What a difference a year makes

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At the beginning of 2015, who would have predicted that the also-ran third party in Parliament would form a solid majority government with a leader who is making international waves?


First published in The Hill Times on Friday, December 18, 2015.

OTTAWA—What a difference a year makes. At the beginning of 2015, who would have predicted that the also-ran third party in Parliament would form a solid majority government with a leader who is making international waves?

Even the most diehard Liberals were entertaining a two-stage victory process. The first move was to return to official opposition status before winning government.

Common parlance said that prime minister Stephen Harper’s grip on power was so tight, that his organizational skills and communications discipline could secure his re-election.

That race was supposed to be against Thomas Mulcair, the New Democratic Party leader who had ably mastered the art of Question Period. His questions were so good; it was assumed that his answers would be better.

And then there was Justin. Indeed, friends and foes alike branded him on a first-name basis.

Savvy political advisers called him thus to differentiate him from his father. Justin Trudeau was friendly, approachable and a very different leader from his Cartesian parent.

His foes branded him the same way to promote the notion that this kid just wasn’t ready. His age, his hair, his unconventional career path (as a teacher, not a lawyer) managed to sow the seeds of doubt about his capabilities. That, and a multi-million-dollar advertising campaign designed to reinforce all perceived weaknesses, did the trick. When the never-ending campaign actually started, voters at the doorstep repeated verbatim the exact lines crafted for the Tory ad campaign, without even realizing it.

Voters were questioning his age, and even asking whether he had the intelligence to be prime minister.

Through it all, Trudeau continued to surprise. First it was a knockout punch in the boxing ring. That was a risky move for any politician because if he had lost, his Rocky story could have ended there.

There is nothing the public likes better than to watch a politician flub a sporting challenge, and it can have devastating electoral consequences. Robert Stanfield never did learn how to play football.

But Trudeau did his homework. He trained quietly and effectively, and when the moment came, his opponent didn’t even see it coming.

To his credit, Stephen Harper actually saw  Trudeau coming. Throughout the long months when the polls were tracking the ascendance of Thomas Mulcair, he was virtually ignored in the Conservative air wars.

Even though all indications pointed to a battle between the Conservatives and the New Democrats, Harper focused single-mindedly on the Liberal leader. Mulcair was barely mentioned, either in advertising or in parliamentary jibes. It was all about discrediting the real threat to the throne.

Harper understood, as few others did, that the very characteristics highlighted to define Trudeau so negatively could also prove to be his greatest strength.

His youthful looks and his new approach meant he could legitimately signal a generational change. Harper’s stolid image was no match for a guy who could box, canoe and tweet all in the same day.

Conversely, Mulcair and Harper physically appeared to be two peas in a pod. They could both pass the test of membership in the Old Boys’ Club. That would have been great if people were looking to elect old boys.

But this was an election about change. Poll after poll consistently predicted that the vast majority of Canadians were seeking it.

Physically, Trudeau was the candidate that best personified change. But what about cerebrally? Being good looking with a well-honed physique certainly does not hurt.

But people want to know what is behind the hair before they will give you the keys to the kingdom.

Harper’s organizational and fundraising skills were the reason he launched one of the longest campaigns in modern history. But that one decision ultimately determined his demise.

Time gave Trudeau a chance to get out across the country unfiltered by the lens of a television ad, and they obviously liked what they saw.

His mastery of subject matter and delivery, in all the debates, ran counter to the negative campaign that had so effectively defined him.

Thanks to the Conservatives, Trudeau actually started the election with such low expectations that he had nowhere to go but up.

So 2015 turned out to be the year that changed Canada.

But the same uncertainty that muddied the political landscape this year could easily reemerge.

Success for the new Liberal government lies in taking a lesson from their unexpected trajectory.  

In politics, what happened last year seldom matters.  You are only as good as your next year.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era Cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.