In his victory speech, Trudeau only touched upon the monumental thing about the election: the triumph of progressives in Canada, again, across four parties. For their part, Scheer and Singh just tried to sound tough.
When frustrated historians of the future look to interpret the early decades of 21st-century Canada, they will turn to a surreal three-panelled portrait hanging in the National Gallery. It will tell the story of the national election of 2019 – and explain the stormy season that followed.
The painting – inspired by those sombre, gilded triptychs adorning Byzantine churches – presents the country’s three key leaders in still life: Justin Trudeau of the Liberals, breathless and triumphant Boy Wonder, in a well-cut suit; Andrew Scheer of the Conservatives, folksy and sleepy, Eeyore disguised as Big Steel Man; Jagmeet Singh of the New Democrats, an adolescent Dr. Pangloss, wrapped in a striking yellow turban.
Ladies and Gentlemen, your head table: an image of leaders at once defiant, diminished and in denial.
It is Oct. 21, 2019. The results are in, and the leaders are addressing the nation. They are each talking over each other. They are offering platitudes, threats, cries and laments. They are pitch perfect – and tone-deaf.
This isn’t made up; the CBC broadcast their speeches live, the screen split three ways, as the leaders talked simultaneously for a period. Finally, the cameras found Trudeau in Montreal. It was the debates revisited, their late-evening joint appearance competing with Midnight Mass.
The results are in, and the leaders are addressing the nation. They are each talking over each other. They are offering platitudes, threats, cries and laments. They are pitch perfect – and tone-deaf.
There was a time when elections had a protocol of politeness. Party leaders awaited the results and placed a congratulatory telephone call. Then, in order of their party standing, they appeared before their supporters. Not this time.
Singh levitated into his headquarters, dancing like a Bollywood impresario. Then he talked and talked and talked. He gave a campaign speech, not a concession speech.
It was as if he never got the message: “Dude, you’ve lost 16 seats, and almost four per cent of the popular vote, and your party was all but wiped out in Quebec. And here you are, declaring victory. Is that cool?”
Scheer, understandably tired of waiting for Singh, then spoke from Regina. After graciously thanking his voters – which didn’t occur to Singh until 10 minutes into his speech, by that point rivalling the windy Leonid Brezhnev at the Politburo – Scheer turned hawkish, asserting his legitimacy, the poor man, bragging that he got more of the popular vote. He ignored that in 1962 and 1979, the Conservatives took power with fewer votes. Oh, well.
Trudeau, for his part, opened with an over-caffeinated roar, as if speaking at a religious revival. He thanked his wife, at length, then his constituents and the country for rehiring him. He notably acknowledged his reversals in Quebec, Alberta and Saskatchewan, but like his foreign policy, this was largely gestural.
He only touched upon the monumental thing about the election: the triumph of progressives in Canada, again, across four parties. And he missed a chance to say what that means in an authoritarian world where progressive governments are threatened.
Trudeau had a chance to be prime ministerial, to find something to etch in words, to be bigger. But beyond eulogies and apologies, he eschews oratory, which is telling from a former drama teacher.
Of course, Scheer and Singh have to worry about challenges to their leadership, so they had to sound tough. Trudeau is trying to regain his lustre. None showed much humility, clarity or honesty. But this is them: Canada’s troika of mediocrities, all 40-somethings, none of much achievement in life before politics.
Like the campaign itself, which was empty, angry and dirty, so was its immediate aftermath. We now have the weakest field of leaders in memory. Despite Trudeau’s admirable instincts and values, misjudgment keeps undoing him.
In the 1960s, Canada was led by Lester Pearson facing John Diefenbaker and Tommy Douglas. In the 1970s, we were led by Pierre Trudeau, Robert Stanfield and David Lewis, and later by Joe Clark, who became a person of stature. In the 1980s, it was Brian Mulroney, John Turner, Ed Broadbent. In the 1990s, it was Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, Jean Charest, Preston Manning, Lucien Bouchard.
Now we descend to Trudeau, Scheer and Singh, shouting at each other, lost in themselves, the final victory of the political class.
Andrew Cohen is a journalist, professor and author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019