I figure two months is enough time for everyone to get used to the idea of Prime Minister Trudeau 2.0. (How do you know you’re used to it? When you’re not constantly thinking about how Stephen Harper would’ve done things differently.)
The punditocracy has been making noises about how long the Prime Minister’s “honeymoon” looks to be extended, but already we’re seeing signs that it’s wearing off. Specifically, the Globe and Mail’s liberal TV critic, John Doyle, getting into a hissy-fit with the Prime Minister’s secretary Gerald Butts over the wardrobe of a Liberal junior minister. No, it’s not quite the sponsorship scandal, but even the most Grit-minded folks of the Toronto press corps know their job will involve carving up the government, no matter how charming the government tries to be. (Down south, Barack Obama’s pretty much gone through the same thing.)
In the meantime, the Tories, high and low, have four years to turn themselves into a viable, electable alternative to the government. And unlike the Liberal opposition of the Harper years, we do have a few things going in our favor.
The big one is our baseline assumptions. The Dion and Ignatieff Liberals had to assume that they could resume their natural roles as the government pretty much at any time, thanks to minority situations and a natural reluctance to admit that there was anything wrong with their mindset. (And here, we should at least give the PM some credit: by firing the Liberal Senate from his caucus and recruiting younger candidates, he showed he was at least willing to address the ossification of Liberal thinking.)
Conservatives, by contrast, have never made the assumption that power would be theirs by default — at least, not the ones who want to prove politics to be an honorable calling. That’s the kind of thinking that leads to the attitude of entitlement that everyone these days is working to discourage.
Another advantage? Fundraising. Generally speaking, during the Harper years overall contributions may have dropped, but the fundamental mechanisms and infrastructure are still pretty sound. True, the other major parties have managed to catch up, finally getting used to the “no corporate donations” policy, but everyone’s got the message that the old ways aren’t going to come back, and woe betide any government that tries to change that. And for the Tories, individual fundraising experience and longevity is still an advantage.
If there’s one thing that needs to be improved (and it’s going to be a tough one, because it involves a change in contemporary mindset), it’s a very simple, yet very difficult thing: learning to defend.
The past four years of majority government may have given the Tories opportunity to wage a constant attack on the Liberals in general and Justin Trudeau in particular, but it’s also allowed them to forget the art of defense: how to justify and explain our policies in terms the voter can accept. It’s the sort of thing that has to be done constantly, and with conviction, otherwise people don’t pay attention and public attitude changes from “understandable” to “inexplicable.” Withdrawing the mandatory long-form census is one example. Citizenship rules are another.
Now that the Tories are in opposition, it’s time to relearn the three fundamental functions of the role:
- questioning the need for a policy
- showing why a policy won’t work unless changed
- proposing alternatives to the policy
In recent years, of course, it’s been more fashionable to attack individual ministers and others for decisions perceived to be of personal benefit, but if politics needs to be taken seriously, the public needs to see a lot less of that sort of thing. Believe it or not, it is most certainly not a bad thing for Justin Trudeau to do a photoshoot with his wife; part of the job of a national leader is to improve the morale of his people, and if the people like the glamour associated with his charming the world, so what? It’d be a different thing if he were doing the shot during Question Period or in the middle of a disaster zone, but Justin has learned not to let his critics dictate his actions, which is a sure sign of weak leadership.
In 2016, there are plenty of opportunities to fuel the fire for Prime Minister Trudeau’s baptism. There’s a budget coming up, as well as the Speech from the Throne. Actions in Syria haven’t been fully addressed yet. A lower dollar means some hard decisions will need to be made on program spending, and the provinces are sensing their own opportunities. Plenty of time to end the honeymoon, but never make the mistake of thinking the Tories will automatically benefit. It took ten years for the Liberals to earn their way back to power. Let’s hope the Tories don’t take that much time.