Canadians are conflicted between saving the world and saving their wallets
The 43rd Canadian general election is now in the books, and while the result was largely predicted by pollsters, there are many Canadians who felt that they lost in this election. Canada’s post-election divide is clearly illustrated on the electoral map between regions which care about the environment and those which care about increased economic prosperity.
Justin Trudeau will return as prime minister, albeit with a reduced Liberal caucus in a minority Parliament. Though playing this election off as a win, the message that electors sent to the federal government is one that raises the spectre of chaotic political times to come.
Trudeau’s Western Canada Problem
For the governing Liberals, they will now form a government with a huge gap from western Canada, having failed to elect a single MP from Saskatchewan or Alberta. These two provinces have been most hostile for Trudeau, as they struggle with serious issues. Alberta, once considered the engine of the Canadian economy, is singularly focused on being able to export its energy resources to overseas markets.
It can be argued that the campaign in Western Canada was less about economic issues; however, and more about amplifying an anti-Trudeau sentiment in the West. The Liberal government expanded employment insurance benefits for Albertans hard-hit by the downturn in the energy sector, and purchased the TransMountain pipeline. The government’s ownership of the pipeline makes the expansion a certainty, and the prime minister has indicated on a number of occasions that this project is one that is in the national interest.
Yet, Albertans didn’t wait until all of the votes were counted before fanning the flames of separatist intent. #Wexit, or Western Exit, began trending on Twitter as it became apparent that Justin Trudeau would win the night. Though the sentiment is rooted in real economic pain, it isn’t a logical path to prosperity for Alberta for two reasons: first, it’s Canada, not Alberta, that owns the TransMountain pipeline. Second, even if Alberta were to succeed in securing sovereignty for itself, there remains a geopolitical problem of getting its oil resources to overseas markets. British Columbia isn’t going anywhere if Alberta secedes, and there is fierce opposition to the pipeline expansion in British Columbia. A sovereign Alberta would be in a more tenuous negotiating position, which is why #Wexit is just a fatally-flawed, knee-jerk reaction to the election result.
Another Divisive Threat in the East
On the other end of the country, the Bloc Quebecois has gone from comatose to dancing its way back to relevance on the federal scene. The Bloc Quebecois made gains throughout the province at the expense of all of the federalist parties, and leader Yves-Francois Blanchet made clear that he cares only about bringing the will of Quebec’s National Assembly to the House of Commons in Ottawa.
The sovereignist BQ will make up just under ten per cent of Parliament at a time when attention ought to be given to uniting the country under common themes such as affordability, health care and the fight against climate change. Though Blanchet made clear that a referendum is not part of the BQ mandate for this Parliament, the Bloc’s performance only revives the thought of sovereignty in Quebec, along now with an expanded base of support.
Justin Trudeau may have come out of last night’s election with the privilege of forming government, but the only real winner last night was the Bloc Quebecois and Mr. Blanchet. Generally speaking, a good night for the Quebec sovereignty movement means a bad night for the rest of Canada.
Mr. Trudeau winning a plurality of seats for the Liberal Party is unquestionably a remarkable feat. Trudeau’s personal brand has been decimated over the last two years. The prime minister is now longer the towering head of a new Trudeau dynasty, but a leader occasionally displaying a flair for the dramatic while at times looking disingenuous. Trudeau has spouted on about his feminist credentials while expelling two prominent women from his caucus; he has lectured about the rule of law while attempting to circumvent prosecutorial independence; he has tried to position himself as a champion of national unity while now governing a country that is fractured at both ends; he’s self-proclaimed as “Mr. Diversity” and yet was caught more than once in black and brown face. Justin Trudeau has arguably underestimated millennial anger vis-a-vis his broken promise on electoral reform.
Mr. Trudeau no longer has the coattails he once did, and his personal approval numbers are tanking. He may have won a plurality of seats and will form government with the distinction of having commanded the lowest popular vote totals of any winning party in an election, at 33.1 per cent. This is the worst result since Canada’s first general election in 1867, when John A. Macdonald won a majority government with 34.8 per cent of the popular vote. This was an election the Liberals should have lost.
Andrew Scheer, the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, is spinning last night’s election result as a preparatory one for the next election. The Conservatives secured 34.4 per cent and won the popular vote, and increased their caucus size by 26 MPs. Though having expanded their vote share and caucus, this election cycle had the most favourable conditions for any Conservative Party in the country’s history, and failed to win the election outright.
Throughout this election, Mr. Scheer has proven to be more secretive than Stephen Harper was ever feared to be when he contested his first federal election in 2004. Secret dual citizenship, questions about his work history and evading questions on his beliefs with respect to women’s and gay rights have all blemished his character in the eyes of many Canadians. Any federal Conservative Party with the same electoral conditions — an incumbent prime minister mired in scandal and a wall of provincial conservative support from Alberta to Quebec — should have won this election handily. Had the Conservatives been led by a Rona Ambrose or, even Stephen Harper, we’d be talking about a Conservative majority government today. Instead, Conservatives will once again occupy the opposition benches as the government-in-waiting. Mr. Scheer insists that he will stay on as leader, but Conservatives would be well-intentioned to start shopping for another leader.
The Progressive Identity Crisis
At the left of Canada’s political spectrum, there is a looming identity crisis, and much of their electoral fortunes in the next election will rest on the political maneuvers that take place during this minority Parliament.
The New Democrats have lost their base of support in Quebec. Their only remaining Member of Parliament is Alexandre Boulerice in Rosemont-La Petite Patrie, in Montreal. All of the gains hard-won by Jack Layton have been eliminated by poor leadership decisions in Thomas Mulcair and Jagmeet Singh. In particular, Mr. Singh continues to appear unprepared and uncertain about his own political positions, and it is difficult to see how he can remain as leader after this poor election result. Mr. Singh’s leadership has been called into question well before the writ dropped, and with the party essentially broke, the NDP will need to seriously consider finding a new, dynamic and competent leader which can reverse the party’s fortunes.
Despite these losses, if New Democrats play their cards right, not all hope is lost. They hold the balance of power in the new Parliament, and can prop up the Liberal minority government. Initiating a leadership contest will be necessary in order to make them relevant whenever the next election is called, but they do have strong MPs who can manage the day-to-day legislative wrangling that will inevitably occur as the prime minister governs with a minority government. Peter Julian, Charlie Angus and Alexandre Boulerice would make competent interim leaders.
‘May’be Time for a New Green Champion
The Green Party, like the Conservatives, had many of the conditions conducive to a big electoral breakthrough. Elizabeth May had a platform filled with ideas that appeal to young people and performed very well in the leaders debates. For the first time, millenials made up the largest voting bloc in a federal election, and coupled with the recent environmental demonstrations, the Greens had hoped for major gains across the country. Though they grew their popular support nationwide to over a million votes, and made a breakthrough in New Brunswick, they only secured three seats.
Ms. May may be competent on policy and an experienced campaigner, but talk of her handing over leadership of the party to Jody Wilson-Raybould (who won re-election as an independent in Vancouver-Granville) may have led people to believe that Elizabeth May was a lame-duck leader. When you’re running to become prime minister, Canadians do not tend to support someone who appears to have one foot out the door. What is clear with the Green Party is that the message is resonating with Canadians, but ever slowly. The Greens would be well-served to start thinking about a transition in leadership if they want to be considered as the serious progressive option in the next election.
In Canada’s post-election divide, the Green Party may have opportunities to bring people together, but they will need a leader who seems to want the job more than Ms. May currently does.
Strong & Stable… Minority?
Liberal strategist David Hurley has suggested throughout the campaign that it would be the last election for at least two of the major party leaders. Had Canadians elected a majority government of any stripe, he would have been proven correct last night. His prophecy will take a few days or weeks to come to fruition.
What is clear is that supporters of all of the major parties (save the Bloc Quebecois) have a reason to start looking at potential leadership contenders. Mr. Trudeau is damaged beyond saving, and will have a more difficult relationship with his caucus. Andrew Scheer could never hope to have better electoral conditions than he did last night. Jagmeet Singh always seems unprepared, ill-informed and unserious. Elizabeth May has had one too-many elections as leader, with no significant breakthrough for her party. All of the parties have reasons to start thinking about new leaders.
The opposition leaders will try to hang on to their jobs, and one of the arguments they will inevitably use is the uncertain timing of the next election. In a minority Parliament, a single confidence vote would trigger a new run to the polls.
Perhaps the only thing Canadians have in common with all of the opposition parties is their thirst for another election. This is especially true for the New Democrats, who financially would not be able to fund another election at the moment. This factor alone compels the NDP to support the Liberal government. They may oppose TransMountain, but the Conservatives would prop up the government on any bills that move the pipeline expansion forward. All of this suggests a stable Trudeau minority government, potentially strong-arming its progressive opposition with the threat of a snap-election.
Do Canadians Agree on Anything?
Canada’s post-election divide is not a new phenomenon, but nationally there appears to be consensus on the most divisive facet of this election. Maxime Bernier’s right-wing People’s Party of Canada is no more. Born out of being a sore loser in the Conservative leadership contest, Mr. Bernier’s political philosophy was soundly rejected when it failed to elect anyone. Bernier himself lost his own seat in Beauce to the Conservatives he had spent the last year characterizing as “morally and intellectually bankrupt”. Even if the party survives (and that is very unlikely), Bernier’s political career ended with his defeat last night.
The only other thing Canadians may agree on this morning lies in the notion that this Parliament will be a dysfunctional charade casted by leaders no one really wants. It would be surprising, and utterly disappointing, if the next election features the same people vying to be prime minister.