Harper, Mulcair or Trudeau: Who is the man for this moment?

Thirteen months (or less) to pick

Adrian Wyld/CP

Adrian Wyld/CP

In a glass bubble by the canal, Stephen Harper stood before a giant Canadian flag. The giant flag was flanked by two smaller, but still large, flags. The Conservative caucus, or at least most of it, was lined up in rows, behind Harper and below the flags.

“Friends, as you all know, particularly my colleagues back here, a new sitting of Parliament is about to begin,” the Prime Minister said.

Actually it had already begun. The House of Commons had reconvened about 30 minutes earlier. But here we were, some 900 m away, at the Ottawa convention centre, a facility more accommodating to those who prefer a strictly friendly audience and oversized Canadian flags.

A place, in other words, where one might launch a modern political campaign.

In that, this was not about the reconvening of Parliament, but about marking a countdown to the next election. After a relatively quiet summer, there are 13 months (or perhaps less) left to sort out the next four years (or perhaps less). Thirteen more months to make some kind of choice. A choice depending largely (perhaps too much so) on three men.

So will it be Stephen Harper or Thomas Mulcair or Justin Trudeau? Whose moment is this?

The Prime Minister, his neck unadorned, both his lapels mic’d, was given wide swath to roam the floor, his prepared text playing on a large TV screen at the back of the crowd so that might appear more loose. He was introduced by one of his ministers as the greatest prime minister this country has ever had (sorry John A.) and he entered the room to the stomping rhythm of Takin’ Care of Business (sorry Randy Bachman).

He had spoken to the people this summer, he said. And they said, he said, that he and his government should continue doing as they have done.

“That we keep moving this country forward, in the right direction,” he said.

The crowd applauded.

“Now friends, as you know, our plan for this country is not complicated,” he said.

Stephen Harper is uncomplicated. At his best he has achieved a finely honed simplicity. His pitch, his preferred idea of himself, is simple. His speech here was a demonstration of such. A man of the right, he has found a majority.

Taxes: bad. Budget balance: good. Criminals: bad. Free trade: good. Putin: bad. Israel: good. Certainty: good. Ambiguity: bad. And the economy? Whatever you’ve read, it’s basically great. Or at least the “the envy of the world.”

At length, this was the Prime Minister playing his greatest hits and promising still more of the type of songs his fans prefer. If you loved the GST cut, you’ll love all the other taxes he’s going to cut. If you loved getting tough on crime, you’re going to love how much tougher he gets. And not only that, he’s going to let you pick which cable channels you want to pay for and—and!—he won’t let anyone tax your Netflix.

There was an extended meditation on foreign policy, the gist of which might be this: under Stephen Harper, Canada will loudly enunciate who it thinks it is a good guy and who it thinks is a bad guy.

There were no direct references to Tom Mulcair or Justin Trudeau, only allusions to unspecified villains who would have the country go wrong. There were choices to make, he said. But so long as we continued to choose to cut taxes, get tough on crime and “take a strong stand in the world,” everything would be great.

“The best is yet to come,” he proclaimed in closing.

All his rivals have to do is beat that simplicity, as complicated as that has proven to be.

He left to applause, then re-emerging two hours later to face cries of complication.

Thomas Mulcair, as his right and obligation, went first. The Prime Minister, the NDP leader noted, had once promised that deployments of the Canadian Forces would come before Parliament for a vote. And yet, the new mission in Iraq had gone ahead without such a vote.

Mr. Harper was compelled here to clarify that his government’s position, at least since 2010, was that only missions of a “combat nature” required a vote.

Mr. Mulcair was thus moved to note that no such distinction was present in 2007 when the Prime Minister said that “any future military deployments” would receive a vote.

Score one for the NDP leader. However much that point might matter.

The current leader of the Opposition is perhaps the best we’ve had since John Diefenbaker, but to what end remains to be seen. Squaring up his square shoulders, he stares down the Prime Minister in the House, a bearded demand that is forever unsatisfied. Instead of three questions per afternoon, he takes five or, as on this day, still more. In a scrum, he is quick and eager and commanding, periodically imposing order on the braying reporters with explanations of whose shouts he’ll get to next. A man of the left, he wants to be both an alternative and of the majority. His ideas might furrow the brows of economists—in fairness, the economist’s brow is often furrowed—but that might be easily overcome if he could just convince the public to find comfort in him and his party.

For now, Mulcair is third. Chasing not merely the man who sits directly across from him, but the young man down the row, at the far end of the room.

“Mr. Speaker,” Mr. Trudeau began after Mr. Mulcair had finished, “Canadians need a plan for jobs and growth.”

The Conservatives howled with derisive laughter. However long their party has been trailing his in the polls—17 months and counting—they perhaps do not yet believe that he should be beating them.

But for now he is. However much that matters.

“The Conservative government’s EI proposal would create neither,” the Liberal leader continued. “Why would the Prime Minister sign off on his finance minister’s plan that would provide greater incentives to fire workers than to hire new ones?”

Such apparently is the trouble with this latest attempt at complicating the tax code—economic policy being almost as fraught as picking a campaign song.

The Prime Minister did his best to ignore this question and a later proposal from Trudeau that the government “offer instead an EI premium exemption for every new worker that a business would hire.” Both too complicated, perhaps. Instead, Harper assured the House that the small business community was pleased and then dusted off a five-year-old talking point about the Liberals advocating for a 45-day work year.

Of the one point of debate that all three men engaged this day—the NDP’s call for a federal minimum wage—there were at least half-points scored. In the House, the leader of the Opposition used it to burnish his bona fides and berate the government, while the Prime Minister struggled to offer a simple explanation for why it was a bad idea. In the foyer afterwards, the leader of the third party simply accepted it and dismissed it in more or less a single breath.

“We look forward to the debate tomorrow and we’ll most likely support it,” Trudeau said of an NDP motion on the proposal. “We’re interested, however, in creating solutions that will serve all Canadians and build a much stronger economy and not just for a narrow few.”

If Mulcair and Harper each enjoy the fight, Trudeau would seem to prefer to float above it all—either as a feature of his personality or a matter of strategic interest or both. If Mulcair prefers to stare down the Prime Minister, Trudeau looked to the Speaker. If Mulcair prides himself on his attendance in the House, Trudeau is happy to tout his time amongst the public. If Mulcair lingered at the microphone in the foyer today, Trudeau was off with questions still being shouted. He stands tall and speaks earnestly. He seems lighter, lacking in edges. He is perhaps not quite as obviously formidable—not yet the steadiest performer on his feet—but he is obviously more popular. At least for now. At least for whatever he represents to the 39 per cent or so of Canadians who are currently willing to vote for a Liberal party candidate.

“I’m simply going to continue to allow my opponents to focus on me while I focus on listening to Canadians,” he said this afternoon.

The rest of us can focus on all three of them. A too-easily discounted Prime Minister, whatever might be held against him, who would quietly join Macdonald and Laurier in winning a fourth mandate (even if a minority might doom him and turn this all over to some other man or woman). The leader of the Opposition who was supposed to be Harper’s match and who would now lead the NDP into its first real chance at forming government. The son of a mythic prime minister who would suddenly lead a supposedly bankrupt party back to power. Perhaps that Prime Minister might bail, but that he should have to face a Trudeau—having been inspired to conservatism by Pierre—to cap his career seems too fated. That Trudeau should have come to this point might seemed fated too. That either Mulcair or Harper would be defeated by the likes of Trudeau must seem a bitter possibility to them and their supporters.

It is perfectly aligned and momentous in its construction. Between them a decent debate about the role and ability of government and serious questions about the future of the country. All of which will be clouded by the politics and personalities of a democratic vote.

The moment approaches and it is wonderfully complicated, but deeply simple: Harper or Mulcair or Trudeau.


Harper, Mulcair or Trudeau: Who is the man for this moment?

  1. So, who picked up the tab for this three ringed circus then? Please tell me it wasn’t Canada?

    • It’s either us or the oil companies – I can’t decide which is worse.

      • Actually i wish Aaron would ask that question: just who did pay for that party rally? If it was on the public dime it’s a effing outrage, and not any better if the energy industry picked up the tab. Maybe Nigel wrote another cheque?

        • 2 hour room rental at Ottawa convention centre: $600. Two large Canadian flags (reusable): $150. Muffins, juice, coffee & tea for 200: $600. Number of CPC supporters who could write a cheque to underwrite the whole thing: 100,000. Reaction of apoplectic Harper haters: priceless.

  2. All things political are distorted. I suspect there will be at least two persons that will be disappointed whenever it the election is held. First might be Mr Mulcair as the Quebec support dissipates as fast as it formed. The second might be Trudeau the Second as his phantasm of policy fails to ignite. And third might be Harper as many of his erstwhile supporters fail to show. If it is the latter I would be disappointed, although I am not political I would be sad, For me his government has been good, despite a few blind spots like his position on pot (not on the pot).

  3. That’s all Trudeau has to do, is play the mystery man, and hold his policy till the rite drops because it drives reporters and journos nuts, and the more they go after Trudeau about it, it seems his poll numbers stay the same. JT should continue to build his character with the people, and be genuine(policy last), not angry(Mulcair) or Jekyll and Hyde(Harper). Trudeau is taking it on 4 flanks, The Cons, The Dippers, right wing media(even some left) and Ezra and the Sun News, no other leader is taking a pounding from the media like Trudeau. Any leader to stand up to that kind of scrutiny and punishment got my vote, bar none..

  4. I missed this – what a fine bit of writing!

    . “Instead Harper assured the House that the small business community was pleased and then dusted off a five-year-old talking point about the Liberals advocating for a 45-day work year.”

    O god, Harper is scrapping the bottom of the barrel isn’t he. But then that is what he does best.

  5. Well, my friends, all I saw and heard was an American-type Prime Minister wandering back and forth before huge flags (I think we recognize the country as Canada, thanks) and surrounded by his pet seals, clapping and cheering and jumping to their feet on cue.

    Yes, my friends, we witnessed a throwback to Lyndon Johnson who “my friended” everyone to death in his speeches.

    So. my friends, unless there is a gigantic implosion in the Liberal camp, we have seen the swan song of Hair Harper, a Prime Minister who never learned to communicate with any Canadians except his malleable and intimidated followers.

    • Harper really needs to get the Stephen Colbert team in, if he wants to get serious about flag usage. I love that his team decided he should do the underdress for this performance – the everyman wrinkled shirt/no tie – couldn’t see the trousers – no doubt unpressed chinos – just got off the plane from some international emergency consult look. Shortly after he’s got the designer suit/silk tie on in QP. I’d like to think that a PM, or his staff, have more important things to deal with then wardrobe optics.

      • Just be thankful he didn’t roll out the piano. I don’t think i could bear another rendition of off key beatles hits; i happen to admire those guys. It’s like watching Bach played by a burned out, sleep deprived Elton John, only with out the boas and out size glitzy specs.

  6. Both the Liberals and NDP have taken the high road with respect to Harper’s lengthy personal, professional and political relationship with Philip Nolan. Given that the current attacks on Trudeau & Mulcair focus on leadership & judgement, one would think the Conservatives would want to let that Harper’s lengthy lapse in judgement lie buried. Not at all sure continually playing that BTO song is a great idea given the video clip of Harper and Nolan associated with it.

    • Eh, tell me more please. I haven’t heard this one.

      • Somebody in a “garage band” Harper participated in from time to time turned out to be a convicted child abuser. To the likes of SS, this equates to Harper having full knowledge of his deeds, yet choosing nonetheless to be his chum. Adding to the gall is the utter hypocrisy of Harper playing an instrument in the same room as such a person, notwithstanding his oft-stated policy of “getting tough on crime”. Thus is the depth of Harper Derangement Syndrome made manifest.

        • Somebody in a “garage band”, that Harper flew around the country to both political and diplomatic events (over 10 in all spread over 5 years), that the Conservatives shepherded through RCMP security so that he could work the Israel gig with the PM.


          If you play the video, Nolan is on at 1:12.

          Compared to some of Trudeau’s “gaff’s” this is monumental.

          • btw, my point is not that it is particularly relevant; more that both the Liberals and NDP made a conscious choice not to use it as a point of attack.

          • I was going to say that speaks highly of both Trudeau and Mulcair, and then I realized that is just what decent people do.

            Which means that had the shoe been on the other foot, I suspect we would have seen commentary from Harper’s minions.

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