10/25/2015 08:39 EDT | Updated 10/25/2016 05:12 EDT

When a Better Canada Comes Before Politics

During the past nine years, reputations have been shattered, national institutions have been destroyed, the rules of parliament abused, the federation itself weakened, and the trust in the institutions of democracy profoundly undermined. Justin Trudeau will have to do a lot of heavy lifting to repair the damage.

NICHOLAS KAMM via Getty Images
Canadian Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau smiles at the end of a press conference in Ottawa on October 20, 2015 after winning the general elections. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau reached out to Canada's traditional allies after winning a landslide election mandate to change tack on global warming and return to the multilateralism sometimes shunned by his predecessor. AFP PHOTO/NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Probably one of the less noticed but significant things to happen in the 2015 election cycle were some compliments of Justin Trudeau from an unlikely source: former Progressive Conservative Party Leader Brian Mulroney.

For those who know him, Mr. Mulroney’s public expression of Mr. Trudeau's formidable political skills and leadership attributes was no surprise. While a Conservative partisan to the core, he has always been a Canadian first.

As prime minister, Mr. Mulroney fought for really big and consequential things like national unity and reconciliation, free trade, the GST and tax reform. He waged the fight to secure the right of self-government for First Nations in the constitution. He sat down regularly with provincial premiers in formal First Minister's conferences on the economy. He pressed hard to strengthen Canada's economic and social union, and understood that he couldn't do it alone.

He forged a place for Canada at the most senior tables of international relations while taking highly principled stands that reflected the broad national interest and best of Canadian values and traditions. He took on Ronald Reagan over environmental policies and ending Apartheid. But he was also a trusted friend and ally to him and to America.

He advanced peace and security in the world helped by nurturing a place of confidence as a trusted bridge and honest broker between NATO and the Soviet Union. Mr. Mulroney was on the regular call list and a valued advisor to President Bush (41) during the dangerous and transformational dismantling of the Soviet empire and the destruction of the Berlin Wall.

Mulroney's government was an open one, where ministers had discretion to make decisions -- and mistakes. In the Mulroney government, Canada's doors were open to immigration and generous to refugees. People were appointed to the bench because of their intelligence, competence and track record, not their ideology. Prime Minister Mulroney always had a hand outstretched, had a great respect for the House of Commons, and was privately gracious to those who were public political opponents.

A consistent thread woven throughout Mr. Mulroney's public life was a drive and effort to bring people together and make Canada stronger. Like his Liberal predecessor and Liberal successor, he appealed to our better angels, not our worst fears.

The Progressive Conservative Party of Brian Mulroney worked hard to expand and grow the tent.

Stephen Harper did the opposite. His was the cold calculus of divide and conquer, of divisive wedges. He knew how to appeal to our baser instincts and insecurities.

In the Harper years, Canada had ceased to become a constructive and respected voice in the world. Our national discourse had become anchored in confrontation and divisiveness. It was always "if you're not with us, you're against us."

Entire swaths of the Canadian public were given grudging lip service or were simply ignored. Big national projects were frowned upon; and the new dulling to the senses mantra became "gradual incrementalism." The overarching philosophic and operational underpinning of the Harper years, in Harper advisor Tom Flanagan's words, became: "In politics, it doesn't have to be true; it just has to be plausible." Everything -- absolutely everything -- was seen through the prism of electoral politics, not the national good.

During the past nine years, reputations have been shattered, national institutions have been destroyed, precious years wasted, the rules of parliament abused, the federation itself weakened, and the trust and confidence in the institutions of democracy, and the people who are toiling in them, profoundly undermined.

The new government of Justin Trudeau will have to do a lot of heavy lifting to repair the damage.

Stephen Harper has been no stranger to Canadians. Still, in the aftermath of the defeat of the Harper Conservatives on Monday, I've been reflecting on what took Canadians so long. After all, if anything, Stephen Harper and his brand of ruthless and deeply divisive and cynical politics have been consistent from before he assumed the leadership of the contradiction in terms they called the "Reform Party." Everything he's done -- and not done -- has been far from a surprise, even in his last gasps. In some cases, it may have been abusive and even abhorrent. But we shrugged and let it happen.

That is, until we didn't.

Early numbers estimate that 68 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot on Monday, the best turnout since 1993. The great lesson in this election is the ultimate power of the people. It should put to rest the fiction that "my vote doesn't count." It does count. A lot. It's arguably the most important responsibility we have as citizens.

On Monday night, the outgoing Prime Minister said that the judgment of Canadians "is always right." Damned right it is, when we choose to exercise it.

The genesis of the Conservative Party of Stephen Harper was protest and alienation. His has been a party of grievance. And from it emerged a closed, defensive, insecure, small-minded government. His regime was the very antithesis of the "open, transparent and accountable" government Conservatives had promised Canadians.

Today, many of their senior ranks are coming out of the woodwork with criticism of their former leader. They are the very same "reformers" that went to Ottawa riding their high horse of "transparency and accountability" and once there, supported and actively and aggressively enabled precisely the opposite.

They could never shake the angry opposition mindset. However well-intended when Preston Manning created the Reform Party movement in Western Canada, the Harper Conservatives become a dark, cynical and divisive government.

Canadians decided that they had had enough of it. They voted out the bums and voted for a hopeful, optimistic and bold promise.

The question I have is this: What on earth took us so long to send the coarse and corrosive Harper Conservatives back home to opposition, where they belong?

Correction: An earlier version of this blog inaccurately stated that Brian Mulroney publicly endorsed Justin Trudeau in the last few days of the 2015 election campaign. Mulroney did not formally endorse Trudeau; instead, Mulroney made generally supportive comments about Trudeau in the past.


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