Stephen Harper's Conservative Party of Canada is about to move from the government benches to the opposition – and for this, they have only themselves to blame. Their election campaign, and Mr. Harper's style of government, did keep the Conservative base firm. The party held on to one third of the nation's voters. But Mr. Harper's approach also succeeded in motivating the other two-thirds of the electorate to badly want to defeat him, and to coalesce around the best alternative. The result is the election of a Liberal majority government, led by Justin Trudeau.
Mr. Trudeau had the advantage of running against a tired party and a leader who had been in office for nearly a decade – but so did Tom Mulcair and the New Democratic Party. Mr. Trudeau cannily allowed his opponents to lower expectations about him, and then out-campaigned two party leaders who spent millions of dollars on advertising that sought to portray them as more experienced and better suited to the job of prime minister.
His optimism and openness, combined with solid performances in multiple debates, undid the Conservatives' strategy of presenting the Liberal leader as "just not ready." It may yet prove to be true in government, but it was not on the campaign trail. The Liberal platform also successfully countered the Conservatives' fearful message that voting for anyone other than the incumbents meant putting the economy at risk. The Liberals similarly outflanked an NDP that chose to sell itself as closer on the fiscal spectrum to Mr. Harper. In the end, the NDP ended up seeing much of its vote shift massively and suddenly to the Liberals in Quebec and Ontario. Voters went to the party that could knock off Mr. Harper.
The extra-long election campaign, running for 11 weeks, ended up benefitting Mr. Trudeau, giving him time to counter the charge of being unable and unready. But the real winners of this long election campaign were Canadians. They had ample opportunity to consider and reconsider their votes, and make an informed choice. Elections should always be this long.
As a campaigner, Mr. Trudeau has exceeded expectations. Can he do the same as prime minister? How capable will the Liberals be in office? And what of Mr. Trudeau's MPs? Will he, as promised, run a less centralized, top-down government than Mr. Harper?
Mr. Trudeau rides into 24 Sussex on a promise to run modest deficits for three years, and to spend the extra money building infrastructure. He plans to raise taxes on incomes of more than $200,000 so he can lower them on the middle class tax bracket, which covers income between $44,701 and $89,401. He wants to create a child benefit that will give $2,500 a year to the average family of four.
He wants to set national targets on carbon emissions. He plans to negotiate a new health accord with the provinces. He'll introduce right-to-die legislation, legalize marijuana, and reform Senate nominations and the way we vote in federal elections. He wants a better relationship with Canada's First Nations.
Mr. Trudeau is inheriting a weak economy while entertaining big domestic ambitions – ambitions that wouldn't be easy to manage even for an experienced leader. The Liberal plan to run modest deficits of less than $10 billion a year over the next couple of years will not break the bank, and the reaction of economists ranges from support to indifference.
But the challenge will be deploying that extra spending intelligently and without political inference. Otherwise, a plan to build productivity-enhancing infrastructure risks turning into a multi-billion dollar, pork-barrelling boondoggle. This country has a long history of wise public investments – and an equally long tally of taxpayer dollars diverted to projects that never should have seen the light of day.
Mr. Trudeau has resurrected his party, and then some. In 2011, there was talk of the NDP swallowing the broken Liberals. On Monday, the Liberals ate the NDP's vote. For his part, Mr. Mulcair campaigned honourably, and he long ago proved himself to be an excellent leader of the opposition. His party's downfall was in part due to the niqab issue in Quebec, and it was brave of Mr. Mulcair to stick to his principles. But even without that, it is unlikely the NDP could have led from post-to-post. They were not ready to form a government.
As for Mr. Harper, his time is over. The party he leaves behind, despite holding nearly one-third of the seats in the House of Commons, holds limited appeal beyond its existing minority of voters. It needs to reconsider its foundations, and rebuild from the ground up. The Tory brand is still strong on fiscal matters and the economy, but Mr. Harper ultimately undid himself and his party with contempt for Parliament, his disdain for government accountability and his decision to make the niqab into an election issue. The Conservative search for wedge issues ended up driving away more voters than it attracted.