The Liberals succeeded, the NDP failed and the Conservatives scored an own goal
by Dominic Cardy
When I wrote in Inroads six months ago laying out the themes of the campaign to come, I suggested that the Tories should focus on the economy and security, the Liberals on their leader and the NDP on a concrete plan that demonstrated their ability to govern.1 The NDP failed completely. The Liberals succeeded completely. The Tories failed to score on the economy and, unexpectedly, scored an own goal on security, wounding the NDP and allowing Justin Trudeau to soar to a majority.
The longest election campaign in modern history was too long. Unless we want politics dominated by candidates who are retired, independently wealthy or backed by special interests, campaigns need outer limits. The longer the campaign, the less likely parties are to rely on volunteers, increasing the importance of fundraising and professional staff.
The Conservatives failed in their attempt to define their party as the only credible defender of a strong economy. Thrown off by the slide into a “technical recession,” the Conservatives continued their pre-election attacks on Trudeau before descending into fearmongering over the niqab and “barbaric cultural practices.” They undid years of work by Jason Kenney and others to reach out to culturally conservative minority communities. The instigator of Tory fearmongering may have been Australian political consultant Lynton Crosby, veteran of victories for the right in his homeland and the UK. Oddly, Crosby’s firm denied that he was involved and the media never did find out just who was running the campaign for our then-governing party.
For the Conservatives, having failed to maintain focus on the economy and aware that a large majority of Canadians wanted change, security issues were an appealing lifeline. But instead of a terrorist attack against which they would protect the nation, they faced images of drowned children in the Mediterranean and desperate families clawing their way into the West from a shattered Syria. Suddenly Stephen Harper’s record looked more hard-hearted than firm-minded, offering Justin Trudeau the chance to summon the spirit of his father’s multiculturalism.
The New Democrats ran a front-runner campaign, safe in presentation but – I’ll get to this – weak in its foundations. The NDP called for Canadians to “Stop Harper,” and they had a backup chorus in the Liberals, the Greens and the Bloc. As long as Tom Mulcair was lead singer, this helped the party. During early weeks the NDP rose in the polls, peaking at 37 per cent on August 24. When, in mid-September, the niqab decision came down, Mulcair earned credit for bravery from commentators but scorn from a majority of Quebec voters influenced by cultural nationalism and the French tradition of laïcité. The Bloc ran a TV ad against the NDP that was shocking in its negativity: a pipeline dripping oil that congealed into the shape of a niqab-covered woman (the NDP offered qualified support for the proposed West-East pipeline that the Bloc opposed).
From that moment the Conservatives descended to a series of actions that reinforced every negative stereotype the party had created while in power: dividing Canadians between new and “old stock” and promising help lines to report “barbaric cultural practices.”
The New Democrats plunged in Quebec polls, dropping over 11 points between September 18 and October 2. Now, for the first time since early summer, the way to stop Harper looked to be to vote Liberal. While polls in Quebec stabilized, with the NDP moving back into contention there, the Liberals took a clear national lead over both Tories and NDP. The NDP, diverted by a dress code violation, returned to find that a younger, sexier singer had taken charge of the band, with a message that lacked lyrical complexity but had an undeniably catchier beat. It chose simply to carry on louder and more insistently than before: Stop Harper. Okay, said NDP voters across the country, and voted Liberal in droves.
This is ironic, since in areas where it could have faltered – organizing, fundraising and databases – the NDP, traditionally the third party, didn’t. The New Democrats raised money from more small donors than ever before in Canadian history and rolled out a new voter contact database that, unlike previous versions, didn’t crash and burn. While paper candidates in no-hope ridings were scrutinized, the NDP suffered few scandals.
During the writ period six Conservatives, five Liberals and two New Democrats were disqualified for reasons ranging from the serious to the trivial to the very weird (such as disgraced plumber and Conservative candidate Jerry Bance, caught on camera urinating into a client’s cup). Parties have yet to adjust to social media, where low-profile candidates in unwinnable seats now require the same attention from central campaign staff as high-profile stars. Our political system has evolved: privacy is a thing of the past. Either we accept that everyone has done embarrassing things, or we will, in the words of the British political comedy The Thick of It, create a world of political “brushed aluminium cyber-pricks” bred to run for office, men and women with no hinterland, no flaws, no past.
Despite their decimation in 2011, the Liberals remained a national party, in power in six provinces, and continued to be seen as a party that could govern the country. Even the late-campaign revelation that the party’s cochair had offered Energy East advice on how to lobby a non-Tory government had no impact in the polls. Here we come to the NDP’s core problem. The Liberals had to persuade Canadians that their leader was ready, and they succeeded. No one doubted that they were prepared to govern, for good and ill. The NDP leader shone in the House of Commons, but his party’s ability to govern, never even a real possibility until this election, was still much in doubt.
The New Democrats chose to tackle their image as “tax and spenders” with a pledge to balance the budget with only minor tax increases Then they waited three weeks before releasing a “costing document.” The full platform was released ten days before election day, on the Friday before the Thanksgiving long weekend, when millions voted in the advance polls.
The NDP was hit from two sides. The party’s reputation as fiscally irresponsible was ironically enhanced by the balanced budget pledge because it seemed inconsistent with the many expensive programs the party continued to roll out. The left flank of the NDP had long defended deficit spending because the 1990s Chrétien-Martin Liberal government had made deficit elimination a central tenet. This bizarre position ignored the party’s disciplined history in Saskatchewan, from Tommy Douglas to Roy Romanow, and the Liberals cynically exploited the NDP’s internal contradictions and sowed dissent within the NDP by creating the myth, eagerly swallowed by party militants, that Mulcair, a former Liberal, was somehow right-wing.
To make this work the Liberals had to get away with a volte face. The party of Chrétien and Martin, the team that persuaded Canada that balanced books were the key to economic growth, now said, “Oh no, those were different deficits, bad deficits, while Justin Trudeau wants to spend money on good deficits that will be invested in infrastructure.”
Beware of Liberals promising infrastructure. We have been down this poorly paved road before. Next come the cosy contracts, then the bailouts – subsidized with downloading of services and spending cuts.
Most readers will acknowledge that deficit spending is a good idea only under some circumstances, and a bad idea under most circumstances. Giving tax money to bankers through interest payments is worse than investing in programs or giving tax cuts, or just saving up for a rainy day (hello, Alberta!). Programs invested in with borrowed money need to be obvious winners; otherwise you are digging yourself a hole.
So let’s stop the puffery. It’s embarrassing when MP Scott Reid, who had worked for Paul Martin, writes, “The NDP learned exactly nothing from the ill-advised campaign pledge to deliver balanced budgets. That commitment also appeared to be guided by the sake of appearances – to project a certain image, an imagined idea of what people would see as the ‘responsible thing’ instead of being shaped by the sensible, resonant and, yes, winning thing.” Paul Martin himself was wheeled out to stammer his way through a defence of Trudeau’s policies, policies he must find deeply repugnant. The academics and others following this post facto justification (where were the calls for deficit spending earlier this year?) should be equally shame-faced, especially when the Liberal plan includes the need for completely unexplained spending cuts totalling billions of dollars. NDP claims, postelection, that the party abjured any deficit spending only out of deeply held principle are also embarrassing. As former NDP deputy leader Libby Davies told CBC’s The House two days before the election: “Can you imagine what the reaction would be if the NDP came out with a statement saying, well, we’re going to run deficits? I mean, it would have been mayhem. I think it’s a situation where you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”
In the spring I wrote that there was always a risk for an NDP that hadn’t accepted the reality of deficits as an emergency tool only, like an emergency parachute in an airplane. Jumping out of a perfectly good airplane over and over, just because you can, doesn’t instil confidence.
The Liberals knew the NDP had not reached consensus on fiscal policy, and pirouetted left, trading in their past economic credibility for a promise to intentionally spend Canadian tax money they didn’t have. The New Democrat left promptly went into class betrayal mode, accusing Mulcair of betraying his base. Mulcair wasn’t helped by media that exhibited a strong bias. My favourite headline was “Liberals take lead in Quebec, poll finds.” The numbers the poll reported? The Liberals and NDP tied, with 28 per cent each. More importantly, no one challenged the Liberals’ abandoning 20 years of party economic policy for tactical reasons.
The evidence-based approach that Mulcair had used to good effect when it came to Bill C-51 (read, analyze, then decide) was ditched in mid-campaign. In an interview with Vice News, Mulcair abandoned without warning a careful policy on decriminalizing marijuana (a policy many candidates I spoke with found frustrating and complicated to explain to voters). Similarly, the NDP had moved away from kneejerk opposition to trade deals but, despite never having seen or read it, the party announced that it definitely wouldn’t support the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal. On this file the New Democrats were as lucky as the Liberals who, forgetting 1988, claimed they were always in favour of free trade. Neither received much attention from the media.
Coverage of the election degenerated into uncritical reporting of opinion polls and leaders’ tour events. Polls have become to electoral politics what Latin incantations were to the medieval Catholic Church: incomprehensible but impressive. The CBC should be singled out for particular blame, hiring Éric Grenier, of the ThreeHundredEight.com website. Grenier offered spurious riding-by-riding predictions before and during the campaign by extrapolating national polls down to the riding level, based on the results of the previous election. This method allocates party support to areas of historical strength, so that it is likely to make accurate predictions in seats that nearly always vote the same way – the Tories in Alberta, the Liberals in Newfoundland – but is useless in tracking changes. They also convey impressions of party strength that can influence voter opinion, a question that no one, least of all the survey-addicted media, seems interested in exploring. Grénier himself complained that his predictions were being cited as polls.
Strategic voting related to the excessive respect for polls had a major impact on the results. There was an explosion of third-party organizations such as LeadNow that took on the form of American-style PACs, allowing money to be spent in an election beyond the contribution limits. While PACs are usually the creatures of specific industries or unions, LeadNow raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for no purpose other than to campaign for the party best placed to defeat the Conservative candidate in races across Canada.
My misgivings about LeadNow are not partisan: the group endorsed many NDP candidates, some of whom won. My concern is about democracy: polls ignore the millions of reasons why people vote for or against particular parties and candidates, and dumb the discussion down to a horse race. Strategic voting dumbs democracy down to an even lower level: it is the sort of “if you’re not with us you’re against us” point of view that I have disliked about the political right. As former New Brunswick cabinet minister Kelly Lamrock said, “The three non-Conservative parties have platforms that differ on some big issues, from civil rights to economic theory to environmental standards to human rights. Even if you may decide that you can live with more than one of those options, that should happen after a full debate on the merits of each. LeadNow is actively trying to short-circuit those debates. If we stop having those debates in elections, we start to lose the chance to learn from each other.”
A final problem with strategic voting is that it just doesn’t work. Different strategic voting organizations recommended voting for different parties in the same ridings. Some of the targeted ridings elected Conservatives, as Liberal voters were driven to vote for a losing NDP candidate, or vice versa.
A conversation about the value of a vote may be a happy side-effect of the conversation around electoral reform Prime Minister Trudeau says he will initiate. I will be as pleasantly surprised if our education system, media and parties engage in a genuine civic debate as I will be if the Liberals adopt Mixed Member Proportional representation.
Changing how we vote is one of dozens of attention-getting but difficult policies the Liberals flashed across the electoral sky during the campaign. In choosing their priorities, the Liberals will no doubt look to dismantle the NDP, afraid that a party they had always dismissed as do-gooding nobodies came so close to destroying the Big Red Machine. To avoid a repeat of the orange wave they will spend a lot of tax money on shoring up their left bank.
Thus the NDP is a crossroads. The easy route leads back to the comfort of the nostalgic left, complaining that Liberal policies “don’t go far enough!” The harder one continues in the direction taken, toward that place that no party occupies, one that recognizes free trade as a good way to earn money that can be invested in more targeted government programs. The era of big national programs is over and the future lies in fuller devolution, allowing more creativity in the development and implementation of programs across the country.
Looking back on the Stephen Harper decade, we find that he leaves little behind as a legacy. Unlike Brian Mulroney who opened Canada to globalization and tried to deal with the holes in our constitutional fabric, Harper’s lasting contributions will be vandalism of government science and the abolition of the Wheat Board. Other signature policies, from eliminating the long-form census to the Fair Elections Act to the excesses of C-51, will be repealed. The candidates who seek to replace him as Conservative leader will not attach themselves to his legacy. Unlike Thatcher and Reagan, he was unable to change his country’s culture. He had few friends. He will not be missed.
1 “Federal Election 2015: The Leaders, the Issues and the Unknowns,” Inroads, Summer/Fall 2015, pp. 41–50.
Dominic Cardy is leader of the New Brunswick NDP and a member of the Inroads editorial board.