Letter from … Canada

Last week, millions of Canadians showed Stephen Harper that they are tired of his low cunning, fear, hate, arrogance and corrosive political discourse. The 11-week election campaign – the longest and most expensive since 1872 – backfired on the Conservatives.

Harper tried to convince us to fear our own neighbours, to believe that enemies are lurking everywhere. His attempts to divide the country into ‘old stock Canadians’ and ‘dangerous others’ failed miserably and sounded absolutely absurd to Canadian ears.

It says a lot about the toxicity of the campaign that even Lynton Crosby – the Australian campaign guru hailed for bringing David Cameron victory in May 2015 – abandoned Harper. Crosby’s consulting partner Mark Textor felt the need to launch a #NotInCanada Twitter hashtag with shots of him biking, birdwatching, and most certainly not advising Harper. ‘We don’t do bit-part politics’, he tweeted.

The big winners were of course Justin Trudeau and the Liberal party, with one of the most impressive political comebacks in history. In 2011, the party suffered its worst result ever, winning a mere 19 per cent of the vote and 34 seats. After trailing in third place for most of the campaign, the Liberals now lead a majority government with 184 seats and almost 40 per cent of the popular vote. The Liberals won by offering Canadians a positive, inclusive, pluralistic counternarrative to Harper’s portrayal of our country.

In addition to their tone, the Liberals’ pitch was also right. It was when the full party platforms were revealed at the start of October that the Liberals emerged out of the weeds. They placed environmentalism and indigenous peoples’ rights at the heart of the campaign, also pledging further support to immigrants and refugees. Trudeau is both a small and large ‘L’ liberal: pro-choice, pro-feminism and pro-legalising marijuana. Electoral and senate reform are also on the cards.

While those on the right might try to paint the Liberals as ‘traditional leftists proposing tax and spend,’ that would be unfair. It is worth noting that in the run-up to the election, the Bank of Canada announced that the country was in recession; Harper’s claims of providing economic stability were disingenuous.

The centre-left New Democratic party, which was leading in the polls over the summer, faltered when it announced its fantasy budget. Until then, the NDP’s leader Thomas Mulcair was perceived as principled, moderate and credible, having previously been a Liberal environment minister in Quebec.

Many Liberal voters who had abandoned the party at the start of the year over the Liberals’ support of the anti-terror bill, seen by many as an infringement on civil liberties, ultimately came back to the fold when manifestos were revealed and polling day edged nearer.

The Liberals understood that in order to win over the country, they needed a tolerant, open and centrist platform that could garner votes from the right and the left. Even in his winning speech, Trudeau said: ‘Conservatives are not our enemies, they’re our neighbours.’ The NDP’s narrow focus on winning from the left was arguably its downfall.

While the Liberal victory is remarkable, they should also humbly recognise that it was forcefully driven by an ‘Anybody but Harper’ sentiment. Prominent conservative commentators were endorsing the Liberals and the NDP, resigning from editorial posts at papers that endorsed the Tories, and penning harshly critical op-eds of Harper.

The Liberals were seen as the most likely agent of change, but people undoubtedly voted tactically in the first past the post system.

Once the victory hangover subsides, the Liberals have a big job ahead to reverse the damage Harper has done. Canadians have handed them a majority; all eyes are on them to deliver.

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Claudia Chwalisz is a senior researcher at Policy Network

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