22 September 2021

The Trudeau bubble deflates

By Blair Gibbs

The latest G7 nation to have an election during a global pandemic has got a new government, and Canada is back to where it started. Provincial parties had triggered elections during the pandemic before and for some it had paid off. But it was always a bigger risk for the incumbent federal leader Justin Trudeau, and it very nearly went wrong.  

With two years left to run, and with no external justification, Trudeau sought a new mandate and then almost immediately lost ground. Polls tightened and Liberal candidates got jumpy. Trudeau turned out to be a steady campaigner with the charisma and flair that Theresa May lacked in the UK in 2017, but the miscalculation of calling an early election was almost worse. Unlike Theresa May, he did not even have a strong argument for what a parliamentary majority would mean for the country.  

The Liberals lacked a strong policy platform and so fell back on what they assumed was the enduring popularity of their telegenic young leader. But Trudeau’s 2015 appeal had almost completely evaporated with swing voters, and the world had completely changed since his first two election victories.  

Voters were very concerned about the rising cost of living and also felt like the pandemic had not been a resounding success for the government, despite very high vaccination rates. It dominated their priorities at home and work and with a fourth wave of Covid unfolding, an election seemed to many to be an unwelcome distraction. Even though the pandemic was not behind them, voters in focus groups also raised other issues – like crime, or migration, or Canada’s relations with China – that are difficult problems to tackle, growing in importance, and ones where the Liberals are vulnerable.  

With rising inflation, a ballooning budget deficit, and no credible solutions to boost wages or cool the housing market in places like Toronto and Vancouver, the economic environment looks very challenging. In response, voters did not want – and were not offered – any form of austerity. But even balancing the budget carefully over ten years, as Conservatives promised, failed to resonate. Even this may not prove to be enough to fix Canada’s fiscal position. Next time the medicine will need to be even stronger. Expect to see the debt position go from bad to worse, and it’s hard to imagine any spending restraint under the Liberals.

If public services like healthcare continue to struggle from staff shortages and long waiting times – particularly acute in Atlantic Canada, where the Liberals lost ground – then all the extra spending and debt will not translate to improvements that voters will notice at the next election. The same vulnerabilities that led voters to switch in 2021 will be even worse for the Liberals next time. There were 30 constituencies (or ‘ridings’) where the Tories came within 2,000 votes of winning this time.

This was a typically short, low-key election campaign that had no moments of great personality or even meaningful policy debate. Attempts to damage the Conservatives on wedge issues like vaccines or gun control largely failed, and minor parties struggled to catch the mood of the electorate. Only the People’s Party – led by a libertarian former Conservative minister and standing against mask mandates and lockdowns – could claim to have had a good election, more than doubling their share of the vote to 5% (but still winning no seats). 

Voters were never convinced an election at this time was necessary, and they refused to summon any enthusiasm for it, or for the platforms being discussed. Unsurprisingly, with public health restrictions still in place, voter turnout was also suppressed. This all added to the impression that Trudeau had an agenda and was arrogantly cutting and running for a quick re-election just to improve his majority.

There was really no great decision on offer to voters and no reason to spend over $600m on a poll for the Liberals to be given the right to govern on the same policies as before. With the world upended since 2019 and huge challenges ahead on technology, climate, energy and migration, voters deserved a bold reform programme, and no party offered it.

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole – almost totally unknown before the campaign began – was introduced to voters over five weeks and they mostly liked what they saw, namely a more socially progressive politician than his predecessor, and with more gravitas. He had been willing to adopt policy positions, like a carbon tax, that blunted Liberal attacks and made his party more appealing to centrist voters, although it didn’t translate to new seats in British Columbia or Ontario.  

O’Toole still has to convince his own Party that achieving 34% of the popular vote and 119 seats is enough to let him stay on, otherwise he will turn out to be the Canadian Michael Howard – the experienced leader who rebuilt the campaign machine and brought the party back from the brink, but not the one with enough broad public appeal to become Prime Minister.

However, the fundamental context has not changed. This Prime Minister has gradually lost credibility with Canadian voters. Numerous scandals and a failure to deliver have permanently dented his credibility. The only change voters credit Trudeau for delivering in over six years is cannabis legalisation – no small thing and an impressively bold policy reform that other nations should emulate – but not a big enough legacy for a party that spends all its time talking about women’s equality, human rights, and the future of the planet.

The minority government Trudeau now leads will be much like before – dependent on support from the left-wing New Democrat Party (who once again failed to break through – like Britain’s Liberal Democrats) and without a clear mandate to drive through radical changes. Not that these were on offer this time. The Liberal Party was already lacking new policy ideas and resorted to recycling pledges on childcare and climate that it had promised before, but not actually delivered. Massive subsidies to fund $10-a-day childcare for working parents caught the attention of middle-class voters, but this will not even arrive until 2023 at the earliest.  

With just 158 seats – 12 short of majority – it is unlikely Trudeau will be able to avoid another election before two years, and by then, his depleted reserves of residual support will have been totally exhausted. National leaders almost never manage to reinvent themselves while they are in office and all of his opponents are stronger now. He is Tony Blair in 2007 without the parliamentary majority or the ideological conviction. His only advantage is he has not got an obvious successor at his heels and the Liberal caucus still backs him – for now.

The Conservatives struggled to secure the outcome they wanted in this election, but their prospects for next time look better. Canadian voters craving a return to normal life and real help with living costs and wages may have done their democratic duty and voted, but Erin O’Toole’s main attack line will prove to be true – they will just get more of the same.  

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Blair Gibbs is a former advisor to the Prime Minister Boris Johnson (2019-20) and is now a consultant and lives in Vancouver, BC.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.