“A difference of tone”: in most ways that matter, Prime Minister Trudeau will be no better than Harper

“The biggest difference between a party led by me and one by Stephen Harper will be one of tone.”

Justin Trudeau

Our soon-to-be-sworn-in Prime Minister spoke those words way back in April 2013, when he was in the midst of the Liberal leadership contest, and that was the moment when I was officially done with him.

Not that I didn’t have issues with former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s “tone”, or his “style”. (And let’s just take a moment to savour that phrase: “former Prime Minister Stephen Harper”. Just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? Add a “disgraced” at the beginning for maximum enjoyment!) Harper’s “tone” was pretty consistently condescending, bullying, mean-spirited, and paranoid. A change of tone in politics would be pretty nice, I suppose.

But if “tone” is the biggest change we get when Justin Trudeau moves (back) into 24 Sussex, then all this hullabaloo about “real change” amounts to nothing but a steaming mountain of bullshit. Because “tone” was the least bad thing about Harper’s tenure in the PMO.

Unfortunately, in many respects, our PM-to-be’s platform aligns with the outgoing Conservative Party on several critical issues.

Let’s look at a few of them, shall we?

Take the TPP, for instance, which is a bit of a pet issue of mine. The Liberal position on this corporate circle-jerk posing as a “trade deal” was essentially this: The Liberal Party is a pro-trade party! That being said, we haven’t read the deal, cause we can’t. So how do you expect us to take a position on it? Vote for us.

Which would sound reasonable if it wasn’t so disingenuous. It’s true that the full text of the deal hasn’t yet been made publicly available (notwithstanding promises from Conservative Trade Minister Ed Fast that the public would have a chance to read the damn thing before they voted). But thanks to Wikileaks, we’ve been able to read several draft chapters and one allegedly final chapter, and advocacy groups and experts in various fields have published detailed and thorough critiques of what we do conclusively know about the TPP.

The Liberal position acknowledges literally none of this. In their fantasy world, the TPP is a black box, and the NDP were irresponsible for taking a position on it without really knowing what’s inside – when in all actuality, we know enough about the TPP to be absolutely panicky about the whole deal.

Want more? The Liberals favour the Energy East pipeline project – do you hear that, Quebec? – along with the TransMountain and Keystone XL pipelines, and have offered no more than token opposition to Northern Gateway. No less a corporate shill than the Financial Post (of Postmedia, an organization which is now openly an organ of the Conservative Party) wrote today that Trudeau’s energy policy may be the big bright side of a Liberal majority victory.

When it comes to climate change, Trudeau may not be the closet denier that Harper was, but he’s strangely reticent to actually talk about the problem. He has a bizarrely vague climate platform, heavy on the “we’ll fill in the details later” aspect. Hell, he won’t even discuss specific numbers for emissions reductions targets. If this is an improvement over Harper’s pie-in-the-sky plan to transition off of fossil fuels by the year 2100, I’m not seeing it.

Worried about civil liberties? Well, this is, after all, the party that famously voted en bloc in favour of Bill C-51, with the promise that they would “fix” it later by adding in more “parliamentary oversight” of security agencies – as though technical reforms ever fixed political problems. This is the party that actively wooed notorious criminal ex-Chief of Police Bill Blair to be one of their star candidates, and is now publicly musing about putting him in cabinet as Minister of Justice or National Defence. And, more historically, this is the party which aided and abetted the United States in its extraordinary rendition and torture-by-proxy of Canadian citizen Maher Arar.

And then there’s the Liberal promises that they’re almost certainly not going to keep. Way back in July, languishing in third place in the polls, Trudeau pledged that a Liberal government would form a committee to study alternatives to our woefully anachronistic first-past-the-post system, and table legislation within eighteen months of forming government to replace it with an electoral system the all-party committee recommended. Much was made of this by “strategic voting” organizations like LeadNow, and yet there was nary a peep out of the Liberals about FPTP on the campaign trail.

Now, having won five of the last eight elections, with four of those victories being solid majorities, and two of their losses (2006 and 2008) being quite marginal, why in the world would they want to replace the system that so consistently delivers them such success? The Liberals and the Conservatives do quite well under the current system; though they both suffer their major setbacks (see 2011 and 1993, respectively), they always bounce back, because given the constraints of the system and the compulsion it creates to vote “strategically”, one of them will always win.

Because let’s be real here: that forty-some percent of Canadians who voted for the Liberals last night didn’t, by and large, deeply want a Liberal government. Many of them just wanted to stop Harper, at any cost. Well, they got their wish, and then some – but how much better will they like his replacement?

As for Stephen Harper himself, it’s hard to know what to say. He deserved a more ignoble end to his career than this – he deserved to be led off Parliament Hill in handcuffs, head hung in disgrace, his legacy in tatters forever. Instead, early reports state that he intends to remain on as a Member of Parliament, at least for now, although an interim leader of the Conservative Party could be named by the end of the week.

Doubtless he won’t serve out his term as MP – bigger and more lucrative things await him in his post-parliamentary career.

It’s telling to me that he didn’t acknowledge the fact that he had stepped down as party leader in his concession speech last night. One way to read that – and there are obviously other explanations – is that he was literally unwilling to prepare for a scenario in which he wouldn’t still be Prime Minister. Much was made in the days leading up to the election of doomsday scenarios in which Harper would hang on as Prime Minister despite coming in second place in a minority situation. This was due to complicated loopholes in the Constitution, the conventions of which would be unfamiliar to the vast majority of voters.

The gist is this: in a minority situation, the incumbent Prime Minister, by convention, has the right to test the House of Commons for support before any other party leader, notwithstanding how his or her party fared in the election. Additionally, Parliament only needs to be convened once per year, minimum. Add these two together, and you had the potential for a situation in which the Liberals won the most seats but fell short of a majority, and were unable to form government, because Harper insisted that (a) he was still the Prime Minister until he officially lost the House’s confidence, and (b) he didn’t need to test the House’s confidence until like next August or something.

Such a scenario – the spectre of a defeated Harper clinging tenaciously to power – is so shockingly counter-intuitive that it no doubt would have caused many people to lose their faith in the democratic process. It would have amounted to a nuclear option, no doubt about it. And yet it would have been legally quite kosher.

Given that nobody saw the Liberals’ majority coming, I think it’s fair to speculate that Harper and his team didn’t actually plan for a scenario in which they would have to surrender power. Hence Harper’s strangely phrased and perhaps hastily written concession speech, which was bizarrely devoid of any acknowledgement that he was no longer going to lead the party that he built.

Regardless, the Wicked Witch of the West is dead, and the jockeying for the title of Leader of the Opposition has already begun. Jason Kenney, speaking from Conservative Party headquarters in Calgary last night, echoed Trudeau’s cynical view of politics by saying, “I think where we went wrong was on tone,” as though the extremely divisive ex-Minister of National Defence and front-man for the Harper campaign’s attacks on Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi’s pleas for calm amidst the niqab tempest knows how to strike a more friendly tone than his soon-to-be-former boss did.

Still, Kenney is a front-runner, as the CBC acknowledges in a run-down of potential candidates for the leadership that conspicuously excludes Doug Ford, whose interest in the job is no secret. Although it’s hard to imagine Ford being able to hold together the fragile Frankenstein’s monster that is the CPC – it’s wholly a Harperian creation, and has known no other leader since its inception in 2002. Much of the PC old guard has been purged from the party, but you’ll note that the seats they once held mostly swung Liberal last night as well. For the Conservatives to have any hope of winning next time around, they’re gonna have to figure out a way to pull those Red Tories back in, without moderating so much that they lose the Western ex-Reformers. A delicate balancing act, and an unenviable job – and yet, we’re sure to see the career politicians lining up for the chance.

If they all hew to Kenney’s diagnosis of the root problem with this year’s campaign, they’ll go far. Tone truly is the reason that Trudeau was able to emerge triumphant. The story of #elxn42 is the story of the triumph of style over substance. The Liberal platform was ultimately rather inconsequential; it was the buzz words, the youthful energy, and the genuineness of Trudeau’s smile that won the day for the party.

That the electorate once more got taken in by the classic Liberal bait-and-switch – “campaign on the left, govern on the right”! – is as unsurprising as it is dispiriting. Like Lucy and her football, the Liberals keep on fooling enough people that this time they really mean it. And Trudeau is as good at this as any politician I’ve seen in my lifetime.

The comparison some are making between Trudeau and Bill Clinton is in many ways an apt one. It was once said of Clinton that he could “shake your hand and piss down your leg at the same time”, and though folks have yet to fully realize it yet, that’s what Trudeau did this campaign. He sold us on Real Change while promising more of the same, and he pulled it off by just being so damn sincere-seeming. Indeed, Tasha Kheiriddin at iPolitics made the often-overlooked point that Trudeau’s seeming spontaneity and looseness was all extremely calculated:

Which brings us to the paradox of this election. It was supposed to exchange a micromanaging leader for a laid-back one, and end the culture of control in Ottawa. Yet the Liberal campaign was orchestrated with mechanical precision. Despite the open nominations pledge, made with great fanfare, the nominations were anything but. From Quebec to British Columbia, candidates were ruthlessly culled if the leader favoured someone else. Many of Trudeau’s friends got preferential treatment: star candidates vaulted to the top of the firmament with the leader’s blessing.

When it came to leadership decisions, Trudeau also acted in absolutist fashion. Over the past two years, he booted senators out of caucus without advising them, declared a fatwa on any anti-abortion views among candidates, kicked out two Liberal MPs accused of sexual impropriety without any due process, and recruited Tory turncoat Eve Adams to the Liberal party. Many of these decisions were poorly received by long-time Liberals, but their objections were more or less muffled, at least until the Adams affair. Questioning the leader, when he represented the one hope for returning to power, was a bad idea.

During the campaign, Trudeau’s inner circle was tight, disciplined and laser-focused. When it came to messaging, they knew his weakness for saying the wrong thing, and did not let him off the leash. Trudeau rehearsed his debate lines for months in advance. Images were planned and controlled: photos of him lifting babies, canoeing and standing astride a human pyramid were snapped and tweeted ad nauseum. The team transported in staffers to boost rallies, swamped social media and built up an image of Trudeaumania II that brilliantly crested in the final week of the campaign.

In other words, Trudeau and his team lifted Harper’s controlling style, while preaching the opposite — and Canadians bought it.

It’s just as Trudeau said – the difference is all in the tone.

There’s a lot more to be said about this campaign – I haven’t even dug into the postmortems for the NDP, the Bloc, and the poor poor Green Party – but that’s for another day. In the immediate aftermath of this election, the most important thing is pushing back against the narrative which is already starting to dominate – that Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party are agents of change, and that they were swept in on a somewhat progressive platform. As Trudeau himself predicted, their greatest departure from the Harper Conservatives has been a difference of tone, and all indications suggest that that’s about all the meaningful change we’re going to get.

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I picture a painting that is written with words.

A conversation that continues, for as long as we do.

A fire that flames the conversations of the people creating changes.

I remember sitting across from a man, in a park, with a candle in the rain, passing the humerus to humour us. What our for flying potatoes.

spot on, love this piece Matt

I wish you weren’t so good with words…I’ve been avoiding admitting to myself how absolutely terrible this election result is.

Honestly, I’d almost rather have had a Conservative minority.

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