This election is a festival of insurmountable obstacles. Each of the main national leaders faces challenges that probably can’t be overcome. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair’s is the most difficult of all, but it is, tantalizingly, not quite out of reach. If he were to win the election, he would become Canada’s first New Democrat prime minister. Almost nobody in Ottawa gossip circles gives him any chance of success. And surely, after a string of disappointing by-election results—and after two years of watching Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau get twice the media attention with (depending how you count these things) perhaps one-third of the NDP’s parliamentary caucus and a comparably weensy fraction of Mulcair’s debating skill—Mulcair could be forgiven for being discouraged.
Perhaps the other leaders’ predicament gives Mulcair strength. To become prime minister, Trudeau must reverse a brutal and steady 15-year decline in the Liberals’ fortunes that has shattered the careers of three previous leaders. The Liberals have lost 80 per cent of the MPs they had on the day Paul Martin became the party’s leader. Trudeau may have advantages Martin, Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff didn’t, but that collapse is real and meaningful: A generation of Canadian voters has grown up considering, then rejecting, the notion of voting for a Liberal, in election after election. It’s become a sturdy habit. It’s easy to imagine Trudeau melting like spring snow in the stretch. Easy.
Then there is Stephen Harper. He has already been Prime Minister longer than Brian Mulroney was. By next year, he’ll have been around almost as long as Jean Chrétien was. Their own parties were heartily sick of both men by the time they were done. What Canadians thought will be open to debate forever, because neither stuck around to find out. If Harper leads the Conservatives into the next election—not guaranteed, but likely—he will be seeking his fourth consecutive election victory. Only two other men in the history of the country managed such a four-peat: John A. Macdonald and Wilfrid Laurier. (Pierre Trudeau and William Lyon Mackenzie King showed comparable ability to win, but their streaks were interrupted in the middle by defeats.)
So Harper hopes to win the favour of Canadians after having already sought it more repeatedly than any prime minister in three decades. His consolations are multiple: He is young, five years younger than Mulcair. He is running against two first-time leaders who have no experience with the exhausting task of leading a national campaign from the front. And he commands either admiration or fear from Conservatives (usually both) in such quantity that the party is far more united behind him than parties usually are after they have seen as much of a guy as this one has.
Green party Leader Elizabeth May is in the mix, too, of course, along with whatever the name is of the guy leading the Bloc Québécois these days. Both may deliver surprises. On some days, the Green party looks as though it could make some kind of breakthrough, especially in British Columbia, where the debates over pipelines, First Nations and the environment are never distant. And it’s possible, at least arithmetically, for the Bloc to win back all the seats it managed to lose in 2011. But neither of these parties is likely to shake up the deck so thoroughly that it challenges the ranking of the three big national parties.
What will decide the winner? At the margin, everything you hate about politics: insult, accusation, ads of questionable taste and credibility, sophisticated databases designed to identify and provoke the voters likeliest to support a given party. But mostly, this election will pose, in stark terms, the central question about government at the national level: What’s it for?
Voters who feel that, under Harper, the federal government has abandoned the role it should play in developing and delivering social programs will weigh the alternatives—NDP and Liberal—and support whichever party seems more persuasive. Those who like a government that’s getting out of the business of building monuments to itself will stick with the Conservatives. It is clearer this time than in any previous election that this is Harper’s game: a progressive reduction in the federal government’s inclination, and even its ability, to deliver national programs from Ottawa. In 2008, Harper had done little cutting, except to taxes, delivering a huge economic stimulus through the two-point GST cut. In 2011, he was still spending billions of dollars on infrastructure programs. Since then, he has cut aggressively, reducing the public service by 37,000 employees and paring noticeably in veterans’ services, government libraries, military procurement and the CBC. Surely more is on the way, a cycle of tax cuts paid for with a smaller government. That path is anathema to Trudeau and Mulcair. They’ll say so. So will Harper. Amid the usual chaos and crosstalk of an election campaign, a clear choice about the role of government will be put to Canadians. It will be one of the most exciting campaigns in many years.