Justin Trudeau meet Joe Clark.
You prime ministers have a few things in common, starting with your election outcomes.
Conservative Clark became prime minister in 1979, following an election in which he, like Trudeau a week ago, failed to win the national popular vote, yet took enough seats to form a strong minority government – to replace Pierre Trudeau’s majority Liberal version.
The Tories came out of the election 40 years ago with 136 of the 282 seats, and they added a 137th – a defector from the moribund Social Credit party. The Liberals won 114 seats, while Ed Broadbent’s New Democrats held the balance of power with 26 members.
The country was as sorely divided then as it is today. The Liberals held Quebec, with 67 of the province’s 75 seats (to the Conservatives’ two). The Conservatives dominated in Ontario, while the Liberals elected only one MP west of Manitoba.
Because they needed the votes of just a handful of opposition MPs, there was no obvious reason why the Conservatives, with care, could not have survived more or less indefinitely.
Of course, that didn’t happen. The Clark government had been in power for just seven months when it fell – defeated on its first budget.
The Tories had misread the mood of the electorate, mistaking weariness with the Liberals, who had been in power for 16 unbroken years by 1979, with enthusiasm for the Conservative brand.
As his finance minister, John Crosbie, would put it later: “Clark made two foolish and reckless mistakes that ultimately sealed our government’s doom. He decided to govern as though we had a majority, a decision that was as arrogant as it was presumptuous. … And Clark decided that we had to keep all our election promises, however ill-advised or idiotic they were.”
These days, election promises seem to be treated more as aspirational objectives than Holy Writ, so Justin Trudeau will surely be able to wiggle out of peril when he fails to honour some of his. And judging from the conciliatory tone of his post-election press conference, he has a firmer grasp of the electorate’s mood than Clark had in ’79.
A better sense, it seems, than Conservative leader Andrew Scheer who appeared content on election night to preach to his base and to strike a threatening pose toward the newly re-elected prime minister. “Tonight, we’ve put Mr. Trudeau under notice. His leadership is damaged and his time in government will soon end. And when this moment will come, Conservatives will be ready and we will win,” Scheer warned.
Perhaps in time he will realize that he was a principal cause of his party’s loss. His relentlessly negative tone and his failure to demonstrate, even for a fleeting moment, that he had the capacity to rise above his 24/7 critic role – or to act and sound like a potential prime minister – turned off voters he needed to attract.
It won’t be easy for Scheer, who faces a party review of his leadership next April. Nor will the coming months be easy for Trudeau, who has to reach out to disaffected Liberals who abandoned him between 2015 and 2019 and to Prairie voters who, in the words of Alberta’s United Conservative Premier Jason Kenney, feel “betrayed” by the Liberals.
He has to find ways to win and secure the support of Canadians who put meaningful action on climate change at the top of their priorities, without further alienating all those who want resource development first and foremost.
He must manage somehow to get the expanded Trans Mountain pipeline built without losing the parliamentary support of the NDP on other crucial issues. And he will need to get Kenney and Ontario Premier Doug Ford to back off their opposition to the carbon tax if he wants to restore a semblance of harmony to the federation.
The challenges ahead will make the torture of the election campaign seem like a Sunday stroll in the park.