If it is possible to sum up in one word why Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals won the last federal election, that word would be fear.
The Conservative Party was all about fear. Fear of the economy. Fear of immigrants. Fear of the future. Fear of the Liberals. The Tory campaign was designed to make you afraid and then promise – as Donald Trump would later at the RNC convention – that they alone could protect you from the threats lurking in every shadow.
The trouble for the Tories was that Canadians don’t scare so easily. And when Canadians turned away from former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s chorus of gloom, there was Trudeau and his Liberals, promising a kinder, gentler, unafraid Canada.
“Sunny ways,” he called it.
Whether you agree with the Liberal’s policy direction or not, there is no question Trudeau has been the master of tone. “Sunny ways” was more than just a cute turn of phrase to be used during his victory speech. Trudeau very consciously channels the late Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s political style. Its appeal in uncertain times is potent.
But it seems the sun sets on even the most positive of political outlooks. For Trudeau’s new weapon is the one used by his former rival.
You may recall that one of Trudeau’s key election promises was to revamp Canada’s electoral system. He famously said the election which swept him into power would be the last using the first past the post electoral method. It would be replaced with a version of proportional representation to be studied by a special all-party committee and eventually put to Canadians in the form of a referendum.
The project was an abject failure. The minister of democratic institutions ultimately concluded that changing the electoral system required a significant buy-in from Canadian voters, who were largely disinterested in the entire process. Without broad support to change the system, the Liberal government said, reform wasn’t possible.
That the public is too apathetic to pay attention to electoral reform is, frankly, a fairly plausible explanation in an age of hyper-partisan, cynical politics. However, if the public wasn’t engaged enough in the process, it was the job of the government to do more to get Canadians involved. In other words, to lead.
Rather than admit to failure or try again, Trudeau now says proportional representation is something to be feared. And that fear has a name: Conservative Party leadership hopeful Kellie Leitch.
Trudeau says proportional representation – which gives candidates from smaller parties a better chance of being elected than first past the post might – is a danger because it could result in someone like Leitch, who exists on the political fringes, forming a government.
If Trudeau has been Mr. Sunny Ways, then Leitch is Ms. Storm Clouds. Tapping into the kind of polarizing, xenophobic politics that pushed Trump into the White House, Leitch has proposed that immigrants must take, and pay for, a test to demonstrate they do not harbour anti-Canadian values.
Trudeau is using the general distaste for Leitch’s politics as an excuse not to reform the electoral system. A new system might allow her to win, he is saying, and we can’t have that!
This is, frankly, an act of political cowardice.
The way to combat the kind of ideas proffered by Leitch, an avatar for a Canadian iteration of Trumpian politics, is not by ensuring the electoral system is setup to make it harder for her to win. It is, rather, by persuading Canadians that your vision is the better way. It is by listening to the problems, fears and hopes of Canadians, and building policies to address them.
In effect, Trudeau is saying it is best to have an electoral system that bypasses the need to do any of that. And in doing so, whether he knows it or not, Trudeau has already lost the argument.