The Fall of Governments in Canada

Here’s a thesis to consider and debate. Perhaps it is already well known, and I am merely stating the obvious. But judging from the comments of press and politicians, it doesn’t seem to be obvious to them.


It occurs to me that governments are rarely defeated because of their policies, but because of the way in which they govern: their arrogance, their disdain, their scandals or their incompetence. If this is a reasonable assessment, political administrations should have less fear of bold policies, and more fear of the impact of living in the ‘Ottawa bubble’.


Although the Harper Government implemented many wrong-headed policies, I suggest that its defeat was more due to Canadians’ assessment of the ‘personality’ of the government. “Darth” Harper was perceived as cold and uncaring, with disdain for the average Canadian. Justin Trudeau offered “sunny ways” in return. Perhaps some Canadians voted for the Liberals because of their policies, despite the manifest impracticality of many of them (as we have since found out), but I believe for the most part they voted for a leader who seemed open and transparent.


Darth Harper’s predecessor, Paul Martin, sank into the mire of the sponsorship scandal in 2004, and had no alternative narrative by 2006. Mr. Martin had a respectable inventory of policies, and some significant potential progress to offer with health care and first nations. But the lust for power of Martin and his people prompted them to force out the sitting Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien. Had Mr. Chrétien stayed in power for a few more months, there was a reasonable probability that most of the responsibility for sponsorship scandal would have been his problem, not Mr. Martin’s. Mr. Martin’s efforts to be open and transparent were unavailing.


One should point out, as well, that no policy issues forced out Mr. Chrétien. His weaknesses were more to do with political scandals and his own increasingly paranoid behaviour.


Kim Campbell faced a similar situation in following the regime of Brian Mulroney. That latter government was known for its ministerial resignations, mostly due to some sort of scandal: 17 in 9 years (contrast with 8 resignations in 9 years with Harper). It was up to Ms. Campbell to create a new narrative for her government, but it seemed she had little to offer that was different from her predecessor’s regime. Hence, the accumulated scandals tended to stick with the government.


Alas, it was another similar situation for John Turner. He was following on from Pierre Trudeau, who had quite exhausted – after 15 (briefly interrupted) years – the patience of the people. John Turner, who had distanced himself from Trudeau, nonetheless was made to wear the mantle of Trudeau arrogance. There had been a feud between Trudeau and Turner, perhaps dating back to 1968 when Trudeau squashed Turner in a leadership convention, flaring up again when Turner resigned from Trudeau’s government. When Mr. Turner won a leadership convention, Mr. Trudeau engaged in an orgy of patronage appointments, which Mr. Turner could have cancelled but accepted fearing a threat of defeat in Parliament. And so, despite the distancing, Turner was made to wear the mantle of Trudeau’s patronage orgy.


So the thesis is that policies matter less in election decisions than the conduct and attitudes of political administrations. On the way to this thesis I note, as a corollary, that Prime Ministers often poison the well for their successors, sometimes intentionally.


Let us consider an alternative path, presented by the father of the current Prime Minister. Pierre Trudeau was a part of the chaotic (but mostly successful) Pearson government, but when he became leader, he was perceived as completely different from the previous Pearson administration, though of the same political affiliation. Pierre Trudeau ‘re-branded’ (before the term was used) the Liberal Party, and so was able to create a fresh liberal image.


In a wonderful irony, I offer the observation that politicians are often remembered – years after active political lives – for their policies rather than their foibles. Pierre Trudeau is remembered for the Charter of Rights, Brian Mulroney for free trade with the US. Both policy initiatives were contentious at the time of their implementation, considered a high political risk.


The Progressive Conservative Government of Joe Clark was defeated in Parliament on a policy matter (18¢/gallon gas tax), and this was a major issue in the campaign. That said, Mr. Clark’s opponent, Pierre Trudeau, made much in the campaign of the dithering and confusion of the new Clark government.


The character and style of the government may be more important than its policies. If the thesis I offer has some relevance to current circumstances, Justin Trudeau is wise to continue his sunny ways, but needs to be careful about: obfuscation in his answers (e.g., sniper killing is not combat); hypocrisy in explaining policy reversals (e.g., the omnibus ‘budget’ bill); dismissal of critics (e.g., those against the $10 million payment to Kadhr), etc. Those bad habits tend to arise when one spends too long in the ‘Ottawa Bubble’, where the only voices you are those of politicians, press and public servants. Real Canadian life is not in the bubble, but in the parks and community centres and the Timmy’s. Trudeau’s visits to communities for informal consultations is a good antidote to ‘Bubble-itis’.

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