Justin Trudeau says better is always possible. It’s time to do better.

Paul Wells: In an era of uncertainty, party leaders were unprepared. Now can Trudeau learn from his mistakes?
Supporters and demonstrators hold signs outside the federal leaders’ debate in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada, on Monday, Oct. 7, 2019. Canada’s political party leaders are making affordability the central talking point of their election campaigns, rolling out targeted measures to alleviate the financial strain besetting voters. (David Kawai/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

It was the kind of campaign that has people quoting Gramsci. “This is like that quote from Gramsci,” a wise friend said to me over lunch. This actually happened.

I nodded, sweating a bit. Think, Wells, think. Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Communist writer and politician. Mussolini’s Fascists threw him into a Roman prison. He wrote 30 notebooks in his cell. I quoted him in one of my books or else I wouldn’t know any of this.

In his third prison notebook, in 1930, Gramsci wrote, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

It’s been a good year for morbid symptoms. To some extent the whole lurid cavalcade began on Jan. 14, when Justin Trudeau shuffled his cabinet, moving Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould out of that portfolio. That unexplained move metastasized into the SNC-Lavalin affair, about which not much more need be said, except this: even today, by the ethics commissioner’s count, nine people involved in the controversy remain barred, on Trudeau’s orders, from discussing in public what they saw and heard.

When it was revealed, in the second week of the campaign, that a young Trudeau used to slather on a load of blackface on his way to just about every fancy dress party, the worst thing about the news was how unsurprising it was. I mean, the details were surprising, but the general notion—the neediness, the eagerness to shock—that part was familiar by now.

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Andrew Scheer, it emerged, is part American. The Conservative leader is 40. He’s been a politician for half his life. Why had this not come out earlier? Because nobody had asked, he said. Nobody asked whether he was an accredited insurance broker either, but for years Scheer said he was. Falsely. As resumé padding goes, this was almost adorably modest, but it still torpedoed Scheer’s standing as a critic of anybody else’s credibility.

Citizens reading about all this wondered how much of the campaign news they could trust. Would right-wing newspaper-chain owners cloud reporters’ judgment? Anti-Conservative media unions? The Liberals’ $600-million newspaper bailout? The CBC’s lawsuit against Andrew Scheer? Just about every news organization had a fake-news team, busy sniffing out the fake news, which could have left audiences assuming there was a lot of fake news to track down. Mostly there was only the usual run of stretchers and character assassinations.

Leaders of every party tiptoed around a Quebec law that would make it impossible for somebody who dresses like NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh to be hired as a schoolteacher. Singh admitted the law makes him “sad.” The law is popular in Quebec, where dozens of seats were in play, so quiet personal emotion was about as far as Singh or his opponents wanted to go. Taken together, the resurrection of the Bloc Québécois in Quebec and the Conservatives’ 40-point lead over any other party in Alberta suggested this election will lead to serious tension in the federation. So at least we have that to look forward to.

To be fair, the morbid symptoms of Campaign 2019 are nothing compared to the morbid symptoms Antonio Gramsci had to put up with. His were literally morbid. He died in custody because his country had fallen into the hands of actual fascists. Against that, Scheer’s shaky insurance-industry credentials seem less of a big deal. But the sense of deep uncertainty Gramsci described—of a terrible pause between a dying old order and a still-unformed future—matched the national mood as October wore on.

National? Global. The world’s a mess. The U.S. House of Representatives has finally launched an impeachment investigation of Donald Trump, but Trump still found time to hand northern Syria over to Turkey. Britain’s departure from the European Union seems at last at hand. China. Kashmir. Good luck with all of it.

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In the middle of this crisis, Canadians picked a government. If there was a common thread to the commentary on Election 2019, it’s that the tone was uniquely negative. I don’t think that’s right. Political opponents always accuse one another of the worst motives. I think the problem this year was that there was so little upside to compensate. The answers leaders peddled didn’t begin to address the real problems. There is no Canadian problem to which a camping voucher or an amateur-sport tax credit is the solution. And to hear candidates suggesting otherwise hurt—what? Our pride? Our sense of proportion? Some instinctive sense of proper scale, at least.

If the old is dying, what does the old look like? We can map at least a few of its features.

For three-quarters of a century, Alberta oil has fuelled not only Alberta’s prosperity, but much of Canada’s. The days of that arrangement are numbered, and it’s easy to be smug about that as long as you’re not one of the millions of Canadians whose livelihood depends on Alberta oil. The transition from a carbon-funded economy to a carbon-free economy will be as big a challenge as any Canada has faced. But is it happening? Recall that the G7 leaders wrote that “deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions are required with a decarbonisation of the global economy over the course of this century.” In 2015. When Stephen Harper was Canada’s prime minister.

Relations between Indigenous Canadians and the rest of the country are never going back to where they were before Trudeau became prime minister. His four years of effort disappointed many, but no future government will be able to pretend they didn’t happen. Expectations and frustrations have grown exponentially. The growing case law in support of Indigenous populations won’t be repealed by some future court.

Canada’s biggest strategic bet after World War II—in some ways its only bet—was on the United States as a reliable and usually beneficial global superpower. Those days are over. In some ways it’s probably not even Donald Trump’s fault, and it won’t change even if his successor has a longer attention span. Does Canada throw in its lot with China instead? Geography and morality will have something to say about such a choice. But mounting a concerted national resistance to Chinese influence is a hell of a lot easier said than done.

Of course, it’s asking too much of any Canadian government to propose solutions to these problems. There can be no credible Cancelling the Decline of Carbon Act, no single Reconciliation Act. Like the Cold War or the history of the oil sands, whatever’s coming will be around for as long as most of our lives last.

But it would have been nice if the discourse of Campaign 2019 had borne some resemblance to the context, if so much of the debate hadn’t been premised on the apparent assumption that big things aren’t happening in the world. I moderated a televised leaders’ debate on the second day of the campaign and, more than once during the foreign-policy segment, I had to stifle the urge to blurt out, “Are you people kidding me?”

Of course not all is lost. As the consultant and writer John Duffy pointed out in his wonderful 2002 book Fights of Our Lives, memorable Canadian election campaigns sometimes come in sets of two: a long era of stability is rattled in one election, then the emerging stakes are settled in a second. That’s how the Liberal era of King and St. Laurent ended, with an inconclusive 1957 election followed by John Diefenbaker’s resounding 1958 victory. It’s also the story of 1979-80, when Canadians elected an alternative to Pierre Trudeau (Joe Clark) before quickly calling Trudeau back. So this feeling that little has been settled is natural, it has precedent, and it’s not necessarily eternal.

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Indeed, we’ve seen in the not-too-distant past what it’s like when a period of instability gives way to an extended period of relative stability. Think of the chaos in Canadian politics in the first couple of years after the 2000 election. Jean Chrétien’s governing Liberals were beset by open fighting over the aging leader’s succession. Stephen Harper wrote a letter to the National Post, arguing that Ontario’s rejection of the Canadian Alliance in 2000 had undermined Canada’s legitimacy as a unified country. MPs were quitting the Alliance so frequently that reporters and camera crews would camp every Wednesday outside the opposition party’s caucus meeting, to have a laugh as MPs streamed out of the meeting with hangdog expressions. Border security and Canada’s place in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were topics of bitter daily debate.

It wasn’t until much later that it began to seem, in hindsight, that a lot of this chaos began to find its resolution in 2003. Not because any single authority willed a new order into being, but just because that’s the way things sometimes work out.

Here’s what happened in 2003.

In January, the NDP picked a Toronto city councillor, Jack Layton, as its leader, after a decade of catastrophic election results. Most of the party’s parliamentary caucus backed other candidates, but Layton’s NDP would win a growing share of votes and seats in the next four consecutive elections.

In April, Jean Charest was elected premier of Quebec, inaugurating 15 years of near-continuous federalist government in Quebec. (Pauline Marois’s Parti Québécois defeated Charest in 2012 but lasted only two years before the Liberals returned under Philippe Couillard.)

In May, Peter MacKay became leader of the Progressive Conservatives by promising not to negotiate union with the further-right Canadian Alliance. By December, the PCs and the Alliance had merged to create the new Conservative Party. Like Layton’s NDP, it would win more seats and votes in each of the next four elections.

In October, Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals won the Ontario election, setting up 15 years of Liberal rule in Canada’s largest province.

And in November, Paul Martin became leader of the federal Liberals, setting the stage for four consecutive elections, under three leaders, in which the Liberals won ever-declining shares of votes and seats.

You could like those years or hate them, but for more than a decade, if you were a Canadian you could at least develop an intuitive sense of what video-game players call the physics of the game. But at some point the physics stopped working. Probably in stages.

The oil price shock of 2015 ended the career of Alberta Conservative Premier Jim Prentice, as fine a consensus politician as you could imagine, unprepared as perhaps anyone would be for the evaporation of consensus.

The terrorist attack on Parliament Hill in October 2014 rattled Stephen Harper in ways he has never discussed, probably affecting the positions he took on refugee resettlement and veiled voting in the 2015 election. After a decade leading a more open, pluralistic Conservative Party, he turned inward when more Canadians were hoping to turn outward.

Harper’s 2008 apology in Parliament to residential school survivors, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that worked for seven years afterward, ratcheted expectations and frustration on Indigenous issues way up. One of the frustrations of this year’s election has been watching Andrew Scheer attempt to behave as though it’s possible to return to a time before 2008 on these issues.

The rise of Xi Jinping in China in 2013 and Donald Trump in the United States in 2016, along with the Brexit referendum just before Trump’s election, shattered a library full of basic assumptions about the world and Canada’s place in it.

The answers party leaders offered didn’t begin to address the real problems facing Canadians (Photo by JUSTIN TANG/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Pick your own set of game-changing events. And spare a little pity for the leaders who have had to navigate these new waters. Another thing I felt as this campaign wore on was growing guilt at having the easier assignment: it’s way easier to sit here and type clever columns about how our leaders don’t have answers to the current mess than it must be to come up with answers.

The challenge for the leaders was all the greater because they are, objectively, not the best-prepared bunch of leaders we’ve seen.

Andrew Scheer is the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada because most of the movement’s heavyweights—Peter MacKay, John Baird, Jason Kenney, Rona Ambrose—declined the invitation to run. It took Scheer 13 ballots to beat Maxime Bernier for the leadership. It’s even harder to believe now that we know who Bernier is than it was at the time. When Kenney became leader of Alberta’s United Conservative Party, and Doug Ford took over Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives, much of the experienced Conservative staff in Ottawa decamped to Edmonton or Toronto. (Some of them moved right back to Ottawa after seeing Ford govern for a few months, but still.)

Scheer’s campaign staff in the 2017 Conservative leadership campaign called that process a referendum on Harperism. Bernier and the assorted Christian Conservative candidates, Brad Trost most prominent against them, constituted various facets of the No side. Scheer was the Yes. The party eventually decided that, on balance, Harper had led it well. Choosing Scheer was an expression of that sentiment. It’s easy to understand: Harper is the only Conservative or Alliance or Reform or what-have-you leader in 30 years who’s beaten the Liberals in a federal election.

But Scheer’s effort in Campaign 2019 felt too often like a Harper cargo cult: if he simply erected enough tax credits and punitive measures against opioid use at the end of the runway, he seemed to think, maybe he could make the great awkward bird appear again on the horizon. Whoever leads the Conservatives in the next election will need to work harder on understanding that the current year will never again be 2006.

In choosing Singh, the NDP continued its tradition of reaching outside Ottawa for its leaders (Andrew Vaughan/CP)

Watching Jagmeet Singh think fast, charm crowds and flummox his debating opponents was one of the consistent pleasures of this campaign. He had a difficult run as NDP leader before the big test, and often his trouble was of his own making. Watching him recover was encouraging.

He needed to recover because his elevation as NDP leader, in October 2017, was the latest result of a long-standing NDP reflex: to reach outside the party’s parliamentary caucus for an outsider who, the party hopes, will shake up tired Ottawa and change the party’s prospects. Layton wasn’t an MP when he won the leadership. Neither was Alexa McDonough before him. Nor Tommy Douglas, the party’s founding leader.

The revolutionary impulse dies hard in a party that was born from the belief that business as usual in Ottawa is never good enough, but it keeps producing leaders who need to spend years learning how Ottawa works. Party standings in the new Commons are such that Singh will need to keep thinking fast if he’s to match Layton’s trajectory as a builder.

All of which brings us to Justin Trudeau. The last time a new governing party went from opposition to majority government before losing the next election outright, the party was the Conservatives, the prime minister was R.B. Bennett, and the period in question was 1930-35, the depths of the Great Depression. Trudeau flirted with matching Bennett’s one-term record amid the lowest unemployment in 50 years. That’s impressive.

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The Liberals have yearned for the polarized, left-right, panic-bell campaign we just saw for nearly half as long as Trudeau has been prime minister. Trump’s election, the Brexit referendum, and the evidence of Russian interference in both votes rattled Canada’s Liberals for a while, but after that it seems to have invigorated them. In spring 2018 at the party’s Halifax convention, Trudeau’s principal secretary Gerald Butts sat on a stage with David Axelrod, the Barack Obama adviser, to talk about re-elections. You can’t be as rosy the second time around, Axelrod said. You’ll have a record that will make you a target. When pushed, “push back hard.”

The whole frame assumed the Liberals would be fighting against the northern equivalent of Trump or the Obama-era Tea Party Republicans. And indeed, it was hard to shake the impression that Trudeau was disappointed whenever Scheer didn’t deliver the requisite quantum of moustache-twirling evil. For decades Liberals ran, when they were winning, as the dependable middle of the Canadian road. Jean Chrétien’s jokes about the dangers of traffic on the left or right were among his favourites. Trudeau’s Liberals ran in 2015 on an essentially economic message—the middle class and those working to join it, the infrastructure. Increasingly after 2015 they governed as the vanguard of a social movement. Too often they seemed to find Canadians stuck in the middle of the road tiresome or embarrassing. On Monday a lot of those voters repaid the Liberals by voting for someone else.

I’ve been so critical of Trudeau this year that I’ve seen people conclude I can’t stand the man. It’s not true. He has a big heart. He’d like a Canada that’s more prosperous and fairer, one that matters more in the world. People who work with him, including public servants who aren’t invested in his success, say he’s a quick study, curious and engaged in briefings. A raft of polls shows he’s no longer seen as particularly more honest or effective than other leaders. He exited the 2015 election as a repository of Liberal hopes; he exits this one as just another politician.

The question now is what he’ll do about it. Trudeau’s first government kept expecting people to be amazed by inputs—so many hundreds of millions in this project, so many hundreds of millions in that. People outside government are more interested in outputs. Try getting this government to tell you what results it’s getting. You’ll have a long wait. I think the Trudeau inner circle would be amazed to hear how many people who work with the Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development—earlier, less exciting governments used to call it the Industry Department—are sure Canada’s progress or prosperity would not be harmed if the whole ministry were shut down from one day to the next. ISED is a reliable producer of tweets about how awesome ISED is. The Prime Minister’s Office has never asked for more.

Trudeau made progress in his early days as prime minister because he and his associates came from outside a system, eyed its weaknesses, and came in with clear fixes. It’s what every new government does—the “everything’s broken” impulse. Before long governments shift out of repair mode and into justification mode—the “everything’s fine” impulse. But everything is not fine.

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Trudeau would do well to appoint a second transition team from outside his government to do what his first transition team did in 2015. Its first move could be to recommend the implementation of the report Trudeau commissioned from former Liberal Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan to ensure nothing as appalling as the SNC-Lavalin affair happens to another attorney general. Its next move could be to forcefully demote a network of senior staffers who have acted as though cabinet ministers serve them when it should be the other way around. Its third could be to establish regular meetings between the Prime Minister and each of his ministers, because too many ministers have reported they could not even meet with Trudeau without assorted staffers encrusting the encounters like barnacles.

Doing all this would take humility and a willingness to put some friendly noses out of joint. But what’s the alternative? To proceed as though the Liberals got it all right the first time around. That a man who did not know, at the age of 29, that blackface is racist had learned, by the age of 43, everything there is to know about public administration.

Minority government is usually a time for defensiveness and short-termism. Trudeau should remember that defensiveness and short-termism got him here. Caucus members who won re-election should pluck up their courage and remind him. Politics is a team sport, they told one another when they were closing ranks against internal critics during the SNC-Lavalin affair. True enough, but no team lasts long if it is afraid of honest self-criticism.

The times demand something bigger than mere tactics. In Canada, a younger Justin Trudeau used to say, better is always possible. It’s true and it was good to hear. That optimistic streak won him election and, now, re-election. But the urge to do better is not just a wish. It’s also a mandate. It’s time to do better.

This article appears in print in the December 2019 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Chaos theory.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.