just as the deficit battle was. Canada’s slide to, God save us, European levels of productivity improvement, will be car- icatured as our ”œArgentinean future,” just as public debt was.
It is surprising this hasn’t already happened. A simplistic deconstruction of the impact of our being slower to extract benefit from our economic assets than our competitors should have already been dominating the talk shows and The Sun media editorial pages: ”œTaiwan’s productivity is grow- ing at three times Canada’s! Their chil- dren will be richer, having taken our jobs. Our kids will be unemployed and struggling. It’s that simple.”
It’s not, of course. But the same unintended consequences of the deficit battle " greater inequality, weaker public institutions, and a business-driven policy agenda " will be ignored in the effort to climb the greasy productivity pole. It would be a foolish Liberal or New Democrat leader who simply mocked this new conservative economic crusade. The Canadian middle class is increasingly spooked about our place in a global economy. Our post-election focus groups veered into a discussion of the ”œChina threat” or ”œhow can we com- pete with ”˜those guys,’” with no nudge from the moderators.
A few well-targeted corporate tax cuts; education grants that steer our kids from filmmaking and multicultur- al studies to mathematics and comput- er science; and a high-level panel of productivity-proselytizing wise persons could prove a compelling combination for many Canadian voters.
A reconstructed NDP offering a competent vision of government from the left, paralleled by the suc- cessful delivery of a mild Conservative set of economic and tax reforms, is a Liberal vision of hell. The odds against it are high. For Jack Layton to build a new coalition of dis- engaged young voters angry about environmental hypocrisy, suspicious of all institutions " governmental and corporate " and cynical about politics everywhere, will be hard. Harder still will be keeping the Steven Page generation in harness with their weary boomer parents.
Stephen Harper’s challenges are also formidable. He will be replacing newly flat tires while racing down the road. Staging a vote on same sex mar- riage, quietly ensuring that he loses it, and all the while appearing to keep faith with his hardheads would be a challenge for an oleaginous Lyndon Johnson at his deal-making best. Helping Quebec feel loved by an anglophone for whom emoting does not come easy, while keep- ing Alberta convinced of his loyalty and hard-edged determination to force change on Central Canada, will strain his leadership skills.
Our focus groups in Quebec revealed a disgusted rejection of the ”œfed/prov” bickering between Quebec leaders. They also revealed a desire for new faces, lower volume and greater harmony. A CROP poll a few days later reported a six-point decline in the support for sovereignty and the PQ in the week since the election " an unprece- dented slump in such a short period.
It would be foolish to take less than long odds against Stephen Harper. It is a now a cliché that he has made a career of being under-estimated. We do have a history of successful prime ministers with whom few of us would want to have been forced to spend a long din- ner, let alone have been stranded on a desert island: spirit-calling Mackenzie King, Uncle Louis, Dief.
Our ”œbig” leaders " Laurier, Trudeau, Mulroney " are exceptions. Each led governments that ended in disappointment in the struggle for bal- ance: between Quebec and the rest of Canada, between regions, between dif- fering national dreams. They were each succeeded by more ”œordinary” prime ministers, most of whom better met Canadians’ milder aspirations for fair- ness, tolerance, compromise…balance.
If Harper can emulate Pearson’s ”œaw shucks” ordinariness, his regular baseball fan pose, masking a tough diplomatic genius; or the masterful juggling of interests, egos, and politi- cal needs that gave Mackenzie King his crown as the longest serving prime minister, he will have changed Canadian politics for a generation.
If he succumbs to the temptation of a ”œbig agenda,” of wedge politics, to the rhetoric of his opposition days " in essence, to a George W. Bush approach to politics and to govern- ment " the new Liberal leader will slide easily into power within two years.
What seems more likely, on the strength of his masterful campaign performance, is that Harper will be one of those Canadian prime ministers who delivers his own answer to the question of balance " smoothly, care- fully and with surprising class.