Canada’s new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who’s never ever been the subject of a bad photograph in his life, believes sincerely in the elixir of “sunny ways.” This is unsurprising and wholly consistent with the soft ideology of Liberal activists who insist that all good things start with a stirring “national policy.” Chastened Conservatives should think twice about this idea.
It’s one thing to regret not being “sunny.” It’s quite another to try to get back in power by faking it. And, more important, it would be an act of masochistic naiveté to accept that the Liberals win elections being *nice.*
For the next four years, Conservatives will be in opposition, a planning deadline put in law by Stephen Harper’s fixed election legislation. Above other considerations, they’ll try to pick an appealing campaigner. Charm, a clean resume, a good mind and decent looks will matter greatly. But most of the time, they better oppose, being tough, articulate, ruthless critics. On this challenge, Liberals in opposition—in action—are most informative.
Jean Chrétien, Pierre Trudeau—and his son—didn’t restore Liberal majorities in 1968, 1974, 1993, and 2015 by appealing strictly to hope. Tory opponents were not merely out-of-date and gray. They were hair-raisingly blinkered, ideological, anti-immigrant, anti-science, and uninterested in clean water; and they were not competent to manage a bilingual, multicultural G7 power or a complex economy and a sophisticated and sensitive civil service. (When New Democrats, of course, even get close in the polls, they’re seen as “too socialistic” and soft on separatists—simplistic and cynical all at once.)
Conservatives itching to get back in the game shouldn’t bother looking for a visage as luminescent as Justin Trudeau’s or a clean slate. Liberal attack dogs don’t settle for “just not ready.” They fill in—definitively—what’s missing. Stockwell Day was a “creationist” and Preston Manning was a radical, America-inspired populist.
Finally, watch out for what Liberals and their thinkers generously recall about old Tory statesmen. For instance, they say today that Robert Stanfield was a gentleman in the campaigns of ’68, ’72, and ’74. They suggest now that he had the “inclusive” temperament necessary for a winner. Then, the Liberal portrait was less generous. Then, he was only a gentleman, a decent gardener from a passé province too conventional to outsmart Liberals, let alone stand up to wrecking balls like Peter Lougheed and René Lévesque. Joe Clark today is a sophisticated “red-Tory.” In the 1979 and 1980 campaigns, he was branded as a right-wing kid who’d try to keep the peace by being the “head-waiter” at federal-provincial conferences.
Sure, Liberals buttressed these harsh images with charming, urbane campaigners and benign visions of tomorrow. Having less ruthless opponents also helped. But, “sunny” politics wasn’t their winning secret, ever.
Ironically, their case against Harper also included a case against his government’s genuine hope that more freedom for provinces (for businesses and for families) as well as more empathic support for Liberal allies, the United States, and Israel especially would lead to a surer future for, if you like, “sunny” millennials.
Expressed in national politics, conservatism can’t credibly be as sunny as today’s liberals about the role of the federal government in the country’s affairs. Nevertheless, identifying the excesses of your opponents sure didn’t get in the way of Justin Trudeau’s brutally successful campaign.
Hard-pressed swing voters are as heartfelt about their dreams as natural governing intellectuals are about theirs. But they aren’t terribly dreamy about what they expect from the federal government. The accusation that Harper was an “ideologue” stuck. But that’s just a fancy way of landing that old bread-and-butter charge of: incompetence.