Despite the distracting occurrence of countless more interesting things elsewhere on this planet, politics in Canada has continued to happen.
Not a lot of politics, mind you. In early August, Prime Minister Harper announced he would be running for a fourth term in 2015, and celebrated by suspending the parliament for a couple of months, giving himself and his fellow legislators a nice little summer holiday. Harper’s developed a fondness for shutting down the House whenever random fancy strikes him, though of course critics say the fancy isn’t random at all, but rather correlates quite conveniently with the emergence of scandals the PM would rather not see debated — in this case, the recently-revealed corruption of several Harper-appointed senators.
But in any case, with our politicians nominally off the job until October, Canada’s political coverage has been dominated by the sort of light-n-fluffy analysis of polls and personalities that usually takes a backseat in busier times.
I was particularly captivated by a couple of polls released last week by the Nanos people that ranked Canada’s various party leaders according to four fun variables of generic political skill. Who, asked Nanos, is your favorite party leader? Okay, now who do you consider the most competent? How about most trustworthy? Visionary?
The results, with only slight exaggeration, are what you see on the toon above.
Stephen Harper is down ten popularity points from his 2011 share of the popular vote, from 39% to 29%, but has basically middle-of-the-road stats on everything else, with his single highest-ranked skill (34%) being “competence.”
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, meanwhile, the late prime minister’s son and relative political neophyte, does terribly in competence (17%) but is the most popular party leader at the moment, with a voter preference of 34%. He’s also slightly ahead of Harper in what George H.W. Bush memorably called the “vision thing” — Justin’s “vision for Canada” rating is 29% compared to 25% for the PM.
Then there’s Thomas Mulcair, the boss of the NDP. Though Mulcair was the inheritor of a lot of high expectations when he assumed the leadership of the New Democrats from the late Jack Layton in 2012, to say he hasn’t quite met them would be too charitable by half. Aside from the monstrously unpopular and unlikeable leader of the fourth-place Green Party, Elizabeth May (competence rating: 3%) and the completely absent and unknown boss of the Bloc Quebecois, Daniel Paillé (whose “vision for Canada” stirs a whopping 1%), Mulcair ranks the worst of the party leaders on every single metric, with not one of his skills winning even 20% public support.
Well, to begin, I think it has to be said that there’s something quite wrong with any political system in which even the two “most popular” candidates for the nation’s highest office both command well under 50% loyalty of the voting public. Canada’s entrenched culture of political apathy and disillusionment poses a serious problem for the future of self-government in this country, and the inability of any leader to foster a truly viable, national coalition of voters reflects poorly on all involved. By American standards, both Harper and Trudeau are scraping up worse numbers than George W. Bush’s average approval rating during his disastrous second term (37%). I don’t care how different the parliamentary system is, that’s bad.
Nevertheless, the inescapable fact is that one of these two men is going to be Canada’s next ruler. Mulcair, as I’ve written about before, is simply too much of an NDP caricature — shrill, frumpy, dogmatic, and cold — to foster any sort of warm feelings, while J-Tru basically offers much of the same progressive agenda in a far more attractive, charming, charismatic package. The NDP has long favored legalizing marijuana, for instance, yet that cause is now inseparably tied to the Liberal brand thanks to Justin’s high-profile summer “coming out,” in which he vividly shared stories of his own recreational pot use as part of his effort to undermine the drug’s stigma. Good policy or not, the move was quintessential Trudeau. Indeed, he and Mulcair are basically walking answers to the age-old question of what even differentiates the Libs from the NDP in the first place — in a word, style.
Harper, meanwhile, is unbeloved and uninspired, but also familiar, stable, and unthreatening. Such is the main takeaway from the massive disparity between his “competence” rating and Justin’s; while JT brings some promise of freshness and novelty, the risk factor is extreme. I’m reminded of an old Onion article from 2004: “Bush Calls Incumbency Key Issue Of Campaign.” So long as Harper can ensure 2015 is fought on a similar front — who do you trust more to be prime minister, the actual prime minister or some untested burnout trust fund-baby drama teacher with pretty hair — the markedly cautious tendency of the Canadian voter to always break for the incumbent can’t work to anything but his advantage.
The Canadian federal election of 2015 “is still a long ways away,” we are obligated to say, and though I’d argue the polling “fundamentals” favor Harper in the long run, the fact remains he still has to pull an additional 10% voter support from somewhere if he plans to preserve his parliamentary majority for another four years. Not that he’ll be bereft of resources to achieve that, of course. When parliament resumes sitting next month, few believe the coming legislative agenda will be anything but electoral, with the Conservatives breaking out as many populist goodies as they can cram into a single parliamentary session. Harper himself has smugly claimed that since he’s already fulfilled all his campaign promises he doesn’t quite know what he’s gonna tackle next, but whatever autumn bills he ends up promising, you can be sure all of ’em will have received the backroom approval of countless focus groups and partisan brand consultants.
October 19, 2015 will be Canada’s first-ever fixed-date election (assuming the PM decides to obey his own fixed election day law and not call one earlier), an “American-style” reform that’s going to ensure much of the next two years of Canadian politics take the form of an “American-style” perma-campaign, with omnipresent attack ads, endless fundraising, and constant campaign speeches.
If Canadian politics has been in rather short supply lately, in other words, we may soon fondly reflect on the Summer of ’13 as merely the calm before the storm.