David Combe. Tony Abbott’s soul-mate has gone.

Oct 22, 2015

After the second longest campaign in Canadian history – 11 weeks – finally Federal Election Day for Canadians had arrived on Monday, October 19.

When I was moving to Canada 30 years ago, Gough Whitlam said to me that “There are no two peoples in the world who are so similar, have so much in common, and get on better than Australians and Canadians”. For some months, I could not see it, but after 4 years I knew it to be so true……except that the Scottish heritage of Anglophone Canadians makes them more reserved in expressing what they really think. Get to know them well enough and they will tell you, for example, what they really think of their southern neighbours! Their humour, like ours, has a large dose of self-deprecation at its base.

But there are, of course, many differences. The dominant of those is its French history which impacts on everything – including (and especially) its politics. The Canadian Senate is appointed, so it has none of the idiosyncrasies of ours. However, with population overwhelmingly concentrated in two provinces – Ontario and Quebec – and its smaller provinces from Newfoundland to British Columbia spanning many different time zones, the House of Commons is very large. For Monday’s poll, it was enlarged by 30 to 338 Ridings (electorates in our terminology). So 170 was the ‘magic number’ for majority government – something not often achieved in its multi-party system. As in the UK, voting is voluntary and ‘first past the post’

When the long campaign kicked off, Tony Abbott’s ‘soul mate’, Conservative Party Prime Minister Stephen Harper, had been in office for 9 years and was defending a strong majority won in 2011. At that election, the Liberal Party (the small ‘l’ liberal, or centre-left, Party of Lester B. Pearson, Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chretien) had collapsed winning only 34 seats. The role of official Opposition had been taken by ALP ‘sister’ New Democratic Party (NDP) in what was by far the their best Federal performance ever. The NDP’s triumph had been based on winning 50 seats in Quebec, once Liberal Party heartland.

The first polling analysed by Eric Grenier (a sort of Malcolm Mackerras/Antony Green combination) on his splendid website ThreeHundredEight.com showed voting intention at 33.2% for the NDP, 30.9% for the Conservatives, and the Liberals trailing with 25.9%. His projections on the numbers were for the NDP and the Conservatives to win 127 seats each with the Liberals trailing well behind, but likely to determine who would form minority government (presumably the NDP) as coalitions are not part of Canada’s political history. Day after day, week after week, Grenier analysed and published an aggregation of latest polling macro, by province and by Riding – no mean feat given the uncertainties of voluntary voting and lack of a preferential system. Yet one ‘preference’ became very clear very early……Canadians wanted rid of a Prime Minister whom friends of mine had long dubbed ‘Richard Milhous Harper’.

Then the race tightened up, as polling showed support for each of the three major parties at about 30% with small (and statistically insignificant) movements between the three week after week. Was Canada going to re-elect a Prime Minister whom at least two thirds of voters despised?

After a major campaign of attack ads against their opponents, Harper chose to play wedge politics at its worst. An Islamic Canadian woman had taken to the Federal Court her right to wear a niquab in public at her citizenship ceremony while agreeing to remove it in private. The Court found in her favour, but in an attempt to exploit anti-Islamic sentiment in Quebec in particular, Harper’s Government appealed the matter to the Supreme Court of Canada. Harper now made this a major part of his campaign. ABC journalist Norman Hermant has quoted reports that he was advised to do so by brilliant Australian conservative strategist, Lynton Crosby, but I doubt this. However, the Leaders of neither the NDP nor the Liberal Party backed away from supporting Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and for a time it looked as though the Conservatives had broken clear….that the politics of hate were working for them, as there was a decent kick up in their numbers.

At about that time, a very good friend of mine in Toronto sent me the following under the heading On VISION:

‘I made a visit recently to the “I Want to Lead Canada” cafe. Three servers approached my table at the same time – they were all guys of course, although I did notice a woman server relegated to a corner section. Anyway, each of the three asked me at the same time what I would like. I replied rather emphatically that I hand a hankering for a meal-sized portion of VISION! 

The weary-looking server with the playdough-mould hair and angry demeanour said that VISION wa…s too expensive and that I should opt for something within the budget. 

The bearded server said that the fellow he replaced used to offer an appetizer-sized plate of VISION, but it was replaced with something more appealing to the masses when his predecessor died. 

The younger-looking of the three, who had really nice hair, told me he used to know a CHEF who specialised in VISION, and he brought me this: 


The ‘waiters’ in this metaphor are first, Harper; secondly NDP Leader Tom Mulcair who gained his position following the greatly mourned sudden death of Jack Layton who had led his party to its triumph in 2011; and the third, Liberal Leader, Justin Trudeau. The woman in the background is a reference to the Greens Leader.

Then in the final weeks of the campaign, something special happened….bit by bit, the NDP vote intention eroded, and that of the Liberals increased. By late last week, the possibility of a minority Liberal Government increased, and by last weekend, that seemed certain with just the outside possibility of a majority for Trudeau in the House of Commons.

On Tuesday, I settled down to watch the vote count on CBC. First, the Liberals made a clean sweep of all Ridings in the Atlantic Provinces starting with Newfoundland. But read little into that, we were told. Polls were just closing in Quebec, and Mr. Trudeau’s party would need to win at least 35 there to be sure of governing – even though we knew Ontario would strongly favour it.

Suddenly, it was all over….short of a disaster in the Prairies and BC where the Polls were some way off closing, Justin Trudeau would be leading a majority government.

That disaster did not occur. The Liberals won 40 Ridings in Quebec, took pretty much everything in Greater Toronto, and won more than any other party in all provinces except Prime Minister Harper’s Alberta, and Saskatchewan.

The new government has 184 Members in the new House of Commons – 150 more than in 2011. Voter turnout was 68.5% – the highest since 1993, the last time a Conservative Government was executed. The new House includes 88 (or 26%) women; 10 indigenous MPs; 6 openly LGBT Members.

And the vote by Party? Liberals 39.5%, Conservatives 30.9% and NDP 19.7%. So what happened between that first opinion poll assessment and election day? Do so many people REALLY change their minds in such a short timeframe?

No, they do not. Combining NDP and Liberal voting intention from that first opinion poll, 59.1% intended to vote for one of the two major parties challenging the Harper Government. The combined vote of those two parties on election day was 59.2%! Canadians wanted one thing – to be rid of Stephen Harper – and they voted strategically to achieve that end. As the campaign evolved, in the Liberal Party, they saw a better prospect of doing so.

What of the role of Justin Trudeau? Yes, he is handsome, he is charming, he is the eldest son of one of Canada’s most beloved Prime Ministers, and he DID withstand everything that his Conservative opponents threw at him during a deliberately long campaign intended to undermine confidence in him and to expose his alleged ‘L’ plates.

But make no mistake….this was not a destiny ordained for him many years ago and for which he was always preparing. He has worked in real jobs (I had a work colleague 15 or so years ago in Vancouver whose children were being taught by him and who enjoyed a friendship with him. Then he was much more concerned about helping to prevent others dying on the ski slopes as his younger brother had done). When he did put himself forward for Liberal Party endorsement, it was for a Riding in Quebec held by the Bloc Quebecois, not the safe Liberal one he had been offered. And twice he declined pressure to submit himself for the arduous process of a Liberal Party Leadership Convention.

In his victory speech on Election Night, he said: “We beat fear with hope. We beat cynicism with hard work, divisive politics with a positive vision that brings Canadians together”.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will not be that man of vision in the youtube clip my friend sent me, but he has made a promising start. Already he has advised President Obama of the ‘good’ news that Canada will be an aggressive player in the fight on climate change, and the ‘bad’ news that Canada will be withdrawing its combat troops from the ISIS conflict. Will he restore Canada’s reputation as an important middle power which had the courage to stand up against pressure to join its southern neighbour in Vietnam and in Iraq? Let us hope so.

David Combe was National Secretary of the Australian Labor Party 1973-81.

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