Whenever an election appears on the horizon, political strategists attempt to frame a “ballot question” to offer voters a bite-sized synopsis of the key issue, as the strategists see it.
For Conservatives planning next October’s federal campaign, the ballot question has been the economy and the Harper government’s wise management thereof since the crash of 2008. A federal surplus is within reach, the economy is growing again (at least a bit), interest rates are low and a brighter future lies ahead, or so it can be argued. Why risk everything by changing horses now?
For the opposition parties, the ballot question is a hoary one — time for a change. The New Democrats and Liberals will put different spins on the question, but the bottom line is essentially the same: after nine years, it is time to get rid of the aloof, insensitive prime minister and his arrogant Tories who care only about winning and not about the needs, hopes and dreams of ordinary Canadians.
This is pretty predictable stuff. Now, however, there is a new element — two elements, actually. First, will the war against ISIS and Canada’s involvement be what they call a “game changer?” Will it change the way Canadians look at their political leaders and their parties? Will it change their vote next October?
In one scenario, the air war goes well; ISIS is quickly contained, if not obliterated; and Canada is seen to have made a useful contribution. In this scenario, Prime Minister Harper and his Conservatives accept the credit for sound leadership and roll to victory in October.
In a second scenario — call it the Vietnam syndrome — the air war drags on with no end in sight. ISIS warriors take shelter among the civilian population and it becomes apparent it is going to take allied boots on the ground, including Canadian boots, for an indefinite period. Having bought into the U.S.-led coalition, could Canada realistically back out when the going gets tough?
But would the Canadian electorate accept an extended commitment to a war effort in which there is no evident exit strategy? And what happens if Canadian soldiers are killed or taken prisoner, or held hostage and paraded on internet videos? That would be a worst-case scenario for the Tories and could mean a ticket back to opposition.
This is why all parties are hedging their bets. The Conservatives say they signed on to the air war for six months only — a trial period that seems artificial and unrealistic. How do you fight a war with your eyes glued on the exit? The opposition parties are in a similar dilemma. They say they are opposed to joining the air war, but might change their mind later, depending on how things go. It’s a position built on quicksand, betraying both expediency and lack of commitment.
If ISIS is one potential game changer, Justin Trudeau is another. Chosen Liberal leader 18 months ago, Trudeau has enjoyed an astonishingly easy run to the top of the polls. His thin resume and meager arsenal of policies did not hinder his ascent. He has the Trudeau name — if not the steel-trap mind and icy determination of his father — and he generates genuine excitement among younger voters.
Here is an attractive young leader who wants to be prime minister, who seems impervious to Conservative attack ads, who has been forgiven assorted gaffes over the months, and who — importantly — is not Stephen Harper. What’s not to like?
The answer may have begun to emerge last week. The Commons held a debate on Canadian involvement in the ISIS war, the most important debate in the Commons in many months. It was a time for national leaders to step up. Harper and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair stepped up, leading their parties in the debate.
Trudeau did not. He left the heavy lifting to other Liberals, and he made matters worse with sophomoric sexual innuendo about fighter aircraft, an attempt at humour that was inappropriate and unfunny in a serious situation.
If Trudeau wants to lead the nation, he is going to have to prove he has what it takes.
Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. His column appears Monday in Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury. He welcomes comments at [email protected]