“A vote about everything and nothing”: Canada’s Liberals weather Trudeau’s gamble

By George Binette

ON 20th September Canada became the first G7 member to hold a national election in 2021 with Germany set to follow at the end of the same week and the Japanese electorate scheduled to go to the polls in late November.

Unlike Germany and Japan, the Canadian election wasn’t originally on this year’s political calendar. A nationwide poll wasn’t due until 2023, but Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his inner circle opted for a snap election. Trudeau’s aim was to regain the working majority he’d lost in the autumn 2019 contest. The gamble was based on opinion polls suggesting a lead in double figures, reflecting positive views of the government’s performance during the pandemic, which contrasted favourably with the USA’s disastrous record – not to mention the UK’s!.

The decision to call an election proved widely unpopular, probably reflected in an historically low turnout, provisionally estimated at under 60%. The Liberals’ advantage in opinion polls swiftly evaporated over the course of the 36-day campaign with Canada’s Tories under new leader Erin O’Toole surging into a virtual tie or slender lead in most surveys. That the dissolution of Parliament coincided with a resurgence in Covid cases across much of Canada didn’t bolster Trudeau’s case for the poll. But the pandemic – or rather the gross mishandling of it by a Tory provincial premier – probably helped sustain the Liberals in office. The cavalier attitude of Alberta’s leader Jason Kenney, apparently taking his cue from Republican governors in the US, has fuelled a crisis across the province’s hospitals with intensive care units stretched to breaking point.

Canada’s 338-seat House of Commons remains closely modelled on Westminster with a first past the post electoral system under which five parties currently hold seats. Despite first past the post, five of the seven federal elections held since 2003 have now failed to yield majority governments.

With results in from virtually all ridings (constituencies), Trudeau’s Liberals failed to achieve his goal with a result that proved a virtual carbon copy of the autumn 2019 outcome, allowing the Liberals to form another minority government with a provisional total of 158 of the possible 338 seats (14 ridings have yet to declare officially). In short, the electorate neither rewarded nor punished Trudeau for a cynically opportunist gambit.

A Teetering Dynasty

Trudeau, the son of a far more flamboyant politician in Pierre Eliot Trudeau, emerged on the global stage in 2015 following a convincing election victory for the Liberals as a poster boy for socially liberal centrism. Media outlets such as the Guardian projected him as a figure capable of stemming the populist wave that would propel Donald Trump into the White House the following year.

Over the course of a four-year Parliament in Ottawa, Trudeau managed to squander much of his political capital and found himself plagued by a combination of scandals, including revelations of appearing in “blackface” and “brownface”, his acceptance of a resort holiday from billionaire tycoon Aga Khan and pressurising a government minister to halt criminal proceedings against a Quebec-based construction giant. Despite these substantial blots on his record and the government’s failure to honour key manifesto pledges from 2015, the Liberals still managed to retain office in the 2019 general election. Trudeau’s party fell short of a majority, but still held the largest number of seats despite trailing the Conservatives in the nationwide popular vote, a feature repeated in the 2021.

Social Democracy Treads Water

The New Democratic Party (NDP), founded in 1961, is the closest approximation to a mass, European-style social democratic party in North America with some 125,000 members. It has close links with unions in a country where trade union density stands at 31% of the workforce, so substantially higher than in the US and indeed Britain. The party currently runs the legislature in British Columbia, Canada’s third largest province, and has previously held office in Manitoba, Ontario and briefly in Alberta, but has never formed a federal government. Between 2011 and 2015 it formed the official opposition to a Tory government in Ottawa for the first and, so far, only time. In the two subsequent federal elections the NDP’s parliamentary presence shrank dramatically from 103 to 24, largely because it proved unable to consolidate surprising 2011 gains in Quebec. Ironically, the party tacked right on tax and spending issues in 2015, finding itself outflanked on the left by Trudeau.

Under the leadership of 42-year-old Jagmeet Singh, the NDP has once more shifted leftwards and sought to capitalise on its success in securing higher levels of pandemic-related relief for working class households than originally offered by the Liberals. Its platform included a 1% wealth tax on households with more than $Canadian 10 million (about £5.7 million) in assets, an income tax rise for those with salaries exceeding $Canadian 214,000 and higher corporation taxes along with a windfall profits tax imposed on companies which benefited handsomely from the pandemic.

Singh, the son of Punjabi Sikh parents, is the first person of colour to lead a nationwide party in Canada. Strong showings in televised debates and viral TikTok videos helped him achieve impressively high personal ratings, but these failed to translate into a significant boost to the NDP’s electoral fortunes with the party making a net gain of just one seat despite a better than expected showing in Alberta and sustained strength in British Columbia, which accounts for at least half of its House of Commons contingent.

The Bloc Québécois (BQ), which contests ridings only in la belle province (78 out of 338) and is nominally committed to eventual independence from Canada, managed to hold its own after a lacklustre campaign. The BQ’s performance was certainly a dramatic improvement on its 2011 nadir, but still a far cry from heady days as the official opposition in the Ottawa Parliament. The BQ chalked up nearly 8% of the overall national vote and looked on course to capture 34 seats, up from last time and nine more than the NDP, which won more than twice the BQ’s total number of votes.

While the Greens will retain a presence in the new House of Commons with two seats – down from three in 2019 – it was a discouraging night for the party overall with its popular vote squeezed to just 2.3% nationally, partly because it stood in far fewer ridings than last time. The Greens also suffered from internal divisions and their leader, Annamie Paul, lost badly in her bid for a Toronto seat, finishing a distant fourth.

New Life for the Populist Right

In a worrying development for Canada’s Tories and possibly for political stability more generally, the People’s Party of Canada (PPC), contesting only its second federal election, didn’t secure a seat, but saw its vote share treble to 5% of the popular. In several ridings, the right wing populist formation under the leadership of ex-Tory minister Maxime Bernier scored in double figures. An initial CBC News analysis of the results suggested that the PPC may have cost the Conservatives up to 24 seats overall.

Bernier himself came nowhere near regaining his former seat in a Quebec riding, but the PPC’s hostility to immigration, combined with economic liberalism and a libertarianism that appealed to anti-vaxxers struck a resonant chord in Canada’s prairie provinces, historically fertile ground for right-populist pitches, but also in smaller cities in southwestern Ontario and the sparsely populated Atlantic provinces. There’s little doubt that the PPC benefited from a tilt towards the country’s small, but vociferous and occasionally violent anti-vaccination movement in the closing stages of the campaign. Whether Bernier’s party is a viable proposition in the longer term remains to be seen, but it may prove effective in pushing the Conservatives currently under a comparatively moderate leader in Erin O’Toole rightwards on both immigration and fiscal restraint. In 2003 the Tories effectively absorbed the Reform Party, in some key aspects a precursor of the PPC.

The “Everything and Nothing” Election

An analyst for ScotiaBank, a key financial services institution, quipped that the 20th September poll was “a vote for everything and nothing”. Perhaps it was inevitable that a five-week campaign waged against the backdrop of the most severe public health crisis in living memory would fail to generate either an electoral earthquake or a more fundamental debate about the future of a society still heavily reliant on the extraction and consumption of fossil fuels in the wake of a summer of unprecedented and deadly heat; still dealing with its dark and ongoing legacy as a colonial settler state and increasingly faced with the fraying of a welfare state that has partly distinguished capitalism in Canada from the harsher realities of its southern neighbour.

Liberal

158 (seats won projected)

32.3% (percentage of popular vote)

5,221,224 (total votes)

Conservative

119 (seats won projected)

33.9% (percentage of popular vote)

5,469,571 (total votes)

Bloc Québécois  – stands in just 75 seats

34 (seats won projected)

7.8% (percentage of popular vote)

1,258,565 (total votes)

New Democrat

25 (seats won projected)

17.7% (percentage of popular vote)

2,860,688 (total votes)

Green

2 (seats won confirmed)

2.3% (percentage of popular vote)

374,027 (total votes)

People’s Party

0 (seats won confirmed)

5.1% (percentage of popular vote)

819,686 (total votes)

SOURCE: CBC NEWS, based on reports from 99.4% of counts, with 14 seats undeclared.

George Binette is Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP Trade Union Liaison Officer, who writes in a personal capacity.

Image: Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Source: 170923-D-DB155-040. Author:DoD News, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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