observations and opinion
“Reason over Passion” was the motto of Canada’s 15th Prime Minister, Pierre Elliot Trudeau. It describes an intellectual discipline of being rational, rather than emotive, in making choices. In choosing a Prime Minister, how would one follow Pierre Trudeau’s dictum?
Notwithstanding his flattened affect, Stephen Harper is a passionate man. He can be furious, deeply dejected, extremely funny, and he is highly musical. He loves his family. He loves hockey. And he loves his country.
That love of country may soon be tested- Monday night or Tuesday morning – by the results of the election. If he has a plurality of seats in the House of Commons he will by constitutional convention be afforded the chance to form a government. But, he has been told by both his adversaries that they will not support a government under his leadership. Without 170 seats Mr. Harper will have no easy way, if any way, to command a majority in the House.
Our curious constitution also affords Mr. Harper the luxury of doing nothing. That’s right, nothing: he can just sit and wait, for months and months, before facing the House in 2016. He could “pull a McGuinty” in that time – quit, allow his party to find a new leader and let that lucky soul confront Parliament next Spring. The problem with that, practically speaking, is that our constitutional conventions restrict what a government can do without meeting the House. Almost nothing really, other than basic maintenance.
Unfortunately, Mr. Harper has shown lower-than-average respect for constitutional convention. The Liberals were stupid in 2011 to force an election, but you may remember what led them to it: a motion finding Mr. Harper in contempt of Parliament. He really does seem contemptuous of Parliament. He’s already prorogued the House to avoid an unhappy vote (the 2008 Coalition incident). If anyone could play fast and loose with our ancient rules, it is him.
One hopes he does not. However constitutionally feasible such games might be, they would be democratically illegitimate. If Mr. Harper is rebuked by 65 to 70% of the population and holds a bare third of the seats in Parliament, confronting opposition leaders who have pledged never to support him in government and who are likely to forge whatever agreement is necessary to form a new government, it would be appalling for the Conservatives to “freeze” things in place, cling to power and hope for a miracle next year.
Our Governor-General is a wise man. He may face a difficult few days or weeks ahead, if the result of the vote is ambiguous. It would best if we did not burden the Governor-General in this way. It would be best if the Canadian voters, choosing individually, could act collectively to create an outcome which Mr. Harper cannot be tempted to cling to power. He has to lose badly enough that he wants to walk away.
My personal guess is that Mr. Harper, being a patriot, will behave with dignity and do the right thing if soundly defeated tonight. He will quit. He is a proud man and not one inclined to accept disgrace or embarrassment. I think he will step aside in such case.
But if you think it best for the country that he depart 24 Sussex, you can help persuade him by ensuring a convincing loss. That means he has to come in a fairly distant second, or even third (third is highly unlikely – that would be a Kim Campbell kind of disaster that the polls aren’t pointing to). To come in a distant second, someone else has to pull away far enough so there is no doubt. At this stage, we know that someone has to be Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party.
If you believe the polls this is not a worry: the Liberals are 7-8 points ahead of the Tories now, we are told, with enough support to be in majority territory. Maybe, but there are hurdles to such a finish:
If the Liberals don’t land well ahead tonight, it will be a combination of those factors which accounts for it.
That last issue has been the thing holding me back from restoring my support to the party which once held it. From his first adult public appearance (Pierre Trudeau’s funeral) Mr. Trudeau earned my antipathy and dislike. His career afterwards did little to alter that view. The Liberal Party on three occasions (in 2006, 2009 and 2012) spurned Canada’s greatest statesman, Bob Rae, only to give itself over to Canada’s greatest salesman. And how ironic it is now to see that the Liberals, having rejected Mr. Rae because of his NDP past, clothed itself in NDP policy in order to get elected in 2015.
This course of action by the Liberal Party went down bitterly, and it has been hard to overcome that bitterness. But in mulling over the dictum, “Reason over Passion” I am reminded that it is necessary to make hard judgments based not on how we feel, but on how we think. To think means to permit new information into one’s head and to use it.
We have seen in Justin Trudeau an exceptional capacity to take advice, to listen and to learn. He may not be a deeper person than he appears, but he is highly attenuated to circumstances. He cares about himself, to be sure, but he appears to care about more than himself.
It appears that Mr. Trudeau has the emotional intelligence, as they call it, to register sensibilities and input. It has been said “Justin isn’t his father, he’s his mother” and that has been meant critically – to denigrate his intellect. Okay, but I am not convinced that EQ isn’t valuable. We have seen what government is like without EQ, after all. They tell me that Mr. Trudeau will lean heavily on others for advice. That is meant to be code for “he’s in over his head” but the truth is, we are way overdue for a Prime Minister who listens to advice (see my piece on that yesterday).
I personally like and regard Tom Mulcair highly, on a professional basis, but Mr. Mulcair was handed a huge set of advantages – Official Opposition, a big caucus, great fundraising, all the doubts about Justin, a lead in the polls – and turned them into ashes over the past 11 weeks. He and the NDP have done much to persuade us they do not have their act together.
We need a new government, one cleansed of the narrow-minded, frat boy sensibility characteristic of Harperism. We need a government that is not disdainful of Parliament or of the people. We also really need a better Conservative Party, which we won’t get if the current PM remains in charge. So even though I agree with considerable parts of Conservative policy, and even though I do not dislike Mr. Harper, and even though it will cost me a lot personally, I am convinced we need a fresh administration in Ottawa.
How best to attain a new government? At this early hour on polling day, I must apply reason over passion.
For me, as for millions of others probably, that will have to be enough.