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.