On this coming Sunday, it’ll be exactly half a decade since the last Liberal government went down to defeat in the House of Commons. Seems like a lifetime.
Nov. 28, 2005: It was quite a day. The three opposition parties no longer had confidence in the government, and so – in a raucous, dramatic session – they passed a motion to that effect, 171 to 133. Prime minister Paul Martin had promised to call an election no later than April 2006, but the opposition was no longer in a mood to wait.
The next morning, Martin had tea with the governor general, and Parliament was dissolved. Slightly more than two months later, it would be Stephen Harper having tea with the G.G. – as prime minister.
A week is a lifetime in politics, the saying goes, and so a half-decade seems like a thousand lifetimes. A lot has changed.
For starters, Stephen Harper – once the feared Reform Party outsider – is no longer feared so much, if at all. As with all prime ministers,
Harper has become pretty familiar to the rest of us. For a decade, the Liberals kept Harper and his conservative colleagues from power with frightening tales about what the right-wingers would do to social programs, health care and race relations.
But after five years, our social network is mainly what it was; health care is more or less intact; and the party with the most racially diverse caucus in the House of Commons is, well, Harper’s.
Politically, it’s accepted the Conservative leader is a wily strategist. What is less-known, perhaps, is that Harper – like Jean Chretien before him – has greatly benefited from
being underestimated by his opponents. In every election, it seems, Harper’s opponents predict he will lose his temper, or do something spectacularly stupid on the campaign trail. But he never does.
One of my Reform-Conservative friends – I have a few, but don’t tell anyone – revealed one of the secrets of Harper’s success.
“It’s incumbency,” said my friend. “With every day he is prime minister, he guarantees that he will remain prime minister.”
That sounded a little too New Age to me, and I said so. What Liberals had done very successfully, my friend explained – at this point, he called me and my Grit pals a bad name, one unsuited for a family newspaper – was to demonize the Reform-Conservatives as racist, radical reactionaries.
“Power dilutes those perceptions,” he said. “Now, you’re going to have to come up with a new stick to beat us with.”
And that much is true. After half a decade, it seems Liberals still haven’t settled on an issue that clearly distinguishes them from their main rivals.
The economy? Liberals would have spent the recession stimulus faster, but not so differently. Health care? Both parties employ a lot of the same rhetoric.
Afghanistan? After last week and thanks to Bob Rae’s Chamberlain- like capitulation – that issue is lost, too.
So what will the coming election be about? No one knows, exactly.
One thing’s clear, however: The past five years haven’t made Stephen Harper particularly lovable to Canadians.
But it hasn’t made them hell-bent on getting rid of him, either.