Robert Bothwell is one of Canada’s most prolific historians, an instructor at Trinity College and also a Fellow of the College. He has written books on Pierre Trudeau, the Cold War, Quebec, and Canada-US relations, including The Penguin History of Canada. His extensive knowledge of Canadian history gives him an unique perspective on the 2015 federal election, the Harper years, and what to expect from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The Varsity (TV): One explanation for the result of last week’s election is that Canadians ‘don’t vote people in, they vote people out.’ Is that an accurate description?
Robert Bothwell (RB): It’s true most of the time. The phrase is ‘oppositions don’t win elections, governments defeat themselves,’ and never has that been more true than with Harper. [laughs] I’m only surprised that it didn’t happen several elections ago.
TV: Susan Delacourt wrote a book two years ago that described Canadian voters in the twenty-first century as taxpayers rather than citizens, voting selfishly rather than in the national interest. Did this election repudiate that idea?
RB: This election wasn’t about personal gain, I really don’t think so. Harper of course probably was the most cynical Prime Minister in Canadian history. Every political season he would drop goodies to this section or that section and he was no different this time… I think that theoretically people wish for a world where there’s no taxation, he’s not stupid to believe that, but in this case a lot of Canadians voted against their own self-interest. It’s clear that people in higher tax brackets who voted Liberal were voting for higher taxes on themselves, and many people did. Harper would be very disappointed in this; he really does see economic self-interest as a primary motivator, and sometimes that is true, but not universally. Canadians were voting against the spirit of the last ten years. They were voting against meanness and nastiness, voting against the abuse of the political system. For most Canadians it was an unease that someone like Harper epitomized and represented, and the reaction was just ‘enough!’
TV: Would you characterize Harper’s time in office as transformative?
RB: It certainly represented a huge difference in policy, no question, [but] I think also a huge difference in spirit and zeitgeist. Curiously, the same thing was said about the Diefenbaker government in 1963. The ‘63 election was very largely about Canadians wanting to go back to the past. Wanting to go back to the past is a serious motivation in politics… [there] is a parallel, but there are many differences too. Diefenbaker had a half-decent cabinet. This guy had, with one or two exceptions, a bunch of stooges, and their relationship to him was essentially that os soldier to captain, trying to show off allegiance. Tolkien would call them Ringwraiths, surrendering their souls in return for power. It’s not hard to compare Harper to Sauron though.
It’s not hard to compare Harper to Sauron though.
TV: Earlier you mentioned Canadians voting against Diefenbaker for things to go back to the way they were. Was the vote for the Liberals as opposed to the NDP any indication that Canadians wanted something familiar back?
RB: Well, the NDP promised a new vision [but] with the economics of [1930s Prime Minister] R.B. Bennett. That’s what really got me. In the Globe and Mail, [former Québec premier] Jean Charest referred to Mulcair as being on the right wing of his provincial cabinet in Québec, and his personal system of economics being deficit reduction or abolition. I guess Mulcair really believes [in it]. What struck me about Justin and company was that they obviously had been paying attention to what progressive economists have been writing, and I’m sure that’s true of many members of the party as well. Trudeau’s vision of progressive economics is of the twenty-first century, whereas the other guys were back in the desperately erroneous economics of the 1930s, which was horrifying to see. Mulcair’s strategy was basically ‘extend foot, wiggle toe, fire!’ [laughs] Silly.
Mulcair’s strategy was basically ‘extend foot, wiggle toe, fire!’
TV: Would you say that the NDP’s balanced budget promise wasn’t a mistaken attempt to expand their lead by luring moderate Conservatives?
RB: Mulcair made the same mistake that Horwath made in the 2014 [Ontario provincial] election…` Wynne’s election strategy in 2014 was bang on and she understood something about the Liberal party: the Liberals depend on progressive voters. She cut the knees out under Horwath, and Justin did the same thing to Mulcair. We don’t know for sure whether it’s conviction or just good politics, but if the Liberals are going to survive they have to survive as a progressive party, not as a pale imitation of the Conservatives… You can’t ignore your progressive base because you’ll turn around to find that they aren’t behind you anymore… In the 1988 election, Ed Harris was going to bring the NDP to the top and send the Liberals off to the pit of hell. The way to beat the NDP, then as now, is to go left, because when the NDP thinks that it’s close to power it begins to behave in a quite conservative way. Mulcair said things on the campaign that, aside from being untrue, were calculated to offend the NDP’s supporters.
TV: If that’s true, how can Trudeau maintain supporters who voted for him strategically against Harper?
RB: If Trudeau is wise, and there’s no reason to think he isn’t, tactically he should be congenial to the NDP. There are members of the NDP who aren’t far from the Liberals in their policies… One thing that has to be done to the Parliament is to reform the rules of the House [of Commons}. Now this sounds terribly tedious, but it really is what would destroy Harper’s legacy. [Harper] obviously had a contempt for Parliament… Between the strangling of debate in Parliament [and] the treating of Parliament as less than a photo-op — all of that has to come to an end. That would restore our most valuable traditions, because without them we don’t have responsible government; under Harper we certainly didn’t, once he got a majority he just did what he damn well pleased. Ideally that should be done with the full cooperation of the NDP… This would be a root and branch repudiation of the way the Conservatives wielded power. In a way that’s more important than the policies.
If Trudeau is wise, and there’s no reason to think he isn’t, tactically he should be congenial to the NDP.
TV: Does Harper’s stripping away of those traditions make it easier for Trudeau to succeed?
RB: Yes, I think that it does. I’m continually flabbergasted at the way Harper behaved; he had so many characteristics that were obviously undesirable. Trudeau is clearly very different, and I have every expectation that he’ll change the whole style.
TV: With all the talk of restoring Canadian traditions, will this country be able to return to the supposed glory days of peaceful foreign engagement?
RB: I believe that our foreign policy and our military policy should work together, and they should be effective. I believe that Canada should participate in international coalitions. I also believe that they have to have a point and be effective. That is very much a Canadian tradition. The first question we should ask is ‘does it work’ We have a reputation for that. We used to be pragmatic… Harper sees the world in bright primary colours. Going into his mind is like reading a comic book: POW! BANG! ZOWIE! Canada should be a competent, constructive, pragmatic, intelligent, practical force in international affairs. Boy, do I believe that. It’s on that basis that Canadians are respected abroad. Not because they had big ideas about peacekeeping, but because they were prepared to do something practical. For the first time in years I’m actually telling young people that working for the government is a worthwhile career.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Correction (October 28, 2015): An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Professor Bothwell is the Director of Trinity College’s International Relations program.