By any stretch of the imagination, Justin Trudeau, the steward of the family brand, had a humiliating election night.
Not only was Trudeau’s Liberal Party forced by voters to accept a demotion to a minority government – grabbing just 157 of 338 seats in the House of Commons – but about two-thirds of the country voted against him. His party’s share of the popular vote clocked in at just 33.1 % – less than the 34.4% earned by the rival the Conservative Party of Canada and its leader Andrew Scheer. (Despite receiving a greater percentage of the vote, the Conservative Party picked up 36 fewer seats than the Liberals.)
In order to have won a second majority, the Liberals would have had to hit or exceed the magic number of 170 seats.
Trudeau went into Canada’s 40-day election campaign with major headwinds blowing against him – not least of which was the ascendancy of third parties in eastern Canada that were well positioned on election night to force a minority coalition government. The Trudeau election juggernaut was also thrown off course midway through the campaign after photos surfaced showing him wearing blackface at multiple points when he was younger.
Perhaps as a result of these setbacks, the Liberals lost many seats in western Canada, and in fact were completely wiped out in oil-rich Alberta and agriculture-dependent Saskatchewan, signaling widespread displeasure there over the imposition of a punitive carbon tax, oil pipeline politics and arrogant indifference over their frustrations.
After most of the votes were counted and the victory and concession speeches delivered, Canadians could not be blamed for feeling a nasty election hangover: the speeches by the three leaders came across as almost tone-deaf, with little to calm concerns that the country’s divisions are getting even bigger. An extreme, but not entirely unrealistic, view might be that the ghosts of the past of separatist tendencies in Quebec and Alberta have been revived. If ignored by Trudeau and his coalition partners, that could bring very unwelcome instability for years to come.
In his post-election speech that came across as more of a campaign speech than an attempt at national healing, Trudeau seemed to have sensed western alienation, reminding Canadians in that region: “You are an essential part of our great country. I’ve heard your frustration and I want to be there to support you.”
For a minority Trudeau government to survive any confidence vote or pass major legislation, the Liberal leader will have to negotiate with the junior parties. Canada’s international cooperation on such things as peacekeeping may be more difficult to achieve and that could end up leaving Canada diminished on the world stage.
Moreover, minority governments in Canada usually have a shelf life of less than 24 months, so Canadians will probably be headed back to the polls within two years.
An election that was remarkable for being unremarkable
In some ways, Canada’s 43rd election campaign was remarkable for being so unremarkable, right up until voting day on Monday. What I heard from many Canadians as I traveled across this vast country over the weekend is that they struggled to identify a single burning issue that influenced their ballot choice.
“One thing was true throughout this campaign; voters, especially those on the left of centre, were uncertain about what they wanted. Even last week, with fewer than seven days until the election, just half of voters said they were locked into their top choice in this election,” said the non-profit independent research foundation Angus Reid Institute.
To be sure, the environment ranked very high in voters’ minds – but oddly that did not translate into significant gains for the Green Party, which ended the day with just three seats, even though it is meant to be the standard-bearer for climate action.
In a minority situation, the Trudeau government will be forced to strike a working relationship with the pro-labor New Democratic Party, which opposes one of Trudeau’s key energy security projects, the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline between oil-rich Alberta and coastal British Columbia. The NDP and other parties have questioned the viability of the new North American Free Trade Agreement. And the Bloc Quebecois, which picked up more than 30 seats, advocates for a bigger voice in Ottawa and special privileges for Quebec.
In an election that was more about leadership and personalities than issues, Canadians witnessed toxic attack ads and somewhat un-Canadian insults on the leaders’ debate stage. With many candidates – most with extensive digital footprints – there was plenty of social media dredging and scraping that kept the war rooms of the parties working overtime.
The Trudeau brand fades
One of the most extraordinary, almost unexplainable political stories emerging out of Canada in the past two years has been the fall in Trudeau’s star power. A series of missteps forced him into the position of having to convince Canadians that he has the good judgment to continue on as prime minister. Aside from the blackface incident, Trudeau fought headwinds created by the disastrous 2018 state visit to India, allegations that the government bullied a former attorney general into granting favorable treatment to Quebec engineering giant SNC-Lavalin, and taking a Christmas family vacation to a private Caribbean island owned by billionaire and Ismaili Muslim leader, the Aga Khan.
After being found to have broken multiple federal ethics rules, Trudeau apologized, saying: “I’m sorry I didn’t, and in the future I will be clearing all my family vacations with the commissioner’s office.”
On the SNC-Lavalin affair, Trudeau has not apologized, saying his focus was on protecting Canadian jobs. (However, now that his minority government will no longer control parliamentary committees, there could be more probing into his government’s past actions). “I’m not going to apologize for standing up for Canadians’ jobs. That’s my job.”
Curiously, overseas, Trudeau still seems to possess star quality, albeit somewhat diminished. Even former US President Barack Obama felt the need to tweet his support of the Liberal leader last week, saying “the world needs his progressive leadership now.” But Canadians care little about having a celebrity prime minister, preferring someone who is happy staying at home and rolling up their sleeves to get the job done. What may have harmed Trudeau is his penchant for foreign travel, rubbing shoulders with the Davos elite and gushing feature spreads in glossy magazines such as Rolling Stone.
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Down but not out, Trudeau may want to start his second term with a reshuffle of his inner circle – installing political sages who are more adept at optics and keeping their leader out of harm’s way. “The problem with the Trudeau inner circle is they drink too much of their own Kool-Aid,” Ottawa-based political consultant Yaroslav Baran told me.
Tuesday morning, most Canadians probably woke up dissatisfied, concerned about the state of Canadian unity and whether their political leaders have the fortitude to look beyond their own shortsighted self-interest.
But again, given the tone of the post-election speeches, don’t expect significant gestures from any of the party leaders – including Trudeau. If Canadian voters feel let down, they cannot be blamed.