Ready, aye, ready. This week’s majority government victory for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is a stunning repudiation of the argument that he was “just not ready” to be prime minister. Canadians certainly think he is.
Trudeau took full advantage of the extraordinarily long election campaign to come from third place and demolish his more-seasoned competitors. It was a masterful display of political skill and craftsmanship that belies any alleged lack of experience. In deposing the Harper government and pushing the NDP back to its familiar role as a noisy but distant third party, Trudeau has re-established that traditional Canadian political dynamic of Liberal vs. Conservative.
Yet this is no Back to the Future election. Trudeau’s victory marks an important generational change in Canadian politics. Our incoming prime minister brings a younger and more energetic presence to Ottawa; his winning platform was clearly designed to win over young families, students and new Canadians. That more than 68 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots this week—the highest turnout since 1993—suggests an encouraging engagement among these groups and points to a brighter and more inclusive future for Canadian politics.
The comprehensive Liberal victory, which took the party from 34 to 184 seats, also has the happy result of producing a caucus full of fresh talent and vigour. Beyond a few familiar faces, such as former finance minister Ralph Goodale, there is no risk the new Liberal cabinet will look like a retread of previous versions under predecessors Jean Chrétien or Paul Martin. Again, this is a good thing for political discourse in Canada.
Beyond changing the demographics for Canadian voters and cabinet ministers, Trudeau’s victory promises a significant shift in tone and substance from Ottawa. Throughout the lengthy and often-rancorous campaign, Trudeau maintained a strong sense of optimism and positivity. In a gracious victory speech, he even reminded supporters to be kind to their former foes. “Conservatives are not our enemies,” he said. “They are our neighbours.” Such a co-operative spirit can be expected to spill over onto Canada’s international reputation as well. There will be a glow for all Canadians to bask in when Trudeau shows up at the United Nations climate change conference in Paris next month with something constructive to say. The experience may be rather similar to what Americans experienced in 2008 when Barack Obama became President. We now have the world’s attention.
This generational shift in Canadian politics partly explains Stephen Harper’s defeat. After 10 years, voters simply tired of his tough style, lack of warmth and reliance on divisive political stances. That said, Harper can take comfort in the fact his major accomplishments will survive long after this election. Harper remade Ottawa in many important ways, most significantly in fiscal policy and federal-provincial relations. Trudeau’s promise to tweak a few tax rates and run three more years of deficits were important from a marketing perspective, but won’t make a flyspeck of difference over the long run. The GST is not going back up. Corporate tax rates will stay where they are. The overall size of government is not budging.
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Harper’s vision of a restrained Ottawa in other areas will also continue under the new Liberal government. Trudeau has already promised to follow the provinces’ lead on climate change, child care and health care. And there’s a surprising lack of big new federal endeavours within the Liberal policy book; the signature Canada Child Benefit is really just a combination of existing Conservative family policies (though it entails the elimination of income-splitting) with an added means test. On free trade, Trudeau can similarly be expected to stay the course. Harper may be gone but his most important policies remain. And they will continue to benefit the country.
While many big challenges await Trudeau, in the near term he can earn himself substantial acclaim simply by undoing many of the small-minded and destructive initiatives that took away from Harper’s larger achievements. Here we include obvious changes such as bringing back the long-form census, making Parliament more civil and functional, delivering a new vision on Senate reform, undoing deliberately divisive religious policies, creating greater transparency within the public sector, redrawing the limits of the criminal justice system . . . the list goes on. Who knows? A fresh face and less confrontational approach may even result in a pipeline or two going forward. Honey generally works better that vinegar.
In giving Trudeau a powerful mandate, Canadian voters have said clearly that they want to establish a new, younger and more positive image for Canada, both at home and abroad. At the same time, they expect their finances to be carefully tended. The task before Trudeau is to live up to these formidable expectations. He’s proven ready to seize the challenge. Now we’re ready for him to deliver.