One of the costs of long-tenured prime ministers is that over time there accumulates a sense of hubris and a complacency that serves the pride and ego of the leader and his cadre, but few others. This mentality is captured well by Louis St. Laurent’s 1949 campaign slogan: “You’ve never had it so good.” While, at the time, St. Laurent had only been in power for a short time, his party had been in power for 13 years in a row.
Another example is Mulroney’s two kicks at the constitutional can. While the 1987 Meech Lake Accord showed fresh, albeit elitist, thinking on the constitution, the 1992 Charlottetown Accord seemed more like an act of great hubris and (and, incidentally, political suicide).
Perhaps my favourite instance of hubris and entitlement, though, is Chrétien’s decision to stay through the 2000 election cycle. It was rumoured that he made this decision, in part, to spite Paul Martin, heir apparent and rival in the style of an epic melodrama reminiscent of Isaac and Ishmael. The long-suffering country returned a Liberal majority, steeped in corruption and in-fighting, and was rewarded with front-row seats to see Chrétien and Martin run the Grits into the ground.
On top of hubris, entrenched prime ministerial tenures also erode the capacity of opposition parties to do their job. As Franks argued, weakened oppositions, who cannot rely on patronage, who do not enjoy the extensive resources enjoyed by the governing parties, and who must constantly deal with rookie MPs are less able to effectively hold the government to account.
Harper, prime minister since 2006, is deeply into the stage of leadership at which his elapsed time in office has become a problem. The extent of his hubris is well-known. Indeed, it has gone so far as to rouse former House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken, who told author Michael Harris, “Parliament can hardly be weakened any more than it already is. Harper can’t go much further without making the institution dysfunctional. He is trying to control every aspect of House business. In fact, it will have to be returned to its former state by someone if we are to have a democracy.”
Stephen Harper back in 2005.
Liberals, you see, are quite sure every Canadian is a Liberal whose vote was stolen by Conservative skullduggery in the elections of 2006, 2008 and 2011. Canadians, in this view, think marijuana use is harmless fun, and they will blame politicians who want to harsh the national buzz. So a Liberal friend of mine was genuinely surprised when she plunked herself down behind the Liberal party table at a local community event and got her ear bent by voters, many of them from immigrant communities, asking why Trudeau was soft on drugs.Ja
The realization that many Canadians believe illegal drugs should stay illegal is one surprise awaiting the Liberals. Another is that a lot more Canadians have complex, conflicting or frankly hypocritical views on drug policy— but that it’s not drug policy that will determine their next vote. Millions will vote based on their best guess about which party will best ensure a strong economy whose bounties improve their own life and their family’s. And Justin Trudeau just spent a month talking about something else.
This is something else that Liberals cannot understand: the notion that most Canadians are no longer properly grateful for the work Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin did to clean up deficits in the 1990s. In fact, a growing number of Canadians, even the ones who don’t smoke a lot of pot, have dim memories of the 1990s or none at all.
This helps explain a Harris-Decima poll from the end of August that inquired about respondents’ opinions of the national political parties. Trudeau’s net favourable impression is way higher than Harper’s and a fair bit higher than NDP Leader Tom Mulcair’s. Respondents were likelier to believe Trudeau “shares your values.” He’s having a strong year in the polls. But Harper still has a slight edge over both Trudeau and Mulcair on “judgment,” and on “economic management” it was a blowout: 39 per cent prefer Harper to only 20 per cent for Trudeau and 15 per cent for Mulcair.
Trudeau hasn’t the faintest intention of campaigning in the 2015 election with pot legalization as his main plank. But changing deep-seated attitudes toward a party takes time. And because the Liberals took two years to pick a leader after the 2011 elections, Trudeau only has three summers to define himself before facing voters, and he pretty much just blew one.
For much the same reason, I’m not sure Tom Mulcair picked the right issue when he used part of his summer to travel coast-to-coast campaigning for Senate abolition. For reasons explained elsewhere in this issue, Canadians are angry at the Senate right now. That’s not the same as believing any party has the ability, once in power, to do much about it. His Senate tour illustrates a little-noticed difference between Mulcair and his predecessor Jack Layton. Layton came from Toronto city politics. He hadn’t the faintest interest in constitutional tinkering. The NDP stood for abolishing the Senate, as it always had, and Layton never talked about it. Mulcair comes from Quebec provincial politics, where a generation grew up believing that if you have no constitutional scheme to peddle you cannot be serious.
Layton’s prosaic fascination with voters’ kitchen-table preoccupations helped him supplant the Liberals as the first choice for voters eager to block the Conservatives. Next time around that vote will be up for grabs again. Mulcair and Trudeau both plan to try to take Harper’s economic credibility away from him. They haven’t gotten around to it yet, but they believe they have time. Harper’s opponents always believe they have plenty of time.
Residential schools engaged in “cultural genocide,” former prime minister Paul Martin said Friday at the hearings of the federal Truth And Reconciliation Commission, adding that aboriginal Canadians must now be offered the best educational system.
“Let us understand that what happened at the residential schools was the use of education for cultural genocide, and that the fact of the matter is — yes it was. Call a spade a spade,” Martin said to cheers from the audience at the Montreal hearings.
“And what that really means is that we’ve got to offer aboriginal Canadians, without any shadow of a doubt, the best education system that is possible to have.”
The residential school system existed from the 1870s until the 1990s and saw about 150,000 native youth taken from their families and sent to church-run schools under a deliberate policy of “civilizing” First Nations.
Many students were physically, mentally and sexually abused. Some committed suicide or died fleeing their schools. Mortality rates reached 50 per cent at some schools.
In the 1990s, thousands of victims sued the Canadian government as well as churches that ran the schools. The $1.9-billion settlement of that suit in 2007 prompted an apology from Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the creation of the commission.
But the government has clashed with the commission and recently had to be ordered by an Ontario court to find and turn over documents from Library and Archives Canada.
“Every document is relevant,” Martin said. “We have hid this for 50 years. It’s existed for 150. Surely to God, Canadians are entitled … aboriginal Canadians and non-aboriginal Canadians, to know the truth. And so let the documents be released.”
After the panel, Saganash took to the main stage at Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel and officially gave his statement to the TRC about his time at the La Tuque residential school in the late 1970s.
He tearfully spoke about his brother Johnny who died under mysterious circumstances when he was just 6 years old. Johnny was buried in an unmarked grave near the residential school in Moose Factory, Ont. There was no explanation given to his parents, no death certificate, no physical record that the little Cree boy had ever existed under the care of the federal government.
It took 40 years for the Saganash family to find Johnny’s grave and they did so not with the help of authorities but rather through the work of Saganash’s journalist sister Emma. When his mother finally saw footage of the burial site, Saganash said she wept like he had never seen her weep before.
The NDP MP has also struggled with the legacy of pain from his stolen childhood. The struggle caused Saganash to seek treatment for his alcoholism last December after he was kicked off an Air Canada flight for being heavily intoxicated.
But Saganash spent little time focusing on the past, choosing rather to divert the attention to the private members bill he tabled before the House of Commons in January. The bill would force the federal government to ensure all its laws are consistent with the UN’s declaration of indigenous rights — a document the Cree politician helped draft before being elected to public office.
He concluded his emotional address on a hopeful note, quoting a passage from a speech South African leader Nelson Mandela gave after his 27-year stint as a political prisoner.
“It was during those long and lonely years that the hunger for freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people — white and black. I knew, as I knew anything, that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. For all have been robbed of their humanity.
Or, to keep it in driving terms, the Liberals have been simply taking leaders out for a spin since Chrétien made his exit, and then trading them in for a newer model.
At the moment, Justin Trudeau, the MP for Papineau, seems to be looming in a lot of Liberals’ eyes as next year’s model — at least until something else comes along.
This disposable-leader culture may tell us something deeper about why the Liberals are mired in third place — a sign of their inability to commit, or to tolerate anything except victory. That may not be the ideal quality to transmit to voters.
Within other parties, including the one in power in Canada at the moment, leadership comes with second chances.
Conservative leader Stephen Harper failed to win the 2004 election, even after uniting the right-wing parties. He almost resigned and consigned himself to history’s dustbin, according to subsequent stories by insiders.
But Harper ultimately decided to hang in and landed the prime minister’s job in 2006, where he remains today.
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty didn’t win on his first try as provincial Liberal leader in the 1999 election, but he endured and led his party to victory in 2003. Nor did Mike Harris do well in the 1990 election, but by 1995, he earned the job of Ontario premier.
Perhaps with those McGuinty or Harris examples in mind, the provincial Progressive Conservatives in Ontario are sticking with leader Tim Hudak, even though he didn’t deliver an expected victory last fall.
The federal New Democrats also endured with Jack Layton through four elections from 2003 to 2011, their eyes fixed on long-term growth. The investment paid off with the reward of official Opposition status after the last election.
Liberals, though, don’t seem to have cultivated that kind of patience.
Martin struggled for 13 years to become prime minister, got the job for two, and walked away the night of his election defeat in 2006.
Some Liberals have since wondered whether this was the right decision — whether Martin, with his record as a finance minister, would have been seen by Canadians as the right man to steer through the 2008 economic downtown and the election that year.
She ends with this.
If history is a guide, anyone running for the Liberal-leader job —including Trudeau — should have two career plans.
Plan A should be focused on winning power in the 2015 election.
Plan B should be something out of politics, because Liberals haven’t been in a second-chance kind of mood since Chrétien began his exit 10 years ago.