I learned a crucial lesson about politics a long time ago. I was doing a story on the late Bryce Mackasey, a Pierre Trudeau-era cabinet minister and was going door to door with him in Hamilton during the 1980 election campaign.
That was when Trudeau returned as Liberal leader after he had resigned following his defeat by Joe Clark in 1979. Trudeau’s return was surprising, but not shocking. Polls indicated he would probably win the 1980 election – which he did.
At one doorstep in Hamilton that winter day, the resident told Mackasey she was a long-time Liberal, but she would not vote liberal in that election because she couldn’t stand Trudeau and didn’t think he should have come out of retirement.
“Don’t worry,” Mackasey assured her, “we’ll get rid of him before the next election.”
The lesson is as simple as it is crude. Politicians will say almost anything to get elected. They will seize a moment or they will make an elaborate plan based on what they think voters want or need to hear. It doesn’t matter if what they are saying is necessarily true or entirely consistent with what they and their party traditionally stood for. Getting elected is what matters most.
Sometimes, it is a matter of what is not said. In this campaign, you had to know the NDP was getting close to winning when it removed its convention-generated policy positions from the party website. After all, there could be all those left wing positions, many of which are consistent with where the NDP has stood; but, so much for standing up for what you believe in when you are looking for votes.
As this campaign progresses, there are more examples of saying what best works in the moment to make voters feel good about your party. What makes this campaign particularly fascinating is how the main opposition parties have developed opposed economic positions, which they think are the winning formulas regardless of where the NDP and the Liberals have traditionally lined up.
In emphasizing how the NDP will balance the budget upon election, Thomas Mulcair is disavowing what the federal NDP has believed in as a remedy for difficult economic times. It has always been their mantra that government and public spending are the way to prime the economy and create jobs. Deficits were seen by the federal NDP from its traditional seat in opposition as necessary offshoots of moving the economy along in downturns.
It is now the Liberals who are advocating that very thing. The Liberals have moved markedly to the left of the NDP in this election and those Liberal cries of no deficits, “come hell or high water,” are echoes of a political past that have also been discarded.
Justin Trudeau has found a place in this campaign even if he has to sound like an NDPer to do it. Agree with him or not, you have to give him credit for finding political ground under his feet and fighting for it.
Trudeau is using the same public funding formula that Kathleen Wynne used in the last Ontario election. But that shouldn’t be surprising as many of his advisers worked for Wynne then. What might be surprising is that many of those same people advised “hell or high water” finance minister Paul Martin when he cut the deficit 20 years ago. Consistency and politics are not natural soul mates.
Being in power, Conservative leader Stephen Harper can make actions speak louder than words, such as Canadian families receiving first-time child benefit cheques in the mail – hundreds of dollars in some cases – just weeks before the election call.
It looked like a blatant effort to buy votes; if not the policy, then at least the timing, and it gets us back to the same question of consistency. Be assured that, in opposition, Harper would have denounced the sending of those cheques on the eve of an election call.
But, we live in the present not the past, and, if the present is about saying what enhances your chances of winning, why not do the apparently popular thing and follow opposition cries to allow more Syrian migrants into Canada.
But Stephen Harper is not changing the rules or the numbers. Being consistent can actually be costly politically.