A tale of two decades: what Trudeau should remember from the 2000 election
'By both default and design, Justin Trudeau finds himself in an situation alike Chrétien in 2000. It raised the question: Could history repeat itself?'
Tell me if this sounds familiar: A prime minister faces a number of challenges: Canadians are worried about the resilience of their health-care system; a rift is growing between him and his long-time finance minister; and questions are being asked about his personal ethics.
Yet, his Liberal Party is leading in the polls and there is a new, untested leader of the Opposition. This may create an opportunity to engineer an early election, and, if he seizes it, he might get a third term and another majority. The prime minister in question? Jean Chrétien.
The political environment in 2020 has become strikingly similar to what Canadians experienced 20 years ago. By both default and design, Justin Trudeau finds himself in an situation alike Chrétien in 2000. It raised the question: Could history repeat itself?
In 2000, Chrétien faced new opposition leader Stockwell Day. In 2020, Trudeau will face new Opposition Leader Erin O’Toole. Chrétien contrasted himself with Conservative premiers Ralph Klein and Mike Harris. Trudeau does so against Jason Kenney and Doug Ford.
In 2000, the outcome of the U.S. election was in doubt until mid-December. In 2020, many are predicting delays and disruptions with Trudeau, like Chrétien, not-so-secretly hoping the winner is a vice-president who served under a close ally — a president many Canadians admired.
Of course, Chrétien wasn’t in the middle of a global pandemic, and he continued to benefit from a decade of division on the right between the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives. The Liberals were also riding a wave of sombre nostalgia after Pierre Trudeau died.
This last point offers, if not a parallel, another political link between 2000 and 2020. The upcoming throne speech has been scheduled within days of the 20th anniversary of the elder Trudeau’s passing, and it was at his funeral that his son Justin’s political star began to rise.
Another difference is that Chrétien had a majority and governed in a time before the Canada Elections Act set a fixed date for elections. In fact, Stephen Harper introduced fixed-date elections, at least in part, because of Chrétien’s decision to call an early election in 2000.
That said, Trudeau could still ask the Governor General to dissolve Parliament, as Harper did in 2008. Harper justified an early election by saying Parliament had become dysfunctional. Chrétien, in 2000, said voters had to choose between two starkly diverse visions of Canada.
If Trudeau wants an election, he’ll need to find his own excuse, as the opposition parties don’t appear keen to trigger an election by voting against the throne speech. Still, the Bloc Québécois, the NDP, and the Conservatives have now said they’d all be ready to fight one.
Here again, 2020 is similar to 2000, when election talk gained momentum and things seemed to move inexorably toward a fall vote. (It’s always been tough to end election brinkmanship absent a dramatic development, such as Belinda Stronach crossing the floor in 2005.)
Still, we can’t ignore the single greatest difference between 2000 and 2020: Today’s leaders are by no means carbon copies of their respective predecessors — neither personally nor politically. Justin Trudeau is no Jean Chrétien, just as Erin O’Toole is no Stockwell Day.
That’s not intended to be a criticism or a compliment, but, rather, an acknowledgment of the fact that all the current party leaders have their own distinct talents and temperaments. Moreover, they all have a distinct advantage: They know the history of what happened in 2000.
Trudeau could look at 2000 as an example to follow, whereas O’Toole would probably see it as a cautionary tale. O’Toole is unlikely to challenge the prime minister to call an election, as Day did in 2000, so Trudeau might latch on to anything he can interpret as an invitation.
If so, he should remember that the 2000 election had unintended consequences: it caused huge shifts in the political landscape, as Harper replaced Day and consolidated the centre-right vote. Liberals may have won the 2000 election, but at the cost of losing three of the next four.
When you try to repeat history, be careful what you wish for. It might happen.