Trudeau didn’t win a majority, but it could have been worse, way worse
Canada’s Justin Trudeau can thank his lucky stars it didn’t turn out a whole lot worse for him after he called a snap election voters didn’t want during a Delta-fuelled pandemic.
While the Liberal leader only won a parliamentary minority, not the majority he was seeking, he’s still prime minister. Like his charismatic father, former prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, he’s achieved the impressive feat of three back-to-back election victories.
Best of all, from his vantage point: the Opposition parties are mired in bitter internal squabbles for failing to do better at the polls and they’re broke. So barring any major setbacks or scandals, Trudeau’s centre-left Liberals look assured of completing their four-year mandate.
But the situation came perilously close to coming unstuck for Trudeau during the campaign.
After ousting the Conservatives with a sweeping majority victory in 2015, Trudeau eked out only a minority win in the 2019 election and had been forced to rely on the small left-wing New Democratic Party to pass legislation.
Kicking off the campaign, Trudeau said he’d called the vote two years early to win a strong mandate to take the steps necessary to end the pandemic. “Canadians need to choose how we finish the fight against Covid-19 and build back better from getting the job done on vaccines to having people’s backs all the way to and through the end of this crisis,” he said.
“The decisions your government makes now will define the future your children and grandchildren grow up in,” he said.
But Trudeau’s justifications for the vote, while eloquent, failed to convince anyone. The Liberals never faced any problems getting their measures passed as a minority government. Moreover, minority governments in Canada are usually more productive than majority ones.
Opposition leaders painted Trudeau as a political opportunist making an irresponsible grab for more power while the country was in the grips of a fourth Covid wave. Yves-Francois Blanchet, leader of the separatist Bloc Quebecois, said the election was driven by “personal ambition.” Even members of Trudeau’s own party criticised him.
Early on in the campaign, the main Opposition Conservatives sideswiped the Liberal campaign with a slew of unexpectedly progressive policies to appeal to moderate voters, advancing climate change, child-care, workers’ rights, health care and other social measures. The Conservatives’ new leader Erin O’Toole, seeking to widen the party’s reach beyond its populist, right-wing base, even endorsed gun controls, albeit conditionally.
It all meant there was little to tell the two main parties apart on the policy front. Trudeau was also carrying political baggage, including the infamous “blackface” photos of him as Aladdin two decades ago (a new one was posted on the Internet on voting day) and his ardent progressivism, seen as annoyingly “woke” by some critics and insincere by others.
Until the waning days of the campaign, the opinion polls showed the Liberals and the Conservatives in a dead heat.
Finally, it was the pandemic that turned the tide for Trudeau. If there’s anything most Canadians agree on about Trudeau, it’s that he’s managed the pandemic well.
When Covid-19 was at its peak, he held a daily news conference outside his residence and his government has given generous financial aid to Canadians during the pandemic. According to calculations by The Economist, Canada has had 49 excess deaths per 100,000 people, compared with the United States’ staggering 241.
Trudeau was able to make political hay from the Conservative leader’s refusal to endorse mandatory vaccinations and vaccine passports -- policies Canadians generally embrace.
Then, anti-vaccine crowds, who’d been dogging Trudeau throughout what was universally acknowledged to be a particularly ugly election campaign, threw gravel at him at one stop. It was an act that dismayed many Canadians of all political stripes and Trudeau’s strong response, saying he wouldn’t let “the mob” control his campaign, won him renewed respect.
“There are health care workers across the country who are getting hassled, intimidated and bullied as they’re going to work to keep people safe and alive. There are store clerks, waitresses, people going about their daily lives getting yelled at and pushed around for wearing masks, for being vaccinated. That's not how we do things in Canada," he said.
Capping it all was the “pandemic, what pandemic?” management of Covid-19 by Alberta Conservative Premier Jason Kenney. The Alberta leader declared the western province “Open for Summer,” ditching Covid-19 curbs and staging the annual Calgary Stampede, Canada’s famous rodeo, with predictably disastrous consequences.
Days before the vote, the Alberta premier had to declare a state of emergency when hospitals were overwhelmed by Covid-19 patients. Kenney was forced into making a humiliating “we were wrong” televised apology for mishandling the pandemic.
It was downhill from there for the federal Conservatives. When push came to shove -- having seen Alberta’s Covid-19 mayhem and the surging virus cases in Republican-ruled US states -- voters grudgingly decided Trudeau was a safer pair of hands. (It didn’t help that the federal Conservative leader refused to criticise Kenney for his Covid-19 handling).
Voters also worried that the Conservatives, with a leader who opposes abortion and gay marriage, would prove too socially divisive and that the party might backtrack on gun controls to appease its rank-and-file that solidly supports looser gun laws.
Still, even on election day, support for the Liberals wasn’t overwhelming with voters electing a new parliament that’s a virtual mirror of the old one. The Liberals now hold 158 seats, 12 short of the 170 needed for a majority, the Conservatives have 119, the Bloc Quebecois 34, the New Democrats 25, and the Greens 2. It was a good election though for the 1.25-million Indo-Canadian population with 17, including New Democrats leader Jagmeet Singh and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, winning seats. Of the 17, 16 were from the Punjabi community.
Putting a confident spin on the outcome, Trudeau said the Liberals had received a “clear mandate to get Canada through this pandemic and to the brighter days ahead,” though critics carped the election had been a colossal waste of time, energy and $610 million worth of taxpayers' money.
What’s ahead for Trudeau? The prime minister, while still only 49, is regarded by Liberal insiders and observers as now “having entered the legacy of his tenure,” said Toronto Star columnist Chantal Hebert.
“That’s usually a time when leaving one’s mark on the country comes to matter more than electoral machinations. That’s not so much because he failed to secure a majority on Monday as because he is now a third-term prime minister,” she said.
In the normal course of events, few expect Trudeau to lead the party into a fourth campaign. His exit won’t happen tomorrow, but many believe he’ll decide to “leave the political stage at some point down the road in his third term,” Hebert said.
(Penny MacRae writes on Canadian politics)