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Justin Trudeau’s sunny ways – and a storm on the horizon

The results of the federal election were so startling, and the likely effects so huge, that it will be some time before we can grasp them fully. But let's start with three major outcomes that go beyond the usual fallout from elections.

First, this was much more than a fight between three leaders and parties of varying degrees of acceptability. It was also far more than a poll on the economy or how Stephen Harper went about his business. It was an election about the kind of country Canadians want. A vast swath of voters was determined to hold on to the Canada they have come to love and not to lose it to divisive themes.

Second, Quebec returned to be part of the country's government. Throughout the long campaign, the province was more engaged in a federal election than it had been in almost 30 years. Eighty per cent of its voters supported a federalist party.

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Third, the Liberal Party came back from near death five years ago to win the first federal vote since Canada's existential crisis – its battle with Quebec separatism. The first such provincial election was also won by a Liberal – Premier Philippe Couillard, who dispatched the Parti Québécois in March, 2014. In both cases, a political realignment is under way that will leave the crisis behind and look to the future.

The people's election

Quite simply, the election belonged to the people – it was more about trust than leaders, parties or policies.

The Liberals recognized that mood best, with their program, their campaign and their leader, who seemed to grow a little every day in full public view. From the beginning of his Liberal leadership run three years ago, Justin Trudeau trusted Canadians to be fair and give him a chance, despite inevitable miscues as he gained experience – and they did. The Conservatives' "not ready" attack ads recognized that public patience, and shifted to "not ready yet."

Over time, the public obviously learned to trust, as well as tolerate, him. Canada's political system proved that it works (a challenge still to be met by the American system).

Their trajectory from a third-place start through a three-way tie to a majority shows that the Liberals had struck a chord with the people. Across the country, the cumulative votes of Liberal, New Democrat, Green and moderate Conservative voters meant that some 70 per cent of the Canadian electorate was on side with seeking mutual accommodation on the niqab and security issues. At the end, Canadians preferred what they saw as a moderate economic risk over losing who they feel they are.

The election's most striking feature was the level of energy from almost every direction and the number of people actively engaged in the campaign. From time to time, Canadians have strong feelings and worries, but they usually want leaders who are less extreme and worried than they are. The Trudeau victory message – the return of Sir Wilfrid Laurier's "sunny ways" and Canada as the country where better is always possible – added to the historic, stunning scale of the win. It will also move him into new territory where expectations of what is possible could be too high. He needs to figure out quickly what economic expectations are reasonable and explain them to Canadians. This election was not about the economy. The next one almost certainly will be.

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The Harper legacy

Every Canadian prime minister faces the same three big challenges: the economy, national unity and the United States. Mr. Harper did not do well on the economy, by the end (highest consumer-debt-to-income in the G-7 and $400-billion of accumulated borrowing from abroad to fund consumption). Excess credit has masked Canada's economic vulnerability.

Most people do not yet realize the extent of that vulnerability. Mr. Harper inherited an economy and fiscal position from the Mulroney-Chrétien era that set him up for a decade. Unfortunately, his natural make-up does not fit with mutual accommodation: He did not trust other people, yet insisted they trust him, and he was determined to manage everything from inside his own mind – an impossible task in a complex and fast-moving world. As a result, he leaves Canada with an economy that is weaker than necessary, and with a decade's worth of policy challenges that will involve some voter pain.

Mr. Harper did not get along with the United States, but political leaders there cannot get along with each other. Mr. Trudeau may have a better chance, but relations with our southern neighbour will be difficult until the political turmoil there subsides.

Counterintuitively, Mr. Harper did well, over all, on national unity. His greatest skill in terms of mutual accommodation was political calculation. His understanding of Canada's political reality kept him from crossing the line most of the time. In the end, the power of Laurier's Canada – pursuing public purpose through compromise – prevailed.

The only time Mr. Harper faltered seriously was relatively recently with Muslims and terrorists. Otherwise he leaves an important set of unity achievements:

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  • When he took office in 2006, the West wanted in and Quebec was still undecided about getting out. Ten years later, the West is in, and so is Quebec – perhaps in part because Mr. Harper passed the “Québécois nation” resolution in the House of Commons.
  • During the controversy over the proposed Charter of Values in last year’s Quebec election, he asked premiers and his own cabinet to keep out of it, knowing that Quebeckers do not want outsiders intruding in their affairs.
  • While other countries have serious divisions over immigration, abortion and same-sex marriage, Canada does not. The opposition on these issues was inside his party, and Mr. Harper kept it quiet.
  • He gave the First Nations the apology they wanted and needed.
  • He established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose thoughtful and balanced summary report came out last spring.
  • He presented a First Nations education bill that awaits implementation by the Trudeau government (and can be quickly achieved by an opt-in approach for those that want to get moving for their children now).

So, in the final analysis, Mr. Harper was an exceptionally skilful political operative, limited by an ideology and a political style that relied on a base that was strong but proved too small and difficult to reach out from.

Ideology can be like celebrity – a form of shouting; neither is enough about real substance, gets lasting things done, or provides reliable paths forward. As well, ideology is always trumped by reality – within whose bounds mutual accommodation can help to keep us.

Mr. Harper's approach sometimes seemed to be that of a doctor who just shouts: "Bad disease, go away!" And, of course, it never does. For example, Vladimir Putin's Russia is a huge and potentially destructive force that a globally televised snub from a Canadian prime minister does nothing to curb.

Whatever his shortcomings prove to be, Justin Trudeau appears to have the patience, the inner confidence and the toughness to find very good people to work with and to pursue a strategy that can help, over time, to get the disordered parts of the world to a better place.

Left behind

The New Democrats and Parti Québécois have made strong contributions to shaping what Canada is today, but each now seems to have run out of runway.

The federal NDP has never, since its 1933 beginning, offered a single constructive, doable, fresh proposal on any of those fundamental challenges every federal government must face: the economy, national unity or the United States. Meanwhile, its substantial contribution in social policy and rights has been largely achieved. Unlike Britain, there is no political space here for more mainstream, Tony Blair-style socialism.

The Péquistes, meanwhile, likely have a future in Quebec – but only if they abandon separatism (the BQ has no future federally). If they cannot, some other party will emerge as the primary contender to the Quebec Liberals. The PQ of René Lévesque and Lucien Bouchard gave Quebeckers the choice of in or out. Ironically, that choice and the PQ language bill saved Quebec for Canada, and Canada for Quebec.

Federally, the Conservatives may become the main alternative to the Liberals in Quebec. They can also become federally competitive again if there is more room for Progressive Conservatives. I see no real right-left shift (the world is too diverse and complex for left-right to be useful) in Canada.

So, federal third parties may now recede. If they return, it will likely be more for regional reasons.

Challenges going forward

In the years ahead, Oct. 19, 2015, will take its place among the great elections, good and bad, involving national unity and solving our problems through mutual accommodation held since Laurier became prime minister in 1896.

  • The first, in 1917, brought to power the Borden conscription coalition, which Laurier would not join and which divided the country fatefully along English-French language lines. It represented the greatest failure of mutual accommodation in Canadian history.
  • The second was the 1940 victory of onetime Laurier protégé William Lyon Mackenzie King. His policy of “conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription” avoided deep divisiveness over a war most francophone Quebeckers did not support.
  • The election of Pierre Trudeau in 1968. He could be even more averse to mutual accommodation than Mr. Harper, but he subsequently faced down Quebec separatism and preserved Canada.

Now we have Justin Trudeau, who matches his father in moral and physical courage, but brings more emotional intelligence and a less intellectual approach to government (perhaps more in tune with how young people today go about things and what today's world necessitates).

Spirit of the West

Aside from Quebec, the other great challenge to national unity has come from the West. The Laurier-King political coalition that led to Liberal dominance of federal politics from 1896 to 2006 was based on francophone Quebec finding common cause with western Canada.

That came to an end with John Diefenbaker's sweep in 1957. Thereafter, whether Liberal or not, prime ministers from Quebec seemed largely unable to understand the West, causing alienation that reached its peak with Pierre Trudeau's National Energy Program and his unilateral efforts on the Constitution.

But the fact the Liberals won 32 seats west of Ontario means the Harper defeat need not leave the West on the outside. All will depend on the eight members it has in the new cabinet sworn in this week, how much scope and profile Mr. Trudeau allows them, and how they effectively can work with Western Canadian governments.

The major unity problem now is the First Nations. There is every reason to expect Mr. Trudeau to do his part of what's needed. If he does, that will put pressure on the First Nations to do theirs. The outcome will depend on patient mutual accommodation. One should be optimistic.

Trouble down the road

Justin Trudeau has the ability to harness mutual accommodation and strengthen unity at home and, when the moment is right, foster better relations with our southern neighbour.

However, mutual accommodation is a means to an end – not an end unto itself. It must serve a purpose, and a primary purpose at the moment is to get Canada on a sustainable economic path. The country has been living beyond its means (by $60-billion a year), has the G-7's highest debt as a percentage of household income, and is not competitive internationally in enough goods and services.

Canada's economic ship is headed for the rocks. Mr. Trudeau must chart a new course – and soon.

William A. Macdonald is president of W.A. Macdonald Associates Inc., and has an extensive record of public service. To spark discussion of the nation's future, he and associate William R.K. Innes have created The Canadian Narrative Project along with Trent University. To see more, visit http://www.canadiandifference.ca

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