Canada's New Government Turns Five
Five years ago, we all watched Stephen Harper become Prime Minister - an idea which seemed uterly ridiculous a mere 6 months earlier.
Here's what I wrote about that election last year in my moment of the decade series:
For about two weeks, everyone who liked politics started talking in staccato: “There’s no mayonnaise. On my sandwich. No mayonnaise. In Canada. I’m not making this up. I’m not allowed to make this up.” I went to a model parliament the weekend after the election and there were 12 "soldiers in our streets" jokes during the first 5 minutes of our mock question period.
But, for all the flack surrounding "soldiers in our streets", I think the commercials that really made a difference were “Change” and “Entitlements”, shown below:
The first (which I can’t find a video for anywhere) was released at a time when things seemed to be going well for the Liberals. They were up by 5 or 6 points in most polls (and a dozen points in most Ekos polls). Yes, there had been the beer and popcorn gaffe. But Harper had released his entire platform and it hadn’t exactly lit the world on fire.
But the signs were all there. Sure, people said they’d vote Liberal, but Stephen Harper had caught up to Paul Martin on the best PM question, and voters paying attention to politics were flocking to the Tories. People were ready for change after 13 years, and the ad played on those feelings.
The second ad was released the first day after the Christmas holidays, right after the Income Trust investigation had been announced. It played on the corruption theme perfectly and, having already announced a relatively unscary platform, Harper was now free to go neg.
From there, the Liberal campaign went into free fall. No matter how perfectly clear Paul Martin made himself, the media decided Liberal policy wasn’t quite as exciting as the Liberal mole and sagging poll numbers. John Duffy and Mike Duffy went at it on air before the debate. (Imagine that! A Liberal strategist daring to question the journalistic integrity of Mike Duffy.) Later that night, Paul Martin launched his often-ridiculed notwithstanding clause hail mary. Not that it really mattered, since everyone was busy talking about the aforementioned soldiers ad.
So it looked for a while like Harper might get that majority, but the man has always been kind of like BJ Ryan when it comes to closing the game. So he complained about the liberal civil service, judiciary, and senate. This was back when the “Stephen Harper Bogah Bogah!” tactic still had some resonance, so he was denied the landslide many had expected.
Despite those late stumbles, it was still a beautifully run campaign by Harper, and the election I would use as a case study if I were ever teaching a first year Poli Sci class.
Sure, there were gaffes and the income trust wild card, but I don’t think those made a difference. Rather, the Tories understood the mood of the electorate and played on it. They controlled the agenda from day 1 – getting ugly issues out of the way early, then rolling out daily policy announcements early each morning to control the day's media cycle. This served as an early inoculation against the hidden agenda attack, allowing them to go for the jugular on the corruption issue after Christmas. They had popular policies and could tell voters how those policies would impact their lives.
They were well prepared but willing to adjust and call the occasional audible – when Martin challenged Duceppe to a national unity debate then backed down, Harper volunteered to fill in. When Harper moved from challenger to front runner for the second round of debates, he changed his tone accordingly.
It may not have been the most exciting, the most shocking, or the most important election in our nation’s history (I’m sure Paul Martin would disagree). But it was far more memorable than the 2000, 2004, or 2008 campaigns, which failed to crack the top 10 of this list. And it’s not hard to argue that the change from Liberal to Conservative government was the defining political moment of the decade.