In 1972, Pierre Trudeau’s personal magic wasn’t as alluring as during the heady days of 1968’s Trudeaumania. The same can be said for today’s prime minister vis-à-vis 2015.
The 1972 election caught people by surprise. To quote the Duke of Wellington’s reputed observation about the Battle of Waterloo, it “was the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.” The universe wasn’t supposed to unfold that way.
While the December 1971 Gallup poll only put Trudeau’s Liberals four points ahead of Robert Stanfield’s Progressive Conservatives, they consistently led throughout 1972, sometimes by margins in excess of 15 points. If they were complacent, you could understand why.
But beneath the surface, trouble was brewing.
The Trudeaumania of 1968 had characteristics that weren’t built to last. Reality would intrude. And when it did, the potential for disillusionment was substantial.
One problem was the inherent transience of novelty. The swinging persona of Trudeau that had seemed so exciting in 1968 now bordered on blasé. Fresh had morphed into stale.
More substantively, it was beginning to dawn on various ideological players that the Trudeau they’d enthusiastically supported in 1968 was, at least in part, a figment of their imaginations. For nationalistically-inclined “progressives” like Walter Gordon, Eric Kierans, Peter C. Newman and the editorial page contributors to the Toronto Star, Trudeau’s prime ministerial policies were insufficiently radical. And in the pre-Internet world of 1972, these people acted as public discussion gatekeepers and agenda setters.
Then there was the matter of Trudeau’s personality. The strength that had attracted voters in 1968 was still abundantly evident but other characteristics were becoming clearer.
Along with his apparent intellectual capacity, Trudeau was arrogant and condescending. A man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly becomes less compelling when you realize that perhaps his definition of a fool is anyone who disagrees with him, which might include you.
Finally, the economy that had roared through the mid-1960s was developing some blemishes. Unemployment was up, as was inflation. Keynesian economic orthodoxy – to which Trudeau was a subscriber – held that the two shouldn’t rise together.
Called on the eve of Labour Day weekend, the election was set for Oct. 30, 1972. Initially, the Liberals seemed to be cruising toward an easy win, even contemplating the possibility of picking up seats.
The first overt sign of danger came with the final Gallup poll, which showed the Liberal lead shrinking from double digits to six points. On election day, it was almost halved again.
The biggest shock, though, was the critical seat count. From 155 seats in 1968, the Liberals were reduced to 109, well short of majority status and just two seats ahead of the Conservatives. And underlining the rebuke, this tenuous lead was entirely dependent on Quebec, the Conservatives having won all other 11 jurisdictions.
Pierre Trudeau held on to power as a minority prime minister for almost two years, subsequently fighting three more elections and winning two. But a reckoning of sorts had transpired and the aura of political indestructibility was gone. The god was now a mere mortal.
The interesting question today is whether a similar fate awaits his son next October.
If you’d asked me two or three years ago, I’d have opined that Justin Trudeau’s personality would wear better than his father’s. While intellectually not in the same league, he seemed altogether more congenial and devoid of the sharp-edged waspishness.
I’m not so sure now.
Yes, the styles differ markedly but the underlying arrogance, condescension and sense of moral superiority increasingly shines through. None of this is likely a problem for committed fans. Swing voters, however, are a different matter.
Recent polling certainly provides a basis for Liberal concern.
Angus Reid’s December soundings show a sharp drop in approval, down 28 points since 2015 and 11 points over the last year. And the erosion isn’t confined to the traditionally Liberal-skeptical West. Ontario, for instance, indicates a 19-point drop.
Canada’s premier pollster, Nanos Research, is more encouraging, showing the Liberals in front by a nose. Still, the lead of a single point compares unfavourably with 13 points a year ago and just under eight points three months ago.
We could be in for an interesting ride between now and October.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps just a little bit.