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Dewey defeats Truman (and other news)

Monday, July 5, 2004

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Written by Scott Piatkowski

I chose the cryptic headline above (a reference to the famous Chicago Daily Tribune headline from 1948, which got the election result wrong) to make it clear that I’m writing this column prior to Election Day, although you will be reading it several days after the results are known. Paul Martin didn’t consult me on the timing of the election and, having voted at the advanced poll, I’m about to leave for a much-needed family vacation.

But, realistically, readers weren’t about to turn to this column to find out who won the most seats on Monday night (although, with no party holding a majority of seats, it may well take several weeks to figure out who is able to govern based on those results). What I believe people are looking for in this space is analysis, and I’ve got lots of that to offer. After all, this has been the closest and the most interesting election campaign since I’ve been old enough to vote.

The big story of the campaign has to be the spectacular collapse of the Liberal Party..er, Team Martin, which had at one point been expected to break records for the size of their majority. The answers to how that could have happened go far beyond the sponsorship scandal. The perceived inevitability that the Chretien years would be followed by the Martin years led to an excessive focus on the internal power struggle between the two men (and their camps). Consequently, the muscles that the Liberals use to take on the other parties were allowed to go flabby. It didn’t help matters that but one of the other challengers for the leadership were crushed – to the point that Paul Martin was never really tested in a high-stakes debate before this campaign.

Martin never really explained why he wanted the job, lending credibility to the theory that he was more eager to fulfill his late father’s dream, rather than actually achieve anything. He had nearly six months to govern and just didn’t bother. At the same time, his speechwriters set new records for hyperbole, constantly referring to the need for “transformative change” and to this being “the most important election in Canadian history. The election was important, all right, and he got the transformative change, but that was hardly what he was talking about).

Thirdly, the Liberals thought they could employ the same strategy as in 1997 and 2000 and get the same result. But, it’s hard to argue that you’re the saviour of health care and the only party that can defend it against attempts to cut or privatize when your government has an eleven year record of doing exactly that. And, it’s equally hard to argue that your party will protect Canadians from social extremists in the Conservative Party, when your own back bench is filled with the same kind of social extremists.

That said, the election was equally remarkable for what didn’t happen. Even with a united right and a collapsing Liberal Party, the Conservatives were not even able to match the combined Alliance-PC vote from 2000. When the Liberal vote collapsed in 1984, for example, the result was a massive majority for the Mulroney Tories. Clearly, voters were uncomfortable with what the Reformatories were offering – or rather, what they were hiding.

In a sane world, both Martin and Harper would find themselves under pressure to resign. But, with the false perception that Harper actually improved party fortunes, his job will probably be safe. It remains to be seen how long he’ll be able to keep the muzzle on his caucus, which will feature all of the old right wing extremists and some new ones from Ontario.

Strangely, few pollsters and commentators noticed, the other signicant change between 2004 and 2000 was the NDP’s successes – not just in increasing their vote, but in helping to set the agenda and being involved in the campaign from coast to coast to coast.

As a New Democrat, I can tell you that I don’t always (indeed, hardly ever) come through an election campaign feeling completely happy with the work of the party leader and the central campaign. This time, I do. Jack Layton managed to present solid progressive policies without the apologetic tone that has marked the last decade. His energy and enthusiasm were genuine, and fueled by the fact that he actually believes in what he was advocating (which shouldn’t be a novel concept in politics, but is).

While I’ll never be able to look at my souvenir NDP signs from the 2004 election without thinking, “Ew... bad colours.”, everything else that the NDP campaign did worked. The NDP ads had exactly the right tone, with even the “negative” ads coming across as positive, and the decision to focus the advertising buy on the final week of the campaign was brilliant.

So, that’s the campaign that was. Next week, I’ll focus on what the actual election results may mean for Canada.


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