Editor’s Note: Canadian Michael Bociurkiw (@WorldAffairsPro) is a global affairs analyst, author of the book Digital Pandemic and host of the podcast “Global Impact.” He is a regular contributor to CNN Opinion. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
In an election few wanted and which ended up as the most expensive in Canadian history, Justin Trudeau, on Monday managed to return his party to the government benches in the House of Commons for the third consecutive time.
He failed to obtain a majority of seats – forcing him once again to reach across the aisle to opposition parties in order to pass key legislation, and the costly exercise should raise questions about Trudeau’s credibility, especially when the Covid-19 crisis remains far from over.
The Liberal Party leader never said he was gunning for a majority, but his opponents – including his main opponent, Erin O’Toole of the Conservatives – insisted a wasteful power grab was the objective.
As of Wednesday with mail-in ballots still being counted, Trudeau’s Liberal Party remained 12 seats short of the target to form a majority government – bringing back a Parliament strikingly similar to the last one.
As he did during his first election win in 2015, Trudeau invoked the phrase of brighter days ahead: “You are sending us back to work with a clear mandate to get Canada through this pandemic and to the brighter days ahead. My friends, that’s exactly what we are ready to do,” Trudeau told supporters early Tuesday.
Worldwide, the Covid-19 virus seems to have developed a knack for outsmarting elected leaders at almost every turn – including in Canada, which is in the midst of a fourth wave – and throughout the 36-day campaign thorny issues such as vaccine passports and mandates featured prominently. And in what resembled scenes south of the border, anti-vaxxer campaigners and heckling protesters caused significant disruption, especially at Trudeau campaign events.
“I can say without a doubt that this election had much more vitriol than others. People are hurting. Businesses have not recovered from the losses they incurred due to the pandemic,” Krystina Waler of the Conservatives told me.
Trudeau called the election August 15 with the reasoning that the existing arrangement in Parliament was unworkable and that his party required a fresh imprimatur to wrestle the pandemic to the ground and reboot a struggling Canadian economy. Unsaid was that calling an election a full two years before the end of his mandate was a bid to regain a majority and liberate the government from having to rely on the left-leaning New Democratic Party for support in the House of Commons.
In the last election, well before Covid-19 became a main preoccupation of voters, the Liberals appeared to be punished for a series of scandals that had made their campaign promises of clean and ethical government almost laughable.
With those lapses now in the rearview mirror, Trudeau’s best hope was that voters would opt for a familiar face rather than entrust the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic to an untested newcomer such as O’Toole – or any of the other four federal party leaders for that matter.
Fortunately for Trudeau, his ministers managed to catch up after a bungled initial vaccine rollout, and the government can now point to almost 70% of Canadians having been fully vaccinated.
While it is hard to say with any certainty, millions of voters, especially younger ones, likely went to the ballot box with a positive view of the Trudeau Liberals for the billions of dollars doled out during waves of punishing lockdowns. The spending spree, which provided even high school graduates with up to C$1750-a-month, helped nudge the federal deficit close to the C$1 trillion mark for the first time.
That priority will need to be tackled immediately as the spread of the highly infectious Delta variant continues to wreak havoc in the western provinces. Just days before Canadians headed to the polls, a public health emergency was declared in Alberta – the province that lifted restrictions more than any other – as the public health system reached a breaking point. The deteriorating situation there may have indirectly helped Trudeau gain votes after O’Toole praised Premier Jason Kenney for his handling of the pandemic.
An uncertain ‘new normal’
As Canadians woke up Tuesday, they might have been wondering about the future direction of a country that not only faces uncertainty from the pandemic and a diminished presence on the international stage – but also political divisions that made this election one of the most toxic in recent memory. Aside from the pandemic spending, the other main issues on the campaign trail were climate, housing affordability and gun control.
Foreign affairs issues rarely intrude into a Canadian election campaign, but the first few days on the hustings were dominated by biting questions about Canada’s response to the United States’ abrupt pullout from Afghanistan. Left behind, in part by bureaucratic bungling, were thousands of Afghans whom Trudeau had promised to accept as refugees. That threw Liberal messaging off course in the first crucial days of the campaign with persistent questions as to why Canada, which paid a disproportionately high price in Afghanistan, was not better prepared.
And dogging Trudeau throughout the campaign were questions on why he decided to send millions to polling stations just as Canada is in the midst of a fourth wave of the Covid-19 pandemic – especially for a government which professed to prioritize science over politics.
With the Delta variant circulating in many parts of the country, Trudeau, projecting a “rules for thee but not for me” attitude, came under fire for holding large election rallies and a media event indoors during the pandemic.
The Teflon prime minister
Having put Canadians through a power-grab exercise that landed taxpayers with a $470 (US) million tab, Trudeau’s political future could be anything but bright. Could this election even spell the beginning of the end of the once-powerful Trudeau brand and open the door to a leadership challenge down the road?
At 49 years old, Trudeau is now the eldest of the three main party leaders. While his youthful vigour was evident throughout the campaign, especially during a punishing schedule in the last days designed to close tight races across the country, Trudeau appears to have succumbed to a delivery style that comes across as haughty and laced with stump speech bullet points.
With his previous ethics violations providing ample ammunition to opponents, Trudeau may need to make way for a fresh face to lead his party into uncertain times. (As a third ethics inquiry was launched last year over the WE Charity scandal, Trudeau admitted he had made a mistake).
As in the last campaign, benefitting Trudeau, who is the son of a former prime minister, was the lack of a formidable challenger. Despite a last-minute attempt to rebrand O’Toole as an equally charismatic leader, the Conservatives’ leader clearly failed to ignite the hearts and minds of Canadians in large enough numbers to grab power.
Even a late shift to the left by O’Toole and a hardened pro-vaccine stance failed to make a dent in the Liberal campaign juggernaut. O’Toole’s poor showing on the campaign trail may send him to political purgatory.
As the House of Commons reconvenes this fall, Trudeau’s caucus may be tempted to ask why an election was called, given that it has hardly changed the political landscape in Ottawa. It is a fair question to ask.