For as much as people use the cliché, “a week is a long time in politics,” there is also a fundamental truth that 30 years can be a long time for nothing to change in politics. Exactly 30 years ago this summer, Brian Mulroney wrapped up his incredibly successful election campaign. In eight weeks, he delivered miracles for the Progressive Conservative Party. In the mid-1980s, the Tories dreamed of taking over and finally putting their stamp on things: a Conservative stamp after so many years of Liberal dominance. They were a party that was to the right, and dramatically more fiscally conservative than the Liberals. The country had a huge deficit then. The Liberals had mismanaged the economy. There were those who saw the Tories as slashers and burners – and sometimes they saw themselves as that.
But that is where Mulroney was so smart. His campaign was a lot more soothing, a lot more focussed on Liberal patronage than Liberal fiscal mismanagement. His campaign concentrated on creating jobs not cutting them. He and his team talked about hope and new beginnings after years of Liberal scandal.
There was one of those telling moments just before the campaign began when former cabinet minister John Crosbie was being grilled by reporters because he wouldn’t be specific about what the Tories would do if they returned to power. Crosbie stared reporters down as he uttered these unforgettable words: “If we ever told the people of Canada what we were going to do, we would never get elected.”
There is no question Tim Hudak and his advisers should have known their political history, the history of their own party, before so recklessly blowing the Ontario election campaign. Some call it institutional political memory – a commodity that was so sadly lacking.
It is really hard to admit that politicians can’t honestly tell people what they would do, if they were elected. As much as we would hope that honesty is the backbone of democratic elections, it is so far from the truth it hurts the soul.
There are countless ironies about the recent Ontario election, but perhaps the biggest is how, one day soon, Kathleen Wynne and her Liberal government may have to do the very things Hudak campaigned in favour of, or the province will go bankrupt. It wouldn’t be the first time a political party goes back on its election platform and proceeds to implement the very policies it campaigned against.
Election platforms have become commitments of the moment. Political parties have a way of changing the platforms, once in power, because they have the power to do it and, ultimately, when credit agencies are threatening to downgrade, what choice will there be but to do what Hudak would have done in the first place?
The problem is there is a price to pay for these commitments of the moment. Every time it happens, and in recent times it has happened too often, the level of cynicism and citizen disengagement shoots up another few notches.
Wynne and the Liberals won a strategically brilliant campaign victory, but let’s not forget only 52 per cent of eligible voters actually cast their ballots. Who can be proud of that? The Liberals won big among only about half the voters. Somewhere there has to be a feeling of loss, even a twinge of shame.
It is a not so funny thing, truth telling in election campaigns. On the launch day of the 1993 federal election campaign, Kim Campbell was asked when she envisioned a significant decline in unemployment. Well, her problem was she actually thought before speaking. And she must have recalled a briefing note that told the truth. Why else would she have said she didn’t anticipate a significant drop in unemployment until closer to the turn of the century?
As history proved, it was several years after ‘93 election before unemployment opportunities in Canada significantly improved. But, really, what advantage was there for Campbell to tell the truth? Her opponent Jean Chrétien jumped all over her and successfully campaigned by being hopeful for Canada rather than pessimistic.
Hudak talked about hope, too – basically, on how to be hopeful after cutting enough jobs to make the government of Ontario, and public spending in general, more viable. Meanwhile, Wynne talked about hope and more public investment.
History will record who was more truthful.