"Something In The Air": Whatever it was in his country’s political atmosphere in 2015, Justin Trudeau blew out enough of it to inflate the Liberals’ appeal to winning proportions. With Winston exhaling anger, and Metiria Turei breathing hope, Andrew Little and Labour need to offer the New Zealand electorate something more than a deflated ideological balloon.
THOMAS MULCAIR wanted to be Prime Minister – and he thought he knew how to make it happen. His New Democratic Party (NDP) was the leading Opposition contender in a Canada grown weary of Stephen Harper’s brutal Conservative Government. More importantly, the formerly dominant Liberal Party had been reduced to a risible rump of just 36 MPs in the Canadian House of Commons. Its leader, Justin Trudeau, may have been blessed with a famous political name, but was widely dismissed as a pretty playboy who knew a lot more about snowboarding that he did about grown-up politics. Thomas Mulcair was far from being the only Canadian convinced that the 2015 General Election was the NDP’s for the taking.
But that’s not how the story ended. Determined to present both himself and the NDP as sensible and responsible, Mulcair prevailed upon his party colleagues to jettison any and all policies likely to scare the Canadian establishment’s horses. Canada’s equivalent of the NZ Labour Party promised “budget responsibility” – with bells on. Public spending would be kept in check and surpluses fattened. “Nothing to be frightened of here”, was Mulcair’s message to the people he thought he had to please to win. That was the point at which Justin Trudeau demonstrated that he was a great deal more than just a pretty face.
Mulcair’s decision to steer the NDP sharply to the right of its traditional position on the centre-left had opened up a dangerous amount of unoccupied ideological space. If Mulcair was willing to make his peace with neoliberalism, then Trudeau was prepared to lead his party into a passionate Keynesian embrace. With interest rates at record lows, Government borrowing would never be cheaper. The Liberals would give Canada’s economy the much-needed shot in the arm that Harper’s austerity programme had forsworn. Health, education and infrastructure would be the big winners. The Liberals, said Trudeau, were the only political party who understood that more of the same was unacceptable. Oh yeah – and they were ready to legalise marijuana!
Outflanked, out-argued and out-bid, Mulcair watched helplessly as the NDP’s poll-numbers dwindled and the Liberal Party’s popularity surged. Policy audacity was made palatable by Trudeau’s relentlessly sunny disposition. The clouds of gloom parted, and by the time the last ballot paper was counted the “pretty playboy” had rewritten Canada’s political rulebook. Not only had the Liberal’s driven the NDP into third place, they had won an absolute parliamentary majority. It was a comeback without precedent in Canadian history.
Trudeau’s historic 2015 election victory is a cautionary tale which New Zealand’s Labour leader would do well to study closely. There is still time for Andrew Little to halt his party’s relentless march towards the political centre. Still time to understand that the “something in the air” which Shane Jones talks about is the factor that will determine the outcome of this year’s election. Still time to realise that whatever it is in the political air, it is not a desperate public hunger for more of the same.
There is anger in the air – and that is the harvest which Winston Peters and NZ First are determined to gather in. But the air is also stirring with hope. That’s what the Greens have – at almost the last possible moment – understood. And, just like Justin Trudeau, they are preparing to ride the forgotten New Zealander’s hope for something better all the way to the biggest share of the Party Vote they have ever received.
Thomas Mulcair’s bid to become Canada’s Prime Minister foundered on his strategy of offering his opponents the smallest possible target to shoot at. All he succeeded in doing was reducing the NDP to something so dull and uninspiring that a crucial number of Canadians lost sight of it altogether.
Whatever it was in his country’s political atmosphere in 2015, Justin Trudeau blew out enough of it to inflate the Liberals’ appeal to winning proportions. With Winston exhaling anger, and Metiria Turei breathing hope, Andrew Little and Labour need to offer the New Zealand electorate something more than a deflated ideological balloon.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 19 July 2017.