Halfway through this strange election season, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has hit the ditch. It wasn't the Duffy trial that knocked him off the road. It was one of those unknown unknowns, a random twist of fate that no one could have foreseen. A dead toddler washed up on a beach, and someone took a picture.
The news went round the world that the child's family had applied for asylum in Canada and been rejected. It wasn't true. But a lot of Canadians believed it was. Or if not literally true, then metaphorically true: Mr. Harper has refused to lift a finger to help desperate refugees. He doesn't care if babies die.
Who could have imagined that refugee policy would become a lightning rod in this campaign? No one, not the voters or the parties or the experts, gave a nanosecond's thought to Canada's refugee policy before last week. If Mr. Harper were another person, he would have immediately announced his intention to accept vastly more Syrian asylum-seekers, as well as emergency measures to cut the red tape that keeps them in limbo. He would have found a grateful Syrian family to embrace, and pledged not to sleep until Canada does more.
But Mr. Harper is not that person. He is not a man who alters course. What you see is what you get, as he told the CBC's Peter Mansbridge the other night. And that's the problem. We've seen Mr. Harper, and we get him. He's the man without a heart. When he's gone, not even the most diehard Conservatives will miss him very much.
And gone he will be. A majority government is beyond his reach. He will resign, or the opposition parties will bring him down, and he'll go quietly. The question now is what, and who, comes after.
If Mr. Harper is in the ditch, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is cruising. He has had a good summer. He has finally hit on a policy that differentiates him from NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair. Whether it makes sense is up to you. Mr. Trudeau is going to spend his way to growth. He's going to drag us into deficit and throw billions of dollars at infrastructure projects to tackle a recession we don't have.
Mr. Trudeau's challenge is the opposite of Mr. Harper's: We know he has a heart. But does he have a brain?
Well, he certainly does have platitudes. Mr. Trudeau will create change by creating the growth we need. He will have a growth agenda that trusts in Canadians. That's what he told Mr. Mansbridge in the series of candidate interviews airing on CBC's The National this week. Mr. Trudeau's chief goal in the interview was to sound as if he knew what he was talking about. He didn't always succeed. For example, he explained that it is tremendously important to fight the Islamic State, but not with planes. Instead we should help train local troops to take the bad guys on. "That hasn't worked for 10 years," Uncle Peter responded brusquely.
Meanwhile, Mr. Mulcair is stalled somewhere on the side of the road. We know he has a brain, but outside Quebec he doesn't seem to have a lot of traction at the moment. The voters in the motherlode of Ontario's 905-land remain unpersuaded. Wisely, Mr. Mulcair has identified himself with the pragmatic, prudent, prairie strain of the NDP, not the profligate, reckless one. But that strategy has also neutered him. On Mr. Harper's two strong points – the economy and security – Mr. Mulcair has to sound centrist, mild and reasonable, without sounding dull. This is difficult.
At its heart, this election isn't really about policies. It's about change, and leadership, and tone. It is above all a referendum on Mr. Harper, a man who has been around for long enough and whose personal deficits are striking. The electorate's centre of gravity hasn't really shifted. People just want someone new.
Albertans didn't elect NDP Premier Rachel Notley because they suddenly wanted to shut down the oil sands and invest in windmills. They elected her because they were fed up with the old boys, and she was a fresh and credible alternative, and it was past time for a change. Canadians don't want a radical change of course, either. They want a fresh leader with fresh energy, fresh ideas, and a heart.
They'll probably wind up with Mr. Mulcair, although that's just a guess. Some unknown unknown could come along and change everything.