No passion please, we're Canadian: the 2019 federal election and a divided electorate

Published: 23 October 2019

Justin Trudeau has lost his majority in the Canadian House of Commons, a relative rare occurrence. Ailsa Henderson explores the drop in support for Trudeau's Liberals and asks what next for this minority government, and their opponents.

As a student in a Canadian political science department in the early 1990s I was assigned a lot of readings about the merits of brokerage politics, the premise of which is fairly simple: so divided was Canada – territorially, linguistically, culturally – that its state-wide political parties sought to contain within them grand coalitions of interests. Far better this way than parties representing single communities of interest, which might in turn lead to endless conflict between passionately-held identities.  Brokerage politics, it was argued, explained the success of the Conservative and Liberal parties and the general absence of, for example, a party for francophones, for western provinces, for indigenous peoples and so on.  Observers of Canadian politics will note it was precisely during the 1990s that the cracks appeared in brokerage politics.  The rise of both the Reform party and Bloc Québécois, drawing support away from the Progressive Conservative Party, suggested one of the state-wide parties could no longer hold its different interests together.  The Liberals, as a party still able to command support across the state, were seen to succeed in part because they kept up the effort (or perhaps pretence) of brokerage politics. The 2019 election suggests those days are well and truly over. Space constraints prevent an analysis of the rise and fall of Reform, Alliance, Bloc and the dropping of ‘progressive’ from the name of the Conservative party but Canadian politics has not been without its twists and turns of late.  Compared to electoral polarisation in the US and UK it might well seem there is little going on but the 2019 election results mark the end of a longer period of voter dealignment. 

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have lost their majority and will now form a minority in the Canadian House of Commons.  This precise direction of travel, an incumbent PM losing a majority to form a minority, is relatively rare. The most recent occasion was Paul Martin’s 2004 Liberal minority government, although Martin inherited his majority midterm from his predecessor Jean Chrétien.  The only post-war election in which a Prime Minister won a majority and then formed only a minority at the next trip to the polls was Pierre Trudeau in 1972.

Why the drop in support?  There are obvious sources of decline.  A failure to introduce proportional representation annoyed voters, as did the purchase of a pipeline.  The Liberal party was, throughout 2019, digging itself out of the drop in support following the SNC Lavalin scandal, in which the Prime Minister was seen to pressure one of his cabinet ministers not to prosecute a company responsible for hundreds of jobs in his home province (but also prone to questionable ethical practices abroad). The scandal cost the Liberal party two of its MPs, close to a ten point drop in the polls and cost the Prime Minister his Principal Secretary, although, as is perhaps the way with these things, the cabinet minister has been re-elected as an independent and the staffer is now back in the employ of the party. Plus ça change, peut-être.

Perhaps most striking is the territorially-divided electorate.  While Liberal support held up in Atlantic Canada and in densely populated Ontario cities like Toronto and Ottawa, it faces regional blocks of support for rival parties.  The Conservatives under Andrew Scheer had an almost clean sweep in the three prairie provinces of Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan.  The pro-independence Bloc Québécois, having won only 14 seats in the two previous elections, won 32, almost half the seats in Quebec. As election day approached both the Bloc and Liberals were each polling at around 33% in Quebec.

It could, however, have been worse for the Liberals. The current Conservative Ontario Premier is deeply unpopular – polling, according to one CBC report, ‘somewhere between pinkeye and stomach flu’, which likely depressed support for Conservative candidates in Ontario.  The failure to introduce proportional representation, on which the Liberals had campaigned in 2015, could have delivered Trudeau a clearer defeat. The party now forms a government as a false winner, having earned fewer votes that the Conservative party. Cynics (or pragmatists) will note therein lies the difficulty in introducing electoral reform; it benefits those in government who therefore have limited incentive to distribute power and influence more equitably.

A narrow win was widely anticipated.  Close elections are expected to increase turnout, and for most of this election the two largest parties were polling within the margin of error of each other, but participation decreased 3 points to 66%.  A tight campaign it might well have been, but it was a boring one.  Former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien perhaps best captured the mood when he urged voters to back the governing party on the grounds that the Liberal party was reasonable and Canadians, as reasonable people, should therefore support it.  No passion please, we’re Canadian.  Telling perhaps, that this tepid message met with a far from enthusiastic ‘meh’ from voters. 

It was also a negative campaign.  Some of the dirty tricks were garden-variety attacks on leaders. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer was found to have lied about his qualifications as an insurance broker and outed as a dual citizen of Canada and the US.  The Green party was found to have photoshopped a picture of their leader so that it appeared she was using something other than a disposable cup and straw.  The photos that emerged of the Prime Minister in fancy dress, complete with black face, from his time as a teacher in BC, provided the largest potential obstacle to any of the leaders.  Yet while the scandal caused the PM’s personal polling figures to dip, it had limited long term impact on voter movement, in part because of the flatness of the prevailing countryside: no other party’s leader was exciting voters. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh performed well in the debates, but faced an uphill struggle in terms of voter recognition.

The campaign also witnessed tactics that would seem familiar to those in the US or UK in recent elections, including: questions about the hiring of a lobby firm to destroy a competitor party by suggesting its candidates and supporters were racist; articles in the Buffalo Chronicle that appeared deliberately designed to distribute fake news; media reports of automated phone calls (or ‘robocalls’) advising potential voters in Liberal- and NDP-leaning areas to vote AFTER election day; accusations from leaders that rivals were promising to raise specific taxes or decriminalise hard drugs when such policies were not in their manifestos and, in a move that will prompt no more than a shrug from most British readers, an effort to create a constitutional convention on the hoof, in this case about who gets to form a government after an election

What then, does this mean?  For the Liberals, it means building a coalition of support vote-by-vote, mostly likely by turning to the NDP, with whom it shares a similar approach on housing, accessible and affordable childcare, universal pharmacare and public transit. They part ways on the issue of pipelines, however.

For now, it appears unlikely the results will quickly lead to another election. Yves-François Blanchet, the leader of the Bloc Québécois, has already stated that he thinks Canadians have a limited appetite for another election any time soon.  There will be limited attempts to take down the government from either the Bloc or the NDP, who will now find their support – and therefore influence – enhanced by the result.

And what of the BQ, does this suggest support for independence is on the rise? Not even the Bloc leader believes this is the case. Instead, Blanchet believes the Bloc’s performance reflects a sense that the party best stands up for the needs and wishes – and distinct values – of Quebecers.  Such a valence approach to voting for nationalist parties is consistent with what we see in Scotland, namely a sizeable portion of SNP voters backing the party because it best stands up for Scotland rather than solely seeing it as a route to independence.  The reference to values likely relates to Quebec’s controversial law on secularism, which takes a more Jacobin approach to religious symbols - seeing them as a threat to a cohesive society - than is typically seen in the rest of Canada.

Given research on populism, and plentiful evidence of its role as a driver of vote choice in elections and referendums, what this one explanation for the Canadian election results? Not really.  The new, avowedly populist party (for those tired of ‘traditional politicians’) failed to win a seat.  The government has been returned, albeit with a minority, on a platform that offered to increase migration from 310k to 350k a year.  A swing to the nativist right this was not. This is not to say that there has not been an uncharacteristic presence of racism and intolerance in the campaign.  Some of the old fault lines and principles might appear weaker and Canada’s reputation as a multicultural paradise comes away slightly tarnished, but the message here is about the death of a vision of Canada with consistent appeal across the state. The electorate, and the House, are territorially divided and, unlike the 1993 and 1997 elections, this year’s results suggest neither state-wide party is capable of forming a grand coalition of interests. Whether this marks the start of a period of passionate, conflictual debate among rival communities of interest, as brokerage advocates feared, remains to be seen.

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