He may wield influence over the Liberals, but a glance at the history books should convince Singh to tread lightly when it comes to dealing with the Grits
In times past, scoundrels were placed in a pillory in the public square and exposed to humiliation and abuse. Justin Trudeau’s appearance before his fellow citizens in the Old Market Square in Winnipeg mid-campaign, after he’d be caught dressing up in blackface, was a similar exercise in public shaming. It was also the pivotal moment in a general election that could have slipped away but ultimately saw Trudeau’s Liberal party squeak out what amounts to a minority win.
With the polls barely closed in British Columbia, CBC declared a Liberal government. The final vote share – 33.05 per cent for the Liberals, 34.4 per cent for the Conservatives, 15.91 per cent for the New Democrats as of Tuesday morning – showed how disillusioned voters were with their options. Trudeau was re-elected with the lowest share of the popular vote in Canadian history.
The Liberals contained losses in Atlantic Canada and Quebec to levels that allowed a strong showing in vote-rich Ontario to power them to victory. But the Bloc Québécois spoiled the party, adding 22 seats, at the expense of the Liberals and the NDP, enough to deny Trudeau another majority. There is an irony in the fact that Western Conservatives have Quebec separatists to thank for reining in the Liberals.
The Liberals’ strategy of playing offence by visiting opposition held territory in the last week of the campaign paid off, as much as it could have — such as seats like Milton, where Olympian Adam Van Koeverden unseated Conservative deputy leader Lisa Raitt.
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But there were also some big name losses for the Liberals, such as veteran minister Ralph Goodale in Regina and Amarjeet Sohi in Edmonton.
Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives added 22 seats, performing well in British Columbia and New Brunswick. But they didn’t make the breakthrough in the commuter belt around Toronto or in Quebec needed to complement their almost complete dominance in the West. Alberta and Saskatchewan rejected almost all NDP and Liberal candidates including Goodale, although the NDP held an Edmonton riding. It is a statement of displeasure with the current state of the confederation that Trudeau would be unwise to ignore.
It could have been quite a different story had the blackface saga evolved into the full-blown crisis for the Liberals that it had the potential to become.
Trudeau’s response – a willingness to take full responsibility for his actions and the misty-eyed admission that his “layers of privilege” created a “massive blindspot” – was deemed suitable penance by voters who decided to forgive the Liberal leader his sins of commission.
This was not quite the “teachable moment” non-apology, such as we have seen in the past. It was abject but apparently heart-felt. “This is not something that represents the person I’ve become or the leader I’ve tried to be… My father wouldn’t be pleased with how I behaved. But perhaps taking responsibility for things is important,” he said.
It has proved to be. Trudeau had capital in the bank on minority-rights issues and, within four days, there were no more questions about a scandal that had threatened to sink the Liberals. His campaign was able to regroup and lurch unsteadily towards a modest election night victory.
By contrast, Scheer was dogged by a collection of far less egregious allegations over his opinions on issues of conscience, his professional qualifications, his American passport and reports of a contract to a third-party supplier to “seek and destroy” People’s Party leader, Maxime Bernier. The Conservative leader failed to put any of them to bed and was left looking vague and evasive.
In the end, more voters may have decided they could trust Trudeau than those who believed in Scheer’s authenticity.
In this most presidential of Canadian elections, it is remarkable that victory went to a leader who has let down so many people, so often. In the end though, he proved himself capable of persuading at least a small plurality of voters that they should continue to collaborate in pursuit of a common mission. In the end, perhaps reluctantly, more people chose “forward.”
Besides the trust issue, there were other shortcomings in Scheer’s uninspiring campaign. The Conservatives had the most stable base of support, but they were almost nobody’s second choice — ironic, given that was the strategy through which Scheer became leader. He hit a ceiling of support at around 33 per cent of the vote and was never able to break through. It was not helped by having an environment plan that underwhelmed those voters who believed this was the most substantive issue of the election. Trudeau’s line that this election was not about the next four years but about the next 40 years appears to have resonated.
The Conservative policy to scrap the carbon tax would save the country $159 million over five years, according to the party’s own platform. It was hardly a hill to die upon.
Scheer’s strategy since running for leader was to stick with the policies — often the exact policies — put forward by the Harper government but to use a different tone to sell them. But times have changed, and the Conservative Party is in danger of going the way of mix tapes and phone booths; if it cannot broaden its base and draw in the next generation of voters, it will wither.
Whether Scheer is the leader trusted to make that transformation will be decided upon by the caucus and the party’s members in the coming days and months. There are choppy waters ahead for the Conservative leader. He has increased his party’s seat count but many Conservatives will feel this is an election he should have won, particularly after Trudeau’s blackface fiasco. “We need to put more in the window than just tax cuts,” said one senior party figure. It will be some consolation that People’s Party leader Maxime Bernier went down to defeat.
Not that Trudeau and his team should be popping champagne corks. The party lost 20 seats. This election could have been a lay-up. The Conservative advertising attacks — that Trudeau is “just not as advertised” — were heavy-handed. Until, that is, the Liberal leader vindicated them with his own behaviour. The big beasts of the Conservative Party chose not to run for their party’s leadership in 2017, in the belief that unseating Trudeau was a 10-year project. Trudeau’s unforced errors — from the illegal Aga Khan vacations to the embarrassing India trip; from the Omar Khadr payoff to the SNC Lavalin scandal; from broken promises to blackface — ensured it was a closer race than it should have been. Trudeau has disappointed a lot of people, which explains why the public polling indicated a dead heat right up until the final day.
But steadily, in the final days, Liberal crowds grew bigger and more enthusiastic right across the country. Trudeau neutralized Scheer’s only campaign plank — making life more affordable for struggling Canadians — by outbidding him. Unburdened by concerns about balanced budgets, the Liberals simply pledged to plunge the country further into debt to the tune of an extra $94 billion. When the Conservative platform was released late on a Friday before Thanksgiving weekend, it provided the opening the Liberals had been waiting for: the chance to pounce on relatively modest reductions to public spending aimed at balancing the budget within five years. Trudeau framed the remaining days of the campaign as a battle between Scheer’s “cuts” and his “investments.” In one speech in the final week, Trudeau mentioned “cuts” 45 times and Ontario’s premier Doug Ford — whom he also accuses of being a ruthless slasher — nine times.
His prospects of majority disappeared when disillusioned Quebecers decided to park their vote with the Bloc Québécois. At one point before the election, the Liberals anticipated adding 20 seats in Quebec; by late Monday night, they were losing eight.
But it was only thanks to his gushing performance in Winnipeg that Trudeau was given the public standing by voters to even make his case.
Trudeau will now have to find dance partners from the NDP and/or the Greens to govern. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh ran a strong campaign. His line during the English language debate that voters did not have to choose between “Mr. Delay” (Trudeau) or “Mr. Deny” (Scheer) was the campaign’s most memorable zinger.
But Liberal alarmism over the prospects of NDP votes leading to a Scheer government appears to have spooked enough would-be New Democrat voters to contain any orange waves.
Singh lost all but one of his 14 Quebec MPs, the result of ground ceded in the lacklustre first 18 months of his leadership.
The compensation, if it is one, is the influence he may wield over the Liberals.
But a glance at the history books should be enough to convince Singh to tread lightly when it comes to dealing with the Grits. One of his predecessors, David Lewis, propped up Pierre Trudeau’s government after the latter won a plurality of just two seats in 1972. By the time Lewis decided to bring down Trudeau’s government in 1974, he was in disrepute with voters, having received all of the blame and none of the credit for the preceding two years in power. In the ensuing election, the NDP lost half its parliamentary caucus.
The mercy is that no-one wants, or can afford, another election. MPs first elected in 2015 will look covetously towards pensions that will become vested after six years. Members from all sides of the House may be less enthusiastic to risk rich retirement plans.
The configuration of the new House of Commons suggests we may be about to encounter that most rare of beasts — a strong, stable, minority government.