Sunday, August 29, 2021

On history repeating

With the Libs floundering in an election campaign where they considered themselves entitled to waltz into power and the NDP making a push toward the top of the party standings, commentators haven't been able to avoid some comparison to 2011. But that's always come with a caveat - that Justin Trudeau is no Michael Ignatieff.

To which we should ask: are we sure he isn't?

On a closer look, there may be more similarities to the Libs' position today and their standing ten years ago than has yet been discussed. And voters should be at pains to avoid the same mistakes that resulted in our missing out on the best Prime Minister Canada never had due to a save-the-furniture-and-torpedo-the-NDP campaign by the Libs.

In both cases, let's start by examining what happened in the election cycle before the one at issue. In 2008, the Libs under Stephane Dion took their usual rigid position against any cross-party cooperation. Even in the midst of an economic meltdown, Dion considered it more important to keep the NDP out of any power-sharing coalition than to replace Stephen Harper in responding to the crisis. 

But circumstances changed after Harper held onto power, then used an economic calamity as an excuse to try to attack his political opponents. And with the Libs lacking any framework for cross-party cooperation, the NDP stepped into the breach and facilitated an agreement which would have created a Lib-NDP government supported by the Bloc to replace Harper's toxic Cons.

Michael Ignatieff signed onto that agreement, if only begrudgingly. But once Dion was removed and Ignatieff assumed the Libs' leadership, he decided he didn't want to be in charge under conditions which required another party's support. So instead, he left Harper (and his antisocial judgment) in power to rebuild from the economic crisis, without requiring any accommodations for any other party's input. 

By 2011, Ignatieff had to wear that decision while having no record of accomplishment to point to. And so instead of forcing voters into a binary red door-blue door choice, he opened up the opportunity for the NDP's message of pragmatic cooperation to position it as one of the primary contenders for government. And we'll never know for certain how much strategic voting based on the Libs' past results may have contributed to the Cons' majority - though it's highly likely that Jagmeet Singh would have been one of the NDP candidates to beat out a Con competitor if not for a coordinated effort to back a Lib who ended up in third place.

Let's then look to the parallels in more recent events. While Justin Trudeau was able to hold power in a minority Parliament in 2019, he stuck to his party's refusal to discuss formal support arrangements, instead choosing to engage in Harper-style brinksmanship. And that could have led to serious problems if there had been any trouble getting support behind a response to the COVID-19  pandemic when it hit in 2020.

Fortunately, that didn't prove to be a meaningful issue. All parties were willing to work on at least some urgent measures - and more significantly, Singh and the NDP made abundantly clear that they were willing to maintain confidence in the Libs as long as they worked toward supporting Canadian people and implementing the types of promises which had been put on hold during Trudeau's term of majority government.

Like Ignatieff, Trudeau decided that cross-party support wasn't enough: he wanted to be able to unilaterally shut down investigations, and pivot his entire government's direction on a dime if he saw the opportunity to to do. And so he called an election which he thought would hand him a majority.

Needless to say, that hasn't happened. And there may be a couple of associated reasons for it.

Most importantly, anybody voting based on policy has had nothing but reason to be wary of Trudeau. It never made sense to try to run on promises which could have been kept in the existing Parliament. And the Libs' insistence on an unaccountable majority has only opened the door for skepticism that the result would be another Chretien/Martin attack on Canada's social supports.

But there's another aspect of Trudeau's choice which doesn't seem to have received much attention. If one buys into the Libs' raison d'etre that the essence of politics is the pursuit of power, then there can be no less defensible choice than to deliberately abandon power which one is already in a position to exercise. 

Both Ignatieff and Trudeau tried to justify their choices with the claim that they'd be better positioned to secure more power later on by choosing not to govern in the short term. But both have left Canada to problematic government in the midst of a crisis - and both have given voters reason to view them as less than prime ministerial in repudiating the opportunity to show what they could do with the title.

In turn, voters will need to recognize that a leader who has abandoned his post isn't likely to recover support in the midst of an election campaign. And particularly given Singh's work following in Jack Layton's footsteps as a leader determined to use every bit of influence available to provide for what Canadians need, we should be eager to take up the opportunity we missed in 2011 to see how that mindset plays out in government.


  1. Good post but I just feel obliged to state that I will always regard stephen harper's 2011 majority as having been stolen and therefore fraudulent. I'd always hoped that in the hall with the prime minister's portraits, that one day, harper's would be turned towards the wall and Jack Layton's put up beside it.

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