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Canada's Election Was Not About Candidates, But About Canadians

21/10/2015 10:24 BST | Updated 20/10/2016 10:12 BST

A Canadian federal election, for one of the first times in modern Canadian history, is global news. Much of this has to do with it being the longest election campaign in modern history, which made it easier for global media to become both acquainted with Canadian politics and capture enough readers' imaginations to demand more coverage.

The long election campaign was a strategic ploy by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The thinking went that the longer the comparatively well-funded Conservative Party campaign apparatus had, the longer it would be able to sling mud on Liberal candidate Justin Trudeau in the hopes that some would stick. The NDP candidate, Thomas Mulcair, would split the remaining median voters and his bluster (the Canadian media call him Angry Tom, in reference to the game Angry Birds, for his red-faced belligerence in the House of Commons) would unsettle enough people at the margins between NDP and Conservative to help out the latter. According to this narrative, fragmentation and campaign discipline would allow the Conservatives to govern again.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view or the discussion being had), this made the election campaign about whether Mr Trudeau could govern, not about what the Conservatives, Liberals or the NDP were proposing when in office.

The Conservatives' initial approach focused on Mr Trudeau's age. He is 'just not ready', Canadians came to be told. Trudeau was inexperienced, had little foreign policy experience, and did not know how to run a country. This approach was mercilessly effective in the 2011 election when Michael Ignatieff effectively called himself an American, a big no-no in a country where much of identity politics is in juxtaposition to how the game is played south of the border (louder, more religious, and less Canadian-nice being main issues). The message was short, simple and easy to remember, a mixture usually devastating in political attack ads. Many of these attacks on Mr Trudeau, however, tended to mirror the arguments posed against then-Senator Barack Obama's Presidential candidacy in 2008. This helped Mr Trudeau respond postively with "I'm ready" where he shifted the debate from who he was to what the country could be, along the lines of 'Yes We Can'. And Canada's swing voters withheld judgement.

The personal attacks on Trudeau did not swing voters to the Conservative camp, but actually accelerated the pace at which NDP-Liberal swing voters left the former for the latter. Ironically, the decision to have a longer election campaign aided this transition. Trudeau had time to run a positive campaign, rather than face the time-pressure that incentivize races to the bottom. (It was also helped by Thomas Mulcair's cautious campaign and reticent personal appearances, where he did not want to appear overly similar to and therefore the equivalent of US President candidate Bernie Sanders, a likely also-ran in 2016 US Presidential election). At a certain point, the Conservative Party shifted focus from Trudeau's age and to fear. It began to focus on emotive issues, particularly the niqab in the province of Quebec and security concerns (never mind that Canada has never experienced a terrorist attack. I discount lone wolf shooters with little political affiliation under the aegis of which they exercise violence). The timing here was poor. Quebec is an NDP stronghold, which forced Mulcair to take a stand against an irrelevant, but tangible and volatile issue, but in the process he took a bullet for Trudeau.

Again, depending on your perspective, the Conservative gearshift came too soon. The public was able to debate the issue and come down on the side of tolerance, which allowed Trudeau time to strike. Up until this point, Trudeau did not really have a message aside from promising a future underpinned by a nebulous idea of 'Canadian values'. Although these values had not really been talked about for years, they tend not to make the best soundbites. Values like tolerance and respect of cultural differences, however, proved important in the debate surrounding the niqab and coincided with Trudeau's refinement as a candidate. He started the campaign speaking in paragraphs, but by the end, he was speaking in bullet points. Easy to remember and emotive ideas that make people want to vote (at 68% of total turnout compared to the average 61.4% of the past 5 federal elections, people made an effort to vote this election).

The election effectively came down to questions of character and trust. For many Canadians, Stephen Harper had tarnished his trustworthiness. He had been held in contempt of his own Parliament, had mislead Parliament, and as the Guardian eloquently put it "various members of Team Harper have been caught misleading parliament, gagging civil servants, subverting parliamentary committees, gagging scientists, harassing the supreme court, gagging diplomats, lying to the public, concealing evidence of potential crime, spying on opponents, bullying and smearing." Stephen Harper's famously controlled campaign style left little room for Canada to get to know him during an atypically long election campaign. By the end, Harper was calling Canada an economy rather than a country and promising to cut taxes. It was stale and uninspiring. He was selling a version of the past where economic growth was strong, but as the economy has slowed and economic concerns have materialized with the man on the street, Mr Harper's vision of low taxes as a silver bullet for Canada's problem proved untenable.

Mulcair was a victim of his own success. He had name recognition, which can count for a lot in close campaigns, but much of this came from his blustery reputation as leader of the Opposition, a position with little real power but a lot of media attention. His attempt to mellow during the campaign, genuine as it may have appeared, was an attempt to swing the median voter away from the Liberal camp to the NDP camp. These voters tend to be more concerned about paying more taxes, however, so Mulcair had to work against both his Party's reputation and his personal one. He did not really bring much to the table on these fronts and was on constantly on defense in areas where the Conservatives had no real chance of winning, like in Quebec, but where they could do a lot of political damage at the national level with what seemed like minimal risk to themselves.

Trudeau was the only one who really recognized that this election was about trust and character, which prompted him to focus on his own and on Canada's. The campaign may have ostensibly focused on whether he was 'ready', but in reality it focused on whether Canada was ready. It appears that it is.