Pierre Trudeau won his first, smashing election victory in 1968, shortly after assuming the Liberal Party leadership. Four years later, at the 1972 election, he barely held on to power. Then, after two years of governing largely with the support of the smaller New Democratic Party, he called another poll and won back enough seats to regain his majority.
Justin Trudeau won a stupendous victory of his own in 2015. Four years later he was humbled by a minority showing and also had to rely on the New Democrats to stay in power. And now, two years on, he has called an election for 20 September, hoping to repeat history and regain his majority.
But Trudeau the elder didn’t trigger his fightback election amid fears of a fourth pandemic wave. Nor did he have to contend with a law, introduced by the Conservatives in 2007, that nominally fixed the next election for October 2023. It’s true that the law allows for flexibility — and the Conservatives themselves broke its spirit by calling a snap election in 2008 — but one of the first questions Justin Trudeau faced after announcing this week’s dissolution of parliament was why an election was necessary.
The odds are not overwhelmingly in his favour. The mixed polling figures show, at most, a slight Liberal edge over the Conservatives and the other parties. The Liberals have managed the pandemic reasonably well and have some popular signature policies, but they haven’t explained why they need a new mandate. The party, and Trudeau personally, carry six years of baggage; some high-profile Liberals have chosen not to seek re-election; and a vaunted star candidate dropped out unexpectedly. Trudeau’s latest Conservative opponent, Erin O’Toole, will likely be a tougher challenge than his predecessor, Andrew Scheer, who still managed to hold the Liberals to a minority in 2019. And the Bloc Québécois and New Democrats are contenders to take their share of seats.
But we also know that Justin Trudeau is often underestimated. When he entered politics he was dismissed as a dilettante who lacked his father’s gravitas. He went into the 2015 election in third place. He has staged multiple comebacks from stunning political blows and embarrassments, like the pictures showing him in blackface that emerged in the middle of the 2019 campaign. He is a smart politician leading a party that is very good at clinging to power, but only after 20 September will we know whether he was a political genius or a fool to trigger an early election.
While Trudeau, at forty-nine, retains his boyish good looks and charm, there is nothing fresh about the party he has led for eight years. Although it remains within his iron grip, with no challengers in sight, his team is sagging. One of his key ministers, Catherine McKenna, has chosen not to stand for re-election; others, like long-time defence minister Harjit Sajjan and Indigenous relations minister Carolyn Bennett, have made major missteps and are unlikely to retain their jobs after the election.
New blood, meanwhile, is scarce. The party went temporarily wild when Mark Carney, the expatriate Canadian who had just finished his term as governor of the Bank of England, signalled a long-rumoured interest in politics via the Liberal Party. But he unexpectedly announced last month that he wouldn’t run after all, perhaps using his banker’s mind to calculate the odds were not in his favour.
No other obvious star newcomers are being offered to voters, nor any sense of rejuvenation in the Liberal package. Trudeau had some good fortune in May of this year when the Ethics Commissioner reported on his third investigation of Trudeau, concluding that the prime minister did not break ethics laws in last year’s WE charity affair — a refreshing change from the two previous findings that he broke conflict-of-interest laws in other matters.
The Liberals have some fresh policies, notably a joint federal–provincial childcare plan that has so far reached agreements with seven provinces. The government can also point to a recovering economy and a reasonable record of managing the pandemic within areas of federal jurisdiction, including generous income-replacement programs. While earlier this year there was much criticism about the slow procurement of vaccines in Canada, the nation is now flooded with doses. Seventy-one per cent of the eligible population is fully inoculated and the figure is on track to hit 80 per cent, among the highest in the world.
For his part, the Conservatives’ O’Toole has the potential to be a very good prime minister. Unlike his predecessor, he has life experience outside politics, having become a Toronto corporate lawyer after a stint as an air force navigator. He entered parliament in 2012 and served briefly as a minister in the Harper government, giving him experience without too much baggage. At his best he exudes an appealing mix of intelligence, vision and common sense.
But first he must drag his own party over the finish line. O’Toole was embarrassed earlier this year when a party convention refused to endorse a mild statement affirming that climate change is real. A significant portion of his party remains socially conservative and the party caucus recently split on government legislation to ban “conversion therapy” for LGBT people. O’Toole has tried to reach out to new constituencies and regularly affirms his own pro-choice and pro-LGBT views. But his party has not always followed.
Some of his problems are a result of his having campaigned for the leadership last year as the ideologically pure candidate against the more moderate big-tent approach of Peter MacKay. Upon winning victory he moderated his tone, managing to retain the trust of the party but leaving open the question of the real Erin O’Toole. He also struggles to catch the imagination of Canadians. Though slightly younger than Trudeau, the white-haired O’Toole looks older — easily passing for Scott Morrison’s suburban neighbour — and remains an unknown to most Canadians. If O’Toole wins, it will be because of Liberal missteps more than his own appeal.
Canada’s traditional third party, the New Democrats, remains highly unlikely to win government, but poses its usual challenge to the Liberals’ left flank. Leader Jagmeet Singh, undisputedly the hippest politician in Canada, is back for a second round; a master of TikTok who last winter played an online gaming session with American left superstar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, his personal polling is higher than either Trudeau’s or O’Toole’s. Yet he struggles to show he has substance as well as style, and has repeatedly been outmanoeuvred by the other parties in the minority parliament.
The Bloc Québécois is the perennial wildcard. Almost extinct a few years ago, it won thirty-two seats in 2019 to gain third place in parliament under leader Yves-François Blanchet. With its exclusive platform of protecting Quebec’s interests, the Bloc is a thorn in the side of the national parties, though — as we will see — it is a major target of Trudeau’s election strategy.
A word must also be said about the unfortunate Green Party of Canada. The election of 2019, when it won three seats after a decade of having a sole MP, Elizabeth May, was a high point for the party. May retired as leader later that year, to be replaced by Annamie Paul, only for the party to descend into Byzantine intrigue, with Paul and the party establishment mired in legal battles with each other. The Green Party has always struggled in Canadian politics, with the New Democrats occupying the prime space on the political left and the party itself oscillating on direction and strategy. This leaves it weak and vulnerable to the civil war now consuming it.
In contrast, the hard-right People’s Party of Canada has had a glorious recent run. Founded by former Conservative Maxime Bernier, who remains its sole recognisable name, the party managed only 1.6 per cent of the vote in 2019, scattered across the country, and not a single seat. But Covid-19 has had an energising effect, with the curtailment of individual freedoms and the foreign origins of the virus igniting its xenophobic base. While it may not win any seats again (Bernier lost his own Conservative seat in 2019), it looms as a distraction for the Conservatives if O’Toole moves too far to the centre.
The issues that will dominate the election aren’t yet clear. Notable areas unlikely to be contentious include the massive federal deficit, taxes, and general economic and trade questions. O’Toole has downplayed many of the party’s orthodox positions, being careful not to be labelled as cheap or mean-spirited. Instead he has become a mild economic nationalist, expressing scepticism about international trade and emphasising that Canadian workers must be put first. He has publicly reached out to private sector unions, long estranged from the Conservative Party, though they have not been quick to reciprocate. The party’s platform contains a remarkable list of promises, though most are relatively small-scale and not obviously outside the Liberal paradigm.
On the other side of the spectrum, the New Democrats also struggle to articulate a strong alternative message other than a kind of Liberal-plus position. Many of the key issues facing the country, such as rising housing prices, have no obvious solutions, so all parties have stuck to accusing each other of inaction without presenting substantive answers themselves. Regional divisions, so stark after the last election, have yet to assert themselves in this contest, at least at the national level.
Foreign policy has few flashpoints either. The Conservatives have tried to make China an issue, accusing the Liberal government of insufficiently standing up to aggressive Chinese behaviour, including the longstanding detention of two Canadians. But their attempts to polarise China policy, which do fire up their base, have foundered on the lack of good options. The collapse of Afghanistan is difficult to take after years of Canadian involvement, but again there is little to debate. The Canadian military itself is in free fall, with two successive defence chiefs removed from their positions after sexual misconduct allegations. Normally the Conservatives strongly align themselves with the military, but they see no advantage this time, and have instead targeted defence minister Sajjan’s handling of the allegations.
One clue to the election themes can be found back on 1 July, this year’s Canada Day holiday. Normally the national holiday’s focus is on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, where a national broadcast features a carefully government-approved line-up of entertainers and celebrities. But in this pandemic year Ottawa was silent… at least as far as official celebrations go. Instead, decidedly unofficial events took over the main public spaces, allowing a peek into the real grassroots thinking of Canada.
On Parliament Hill, thousands marched to mark the recent discoveries of unmarked graves at former Indigenous residential schools. While the barbarities of the schools have long been known — an official government apology was made in 2008 and a royal commission reported in 2015 — the graves reopened the issue, with protesters arguing that insufficient progress has been made since the apology and the commission.
Down the street, meanwhile, on the grounds of the Supreme Court of Canada, a “No More Lockdowns” rally featured the aforementioned People’s Party leader, Maxime Bernier. While Canadian lockdowns have been mild by Australian standards (though much more drawn out) and restrictions have been easing in recent months, considerable tensions remain, with provinces reopening at different speeds with varying requirements for mandatory vaccination.
The two widely different events capture Canada’s silos in 2021. While it is not as polarised as its neighbour to the south, different conversations are clearly going on in the country. The election revolves around not just which will predominate, but how the Liberals and Conservatives will manage them.
For the progressive side of the country, Indigenous issues, race and anti-racism, and climate change are the key issues. The Liberals must engage in these conversations and convince voters that they have sufficiently delivered, rather than losing them to the New Democrats or Bloc. For their part, the Conservatives have little to show in these areas — though O’Toole is trying to at least look attuned to them — and must change the conversation to emphasise economic recovery and other material issues.
The conversations around Covid-19 are more complicated. While O’Toole and most leading Conservatives have backed the restrictions and the vaccination program, a significant portion of their supporters are more ambivalent. Thus, O’Toole desperately does not want to talk about these issues, while the Liberals would like nothing better than to confine him to the extremist camp. And O’Toole is stuck where he is, lest he lose supporters to Bernier and the People’s Party.
As always, Quebec has its own election dynamic. Trudeau and the Liberals think they can win back seats from the Bloc, and Trudeau has made some key moves to cultivate the support of nationalist premier François Legault. In an action that surely made his father turn in his grave, Trudeau agreed with a dubious Legault assertion that the province could unilaterally amend aspects of the Canadian constitution affecting the province. And while he bargained with other provinces over the details and funding of his childcare plan, Trudeau agreed to a largely unconditional CA$6 billion transfer to Quebec to bolster its own longstanding program — again, something that would alarm his centralist father. But Pierre Trudeau didn’t have to worry about the Bloc Québécois.
Justin’s larger strategy is clear; he wants to demonstrate that he can be counted on to respect and defend Quebec’s interests, making the Bloc superfluous.
A powerful gender dynamic is also observable. Conservative support skews male, while women are more likely to support the Liberals. Trudeau’s opponents have long mocked his enlightened masculinity, and continue to do so. In a bizarre video posted on Twitter last weekend, the Conservatives took footage from the 1971 film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and imposed Trudeau’s face on the spoiled character Veruca Salt, so that a girlish Trudeau pranced and pouted about how he wanted an election that he didn’t deserve. The party then released its platform featuring a cover photo of O’Toole, who looks most comfortable in a suit, in a tight t-shirt and jeans, showing off his dad bod to best advantage.
The gendered Conservative strategy is unclear, since they already have a lock on middle-aged men who erroneously think they are in good shape. More broadly, the Conservatives constantly walk a fine line in attacking Trudeau personally. The Conservative base loathes him, as they did his father, seeing the suave pair as uniquely evil characters somehow dedicated to the dismantling of all that is good in Canada. For some Conservatives, thus, constant attacks on Trudeau, including gendered ones, are the way to go.
Yet most of the country doesn’t despise Trudeau. If anything they feel he is insufficiently progressive, especially on Indigenous issues and climate change. And since voting is not compulsory in Canada, one of the risks to the Liberals is that disillusioned voters will just not vote at all. Trudeau won in 2015 partly because of an increased turnout of enthusiastic Liberal supporters; he slipped in 2019 because many stayed home. In contrast, the Conservatives can count on a loyal turnout no matter what.
Trudeau must thus convince voters either that he is still their progressive icon… or that he is the one thing that can stop the Conservatives. The latter was effective in 2019, when he attacked the gap between Andrew Scheer’s personal social conservatism and his pledge not to pursue a social conservative agenda. But this will not work on the nimble O’Toole, who frequently affirms his pro-choice views and so far has avoided getting painted as a right-wing bogeyman.
So will Justin Trudeau repeat history? In one scenario, he will triumph in his comeback, demonstrating a continuing deftness in navigating the political centre of the country. In another scenario, his hubris will do him in. Canada’s Liberal governments do eventually fall apart because of hubris and exhaustion. (Conservative governments, except for Stephen Harper’s, typically end in insurrection.) But usually not so soon. •