Election 2019: What’s the big idea?

This election demands a candidate who can rise up to these challenging times of trade wars, global instability and public-health crisis. The odds aren’t looking good.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer while walking with the crowd during the Tintamarre in celebration of the National Acadian Day and World Acadian Congress in Dieppe, N.B., Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019. (Marc Grandmaison/CP)

Comes the hour, comes the man, says an old saying in need of a gender rebalance. At great moments in a nation’s life, a great leader rises. Or at least that’s the theory. Sometimes it’s even true. This year? We’re about to find out.

The world in late 2019 is living a perilous hour. Donald Trump’s trade wars are a drag on commerce and prosperity. China has taken an increasingly authoritarian turn. India’s repression of Kashmir is a bad omen for that country’s future. Britain might pop out of the European Union without a plan, less than two weeks after Canada’s Oct. 21 federal election. It’s fair to ask, whether or not a couple of pipelines get built, whether petroleum will ever again play the same role in the world’s resource mix that it played 15 years ago. Opioid overdoses are the deadliest public-health crisis in Canada in our lifetime.

An election should be an opportunity to debate ways forward through this landscape of peril. For that to work, we need leaders and ideas on something approaching the scale of the challenges. But while the hour is big, the leaders seem like trainees.

In 2015, when Justin Trudeau’s Liberals toppled Stephen Harper’s Conservatives after nearly a decade in office, the big election question was whether voters were so eager for change that they were willing to take a flyer on some untested kid. Four years later it’s basically the same question. Only the identities of the incumbent and the newcomers have shifted.

When he ran in 2015, Trudeau was 13 years younger than Harper and 17 years younger than New Democrat Tom Mulcair. Trudeau’s limited experience—either in Parliament or before he ever ran for public office—was a significant campaign issue. The Conservatives warned he was “just not ready.” He won because, for the space of an autumn, he seemed readier than advertised.

This year Trudeau, at 47, is seven years older than his main opponents, Conservative Andrew Scheer and New Democrat Jagmeet Singh. Either challenger would be the second-youngest Canadian prime minister ever, barely older than Joe Clark was in 1979. Of course, age is no guarantee of wisdom, but neither of Trudeau’s opponents bears distinguished records of achievement. They may yet become great public figures. But that will have to come later, if it ever does.

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Scheer, whose party is the champion of plucky job creators, has been trying to get on one public payroll or other since he was an undergrad. His campaign for a spot on the Ottawa-Carleton Catholic School Board at 21 went badly, so he worked for a Member of Parliament, then (in a brief stint as an actual member of the private sector) as an insurance salesman before he ran successfully for Parliament at 25. Within two years he was a deputy Speaker of the Commons; in two more years he was the youngest Speaker in Commons history, launching a life in official residences that has continued, with a pause from 2015 to 2017, to this day.

Singh was a criminal defence lawyer until his first run for Parliament, at 32, in 2011. He lost, so five months later he ran for a seat in Ontario’s legislature and had better luck. He stayed in provincial politics until he won the federal NDP leadership in 2017.

There was a time when leaders brought more to the table. Jean Chrétien had held nine cabinet portfolios. Jack Layton had a doctorate, he was the author of books that were about topics besides Jack Layton, and he was central to debates about the future of Canadian cities for a decade before he ran for Parliament. Lester Pearson won a Nobel Peace Prize. As a dashing young member of the mid-’70s Cliche commission, Brian Mulroney rattled organized crime in Quebec. Michael Ignatieff—I know, but stay with me—was a prolific public intellectual who could get an essay published in the Sunday New York Times as easily as you or I get a coffee.

Politics can’t be reduced to a resumé-writing contest, as Ignatieff eventually learned. A big idea multiplies a candidate’s or a movement’s impact, as Reform and the Bloc Québécois demonstrated not so long ago. But so far, big ideas are missing in this election year. “Canada is at a turning point,” Stephen Harper says in a YouTube video designed to elicit donations from Conservative supporters. And what’s the nature of this turning point? “Right now, hard-working families are getting by,” Harper says, “but they’re not getting ahead.”

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Never mind that this is Trudeau’s 2015 message, more or less verbatim. Remember the ad showing Trudeau walking up a down escalator? If the American era is ending, if a singularly shaky great-power rivalry is replacing it, if the rules-based international order is cracking at the foundations, it feels like small ball to boil it all down to which party can get you a break on your household bill payments.

No wonder the electorate is showing signs of a measurable enthusiasm gap when it ponders the choice among major parties. In early August, the polling firm Abacus Data found Trudeau facing substantially higher negative perceptions than positive, 45 per cent to 36 per cent. But Scheer was also in net negative territory, 35 per cent to 32 per cent, as was Singh, 28 per cent to 26 per cent. Politics is a rough business so those numbers aren’t terrible, but at similar points before other recent elections Abacus could at least find one major leader who had more admirers than detractors. In 2015, it was the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair, with 38 per cent positive impressions to only 15 per cent negative. In 2011, it was Jack Layton, 38 per cent to 23 per cent.

The enthusiasm gap would normally be good news for smaller parties, who could hope to make gains. For much of the spring, with the Liberals mired in the SNC-Lavalin controversy and Singh’s NDP in desperate straits, it seemed Elizabeth May’s Green party might finally rise. Polls since then suggest the Greens are stalled.

May has been a party leader longer than her counterparts in the three big parties combined. She’s the Green leader in an era when environmental politics have unprecedented prominence and the Liberals have taken plenty of chances to disappoint. But she was unable to lure even Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott to the Greens after Trudeau kicked them out of the Liberal caucus.

As for Maxime Bernier and the People’s Party of Canada—nominally populist but with control tightly held by Bernier and the guy who writes his tweets—they have spent the year bumping around close to zero support in national polls.

Bernier is a former industry minister and foreign minister. He was the first choice on a dozen consecutive Conservative leadership ballots before he finally lost by a hair to Scheer. If his CV belonged to another person, surely that person could get some momentum going. Bernier’s opposition to supply-managed dairy and poultry quotas is shared by plenty of pundits. His opposition to multiculturalism and what he calls “mass immigration” upsets many, but there’s no way support for those positions is hovering near zero in Canada. It takes real skill to make a populist party as unpopular as Bernier’s. If he really wants to hurt Scheer’s Conservatives, maybe he should campaign for them.

If there’s one party leader whose room to grow is untested, it may be Yves-François Blanchet. I know: who? Blanchet is the fifth person to hold the title of Bloc Québécois leader since 2015, a former record-industry executive with several years’ experience in Quebec’s National Assembly. He’s glib and personable, and he’s running against the least bilingual Conservative and NDP leaders in 15 years. The Trudeau Liberals are nowhere stronger than in Quebec, but if they stumble, Blanchet’s Bloc has a chance.

Which brings us to Trudeau. He brings all kinds of assets to the table. First, sheer momentum. Governments that come from opposition into office with a House of Commons majority are usually re-elected at their next outing with at least a minority: think Chrétien, Mulroney, Trudeau père. You’d have to go back to R.B. Bennett, brought low by the Great Depression, for a new majority government that lost office at the next election.

Second, the Liberals are helped by a strong economy. Unemployment has been near its 40-year low all year. Wage growth is healthy. There are encouraging trends in foreign direct investment. How much of that is to Trudeau’s credit? Hard to say—unemployment is low in Donald Trump’s United States, too. But the case for Liberal re-election would be weaker if any of the indicators I’ve listed were going in the other direction.

Finally, on several files the Liberals have good work to show. The expansion of child benefits strengthens the party’s case among families with young children. After Trump got elected by calling NAFTA “the worst deal ever,” Trudeau and Chrystia Freeland substantially saved the trade accord. The Liberals have made it easier for Canadian companies to hire foreign talent that could work anywhere, they’ve stayed on good terms with both the United Kingdom and the European Union, and they may have managed to fight the Conservatives to a draw on the wisdom of Trudeau’s carbon tax-and-rebate scheme.

If, despite all this, they enter a volatile campaign roughly tied with Scheer’s Conservatives, it’s because of self-inflicted catastrophes that have left a portion of the 2015 Liberal electorate wondering whether the Conservatives had a point when they said Trudeau wasn’t ready for serious responsibility.

The list is as familiar as the now-permanent debates around each item on it: the glib abandonment of a clear and simple promise to end first-past-the-post elections; the secret vacation to the Aga Khan’s private island; the bungled changes to business taxes; the truly weird trip to India (never mind the fancy dress: even if Trudeau had taken only business suits and navy socks, can anyone say what the trip was designed to accomplish?); the extended government-wide full-court press against the attorney general of Canada to forestall a criminal trial for SNC-Lavalin.

Each time, the Trudeau circle’s reasoning seems to have been, This will look fine . . . won’t it? Then when the mess becomes public and it really doesn’t look fine, the Trudeau circle’s first reaction is to mourn the bad faith of critics, whose stories are “false” or whose legal reasoning is flawed. The persistent emerging character flaw in the Trudeau government, from the boss on out, is an inability to believe criticism might be justified.

This makes it impossible to put much hope in the outcome I think a lot of Canadians would prefer: that the Liberals win re-election but, rattled by the year’s self-inflicted grief, begin a second term with a root-and-branch overhaul of staff and procedure. This is simply not on offer. Victory would confirm the Trudeau circle’s touching eagerness to believe they are being tested in a fiery trial. It would deliver heady confirmation that they’ve been right all along.

As they try to puzzle their way through the choices and the stakes, Canadian voters will find it harder than ever to know whom to trust. The online disinformation campaigns that characterized the Trump and Brexit upsets of 2016 in the United States and Britain may well have an echo in Canada this autumn. But whatever the scale of automated bot-army trolling, the level of paranoia over the possibility of such activity is sky-high, and nowhere more than among partisans of every stripe.

Meanwhile, in traditional news organizations, newsroom budgets are in free fall, staffing is beyond tight, and whatever suspicion you might want to have about reporters’ motives, you’ve got all kinds of evidence to support your view. The Trudeau Liberals decided to subsidize struggling newspapers to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s probably not enough to save any paper that’s bound to fail, but it’ll make lots of people wonder what newsrooms owe in return. The country’s largest media union, Unifor, is campaigning hard against the Scheer Conservatives. The Postmedia chain is reported to have installed a defender of conservative thought at a senior level in the chain’s management.

Of course it’s possible that most journalists are trying their best to call the news as they see it and that they wish the helpers and guides in their companies’ management, union and current government would take a leap. But none of us has the election we wanted this year. We still have to hold the things every four years or so. I’m sure it’ll be great fun at some point. Fingers crossed.

This article appears in print in the October 2019 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Wanted: A leader with big ideas.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.