Are we panicking yet?

Are we panicking yet?
Photo by Caleb Woods / Unsplash

Jean Chrétien is famous for having won three consecutive majority elections. That was in 1993, 1997 and 2000. He is the first prime minister to do that since Wilfrid Laurier, who started winning in the 19th century. Actually Laurier won four consecutive elections, as Macdonald had done before him.

After Chrétien’s third victory the kind of people in his party known to hold knives started sharpening them without bothering to hide too much. Chrétien was getting older — not necessarily in the literal sense of the word although like everyone else he ages chronologically — but his p’tit gars schtick was thought to be wearing thin and look over here polls say if only we switched to that feller Paul Martin over there we’d be getting higher numbers. 

Actually Chrétien was never really that popular inside the party, if memory serves. I mean, as long as he was winning, people tolerated him. But he rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. He wasn’t diplomatic or coincé like most anglos. He was always too comfortable in his own skin for the Toronto set. 

Chrétien famously referred to the people who fretted as Nervous Nellies, and he didn’t mean that in a good way. Of course by the time he took over the party Chrétien had been in federal politics… a while. He knew how shit worked. He understood the fundamental truth of politics — that it’s about the people who vote and that the key to success is to make the people who vote, vote for you. 

No, really, it’s that simple. Not easy, mind you. But simple. You have to speak clearly, have only a few big (and ideally popular) ideas, and repeat and repeat and repeat until you’re ready to drop dead. Remember people’s names and their stories, too. Talk to them like they matter. Because they do. 

Chrétien did all that. He released a party platform that was comprehensive and simple. The Red Book was all about “jobs, jobs, jobs.” He famously promised to cancel the previous government’s expensive helicopter replacement program (he compared the Conservative option to buying a Cadillac when times were difficult) and he campaigned the old-fashioned way by meeting people and answering any damn question any damn reporter wanted to ask. 

He didn’t just win a majority in 1993, he also reduced the incumbent Conservative government to two sad seats. That wasn’t a defeat for the government, it was abject humiliation. And Chrétien won that. 

Did that make the Liberal party like him more? Meh. There were still people clamoring for Paul Martin to take it over from him. And if you remember your polling history, you’ll remember that he was widely considered better at everything including slicing bagels diagonally. He was riding so high in opinion polls that it proved to be irresistible for the party. 

Chrétien resigned and in late 2003 the party picked Martin as new leader and prime minister. Martin held on (ish) to power in 2004, in a minority government, until he was turfed by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in 2006. 

All this to say, in politics it pays to focus on the fundamentals and to remain calm in the face of unpleasant poll numbers. Certainly it doesn’t pay not to. 

Gee. I wonder if there’s a message in there that might be useful in today’s context.

Justin Trudeau has won three consecutive elections (2015, 2019, 2021) but only one that led to a majority — that’d be the first one. His father had four terms in office but there was a bit of a break between numbers 3 and 4 where Canada’s last decent Conservative politician, Joe Clark, almost came close to having the opportunity to show us what he’s got. 

Since the 2021 election, it’s fair to say the kind of people known to hold knives have been quietly and not-so-quietly sharpening them. Some louder than others. 

Since Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre started showing up in muscle shirts with Val Kilmer shades and studiously Brylcreemed hair parted with the kind of precision you only find on a military golf course, Liberals have been panicking because oh my gosh look at them pecs. I mean, specs. Numbers! Polling numbers! Just look at them! 

Poilievre’s party is leading. He himself is personally more popular than the prime minister. People are positively nellying. 

There isn’t a week that goes by without a fresh dose of doom and gloom. If an election was held today, the pollsters say, the Conservatives would win. 

Except that a) there is no election being held today and b) what people say to pollsters isn’t always what happens in the voting booth. Oh, and c) elections are notoriously hard to predict, especially the ones that haven’t happened yet.

There is no shortage of debate about the right time for Justin Trudeau to take his own walk in the snow (I know, it’s overused, so not sorry). And I think that’s inane. The problem right now isn’t that Justin Trudeau is unpopular. It’s that times are tough and the only political party that seems to be talking clearly (or, you know, at all) about the cost of living is the blue one. It’s always the economy, stupid. It’s also about the rights of minorities. The Liberals are good on the latter (compared to the trumpian crap the Tories are peddling, at any rate) and if they find a way to talk convincingly about fixing the former and then act on it with the right kind of speed, they should be fine. I mean, they sure as hell won’t be if they don’t. 

I don’t know Jean Chrétien enough to call him to ask his opinion, but I think I know him enough to guess that he’d say there’s no need to panic, just get to work already.