It is tempting to say that Justin Trudeau, Canada’s new prime minister, was destined to lead his country. The son of Pierre Trudeau — the charismatic prime minister who served from 1968 to 1979, and then from 1980 to 1984 — he spent the first 12 years of his life in the prime minister’s residence, acquiring an unconscious appreciation of how politics works and the tools for success. That assumption sells both Trudeau and the Canadian electorate short, however. Trudeau’s Liberal Party victory in last week’s parliamentary election was never a given. Trudeau worked hard to exploit a sense that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his ruling Conservative Party did not reflect national sentiment nor the times. The challenge now is for Trudeau to govern as responsibly as did Harper.
Harper’s defeat was a stunner. He united conservatives to win three consecutive elections since 2006. Those victories reflected his government’s successes. Canada weathered the 2007-2009 global financial crisis with nary a scratch — no big financial failures, no bailouts and only a blip in economic performance. In true conservative fashion, budgets were balanced, bureaucracies cut and taxes reduced — all without cutting Canada’s respected and revered welfare state.
While a steady hand was important to Canada’s resilience, equally significant was the country’s natural resource wealth, which cushioned the blows from the crisis and positioned Canada to exploit the recovery that was to follow. The significance of management was evident, however, when the global economy slowed again this year: The Ottawa government was still able to balance the budget ahead of schedule.
On foreign policy, Harper was equally conservative, ready to join Western-led initiatives to tackle the Islamic State extremists in the Middle East as well as stand up to rogue nations around the world. He strongly backed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposed the nuclear deal reached with Tehran; Canada went so far as to cut diplomatic ties with Iran in 2012. He was a strong supporter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, while sparing no effort to protect Canadian economic interests. But for all that success, Harper was battling precedent. No Canadian leader had ever won four elections in a row. That record remains intact.
Harper’s real problem in the campaign was not history but rather his demeanor and style of government. His was a dark view of the world, with Canada besieged by enemies both within and without. Refugees from the Middle East were terrorists in disguise, the face-covering niqab was an affront to Canadian values and the opposition would prove to be an economic disaster. This all posed a stark contrast with the traditional image of Canadians (among themselves and others) as tolerant, welcoming and generally optimistic. Harper’s decision in the last days of the election to campaign with disgraced Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who was forced to resign for drug use and other public misbehavior, reeked of desperation and may have been the final blow in the election run up.
Trudeau benefited from low expectations. He was painted as a callow amateur, even a dilettante, who at 43 was too young to lead the country. The Conservative campaign argued that Trudeau was “just not ready,” a jibe that he used to his advantage by countering that Canada was “not ready” for another Conservative government. The challenger’s strong performance in campaign debates helped reduce the validity of fears about his experience. Having served as a legislator since 2008 also calmed the waters.
The results were a Liberal Party landslide. While claiming about 40 percent of the popular vote, they increased their representation in the 338-seat Parliament from 36 seats to 184. The Conservatives have 99 seats, having lost 67, and the third party, the New Democratic Party, will have 44 representatives, a loss of 59 seats. The remainder will be held by the Green Party and the Bloc Quebecois, which seeks an independent Quebec. Plainly, polls showing that 70 percent of Canadians wanted change were a message to be heeded.
A Liberal government will face the economic challenges that bludgeoned its predecessor. The economy contracted in the first half of the year, dropping 0.9 percent through May, but it has rebounded since then. Still, Canada’s fortunes remained tied to global forces it can little influence. Debt among consumers is rising and there are fears of a housing bubble. Trudeau promised a C$60 billion infrastructure spending program to boost demand, and a middle income tax cut, even if they create deficits. That is a smart approach, although the government must keep an eye on overall balances and trim its sails when conditions permit.
Foreign policy will look familiar to those who know and admire Canada’s middle power activism. Trudeau will pull Canada from the international coalition against the Islamic State group, but the loss of its six planes is likely to have little impact. More important would be a reenergizing of diplomatic efforts to find a solution to the Syrian conflict and an aggressive position on climate change. Trudeau aspires to both — and many other things — but it will take considerable skill and luck to pull them off.
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