How The New West Got Old
Much deep thought and superficial wisdom has been applied to Justin Trudeau’s ascension to the prime minister’s job. It seems every day there is a new hosannah to Liberal party guru Gerry Butts or to the man on the escalator himself, M. Trudeau.
One significant cause of the last-minute stampede from the NDP to the Liberals— the real key to Trudeau’s majority— has received little fanfare, however. That would be the desire of the Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto axis to restore the power and influence it has almost exclusively wielded since WW II. While Stephen Harper was vilified over secrecy, pettiness and playing mediocre piano, the underlying message of eastern criticism was that he was Not Us. Other. A prairie outlier in the scented salons of the Liberal Party’s traditional corridor of power.
A correction was called for. And delivered.
The Harper years had not been an easy almost-decade for the Laurentian mandarins (in both major parties) who ruled almost exclusively from Mackenzie King in 1945 till Harper’s taking power in 2004. Outside the brief 18-month interregnum of Joe Clark (who is considered a vendu to most Westerners), the attitudes and prejudices of the urban silos dominated Canadian policy and saturated images telecast by the CBC and the other national TV networks.
This mindset was shaped by the middle-way Pearsonian foreign policy (after PM Lester Pearson) and Pierre Trudeau’s rejection of Canada’s British, conservative, small-business oriented roots. It fused fashionability with best intentions. The period produced profligate economic policy and the near-disappearance of Canadian military tradition. Even the Quebec Tory Brian Mulroney followed suit.
Then along came Stephen. Outside of Preston Manning, Canada had rarely seen any serious kind of ideological threat to its hegemony till Harper united the right and won three consecutive elections.
Fueled by the energy wealth of the West, Harper’s ascendance suggested a permanent shifting of the blocks. The ostentatious wealth of Alberta fueled the nation’s economy but also resentment of its influence. To the old Family Compact, this could not stand.
Another eastern source of Harper resistance came from the Ottawa civil service, a 1970/ 80's Liberal confection that bridled the entire time under the “yoke” of Harper, who was (in principal at least) dedicated to winnowing their numbers and reducing their chattiness in the media. The “Harper Hates Science” campaign is just one plank in this campaign. (The influence of the federal civil servants was seen in the capital region, where the Libs swept all the seats.)
Trudeau’s proposal of proportional representation is another wedge against Harper’s west. In the move to depress western power, it devalues the impact of major parties in favour of the Greens and other fringe parties. Can an inexperienced manager like Trudeau restore the traditional order, even if he wants to? That will be the story of the next four years as the right — in particular the Western right — girds to get back into power.
While the Giller Prize set lauded Harper’s demise, his going was lamented by former Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal. Ignoring the vilification of Harper’s economic record chez nous, she noted Harper’s “great success was in helping bring his country through and past the global meltdown of 2008. He was loyal to Western principles and a friend of America even when, as in recent years, its leaders’ decisions left him doubting and dismayed.”
Turning her gaze to the new PM, one might suggest Noonan believes Trudeau is — cough — not ready. “Justin Trudeau has been a snowboard instructor, schoolteacher, bartender, bouncer, speaker on environmental and youth issues, and advocate for avalanche safety. Sensing ‘generational change’ and gravitating toward ‘a life of advocacy,’ he entered politics and served two terms in Parliament.
“He has been head of the Liberal Party two years. He is handsome, has a winning personality, exhibited message discipline during the campaign, and is a talented dancer. There’s a sense we in the West have entered a new screwball phase.” Noonan does concede that many said similar things when John F. Kennedy was elected U.S, president in 1960.
But there is a clear sense of lotsa’ luck to Canadians and Americans both in her wry commentary. Clearly she laments the loss of a leavening balance against Barack Obama’s whimsical approach to foreign policy. And, as a conservative, she worries about the leftward economic bent in western democracies like Obama’s U.S. already drowning in debt and fragmentation.
Noonan’s had seven years to see the results of voters taking a leap of faith in the executive suite. Canada is now about to do the same for four years at minimum.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy @NPBroadcaster