Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Will Thomas Mulcair be the new Robert Stanfield?

While the shadow of Pierre Elliott Trudeau hovers over his son, Justin Trudeau, the NDP should probably be thinking about a different ghost: Robert Stanfield.

Stanfield was the man who was going to be prime minister if it hadn’t been for Trudeau, Sr. In the mid-1960s, Canadian politics seemed to have sunk to an all time low. The minority governments of Lester Pearson, from 1963-65 and 1965-68, were wracked in bitter partisan feuding with the fiercely partisan and stubbornly popular John G Diefenbaker.

It all sounds very familiar to the way we complain about politics today. If the frustration is slightly milder now in the time of a majority government, the pessimism remains.

In retrospect, the Pearson years produced a great deal of constructive policy, including universal health care, the Canada Pension Plan and the reformed points-based immigration system. But Canadians at the time thought that politics was broken. The aging Pearson seemed out of touch and adrift. Diefenbaker was a political berserker who many in the Tory party increasingly wanted to get out of the way. There was even a Cold War sex scandal – the Munsinger affair – that left everyone feeling dirty.

At the end of an internal war spurred on by Dalton Camp, the Progressive Conservative party chose a new leader. That man was Robert Stanfield.

Stanfield was everything that Diefenbaker was not. Dignified and progressive, statesmanlike and kind, Stanfield was a successful, updated version of their opponent, Lester Pearson. He may not have won the Nobel Peace prize, but the lustre had long since faded from Pearson’s international glory. Stanfield’s record four majority governments in Nova Scotia had their own shine. That was the hope of 1967.

Enter Pierre Trudeau, and everything changed. The new hope of Bob Stanfield’s election as leader was swept aside by Trudeaumania in 1968.

Mulcair just might be the NDP version of Bob Stanfield. He too was groomed for the present. He too seemed to be, and might still be, just what the NDP needs to get them into power. This is not the 1960s, and the reigning prime minister is not Lester Pearson. When Mulcair was made leader only a short time ago, the thinking was that the NDP didn’t need a dignified, hopeful statesman. They needed someone who could go toe-to-toe with Stephen Harper. Next to Harper’s tough, attacking style, Mulcair won’t cringe. He’s a brawler himself. He’s a centrist Quebec politician, certain, it’s hoped, to keep the new Quebec base happy even as he fights his way into other political territories. Mulcair is the NDP’s answer to Harper. He’s the right man for the time.

Or is he? Perhaps the NDP are beginning to worry that history might come close to repeating itself, that their ‘right man for the job’ will become the ‘almost’ right man for the job. Bob Stanfield, redux.

It’s not so much that Justin Trudeau is his father’s son, or even that they share a name and a healthy dose of DNA. It’s the timing: the sense of dissatisfaction with politics as it is, the lack of hope, the lack of inspiration. If Justin Trudeau is unclear on policy, or if he’s inexperienced, this may not matter so much. He just might be able to match the mood of the time. That is what really matters, as all of those inexperienced NDP candidates in Quebec found out in 2008 when they were swept into office on the power of Jack Layton’s charisma.

As for poor Robert Stanfield, he stayed on as Conservative leader until 1976. He had other chances to become prime minister. But he likely always thought back to 1967 and what might have been if it hadn’t been for that other Trudeau, that new man for a new age.

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