Point of View

Canadians voted for change in style, Liberals will have to show substance

The 2015 Canadian election was about whether Canadians wanted change, and whether that change would be Liberal Red or New Democrat Orange. McMaster University political scientist says people voted for a change in style, but not in content.

rural ridings bulwark area Tories while NDP holds on

Liberal leader and Prime Minister Elect Justin Trudeau shakes hands as he leaves following his victory speech at Liberal party headquarters in Montreal on Oct. 19, 2015 after winning the 42nd Canadian general election. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Peter Graefe is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at McMaster University. His research focuses on intergovernmental relations in Canadian social policy, as well as the politics of social and economic development strategies in Ontario and Quebec.

Peter Graefe is a McMaster University political scientist. (Broadbent Institute)

The 2015 Canadian election was about whether Canadians wanted change, and whether that change would be Liberal Red or New Democrat Orange. In the end, they chose a change in style, rather than content. 

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau may talk deficits, but these are small and to fund public-private partnerships building infrastructure. On climate change, the defining issue of our times, his proposal is to speak to the premiers.

Voters nevertheless picked up on a change of style: Trudeau does not seem to be the ideologue who cancels the Census for no good reason, or who picks fights with the Supreme Court in a fit of pique, or who will defend the endless expansion of the tar sands to his dying breath.

He follows in the steps of Dalton McGuinty, who provided a breather to Ontarians after the radical changes of Mike Harris' Common Sense Revolution. Everything calmed down, but over a decade later, our horizons are still limited by Mike Harris' agenda of low taxes and a limited state.

Hamilton bucks trend

Hamilton, though, largely remained outside this story. The issue of change was not so present. While Mike Wallace in Burlington and Terrence Young in Oakville fell before the wave of change, the heavily rural home ridings of David Sweet and Dean Allison kept them safe from change.

In the old Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough seat, Sweet might have been in danger, but not in his new one. And Hamilton Centre, Hamilton East and Hamilton Mountain had chosen their change years ago: upset with Liberal free trade policies and cuts to social programs, they had put their stock in the NDP.

The big question at the start of the campaign was the new Hamilton West-Ancaster-Dundas riding, which was potentially a three-way race in light of the 2011 results. 

As the Ontario polls swung to the Liberals and away from the NDP, the result became a foregone conclusion in favour of the Liberal Tassi.

The bigger surprise was in Hamilton East, where Bob Bratina did what Larry DiIanni could not do: namely be a former Hamilton mayor to defeat the gentle Wayne Marston.

A 'further nail in the coffin' of the steel industry

It is therefore to Tassi and Bratina that Hamiltonians must look to produce solutions to our challenges. In areas like child poverty, the Liberal tax credit plan is a step forward.

The enhancement of the Canada Pension Plan would be a boon for a labour force that is weakly covered by workplace pensions. By contrast, Liberal support for the Transpacific Partnership, with its negative impact on the auto parts sector, is a further nail in the coffin of our steel industry.

And the Liberal "middle class" tax plan will only exacerbate inequality by giving most benefits to the top quarter of income earners.

So in 2015, Canadians chose a change in style, but status quo in content. For a city like Hamilton, with its challenges of industrial change, poverty and inequality, style is not enough.

In 2019, we will be judging if Tassi and Bratina were able to push the Liberals to make "real change" something more than a campaign slogan.


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