No pivot room for Trudeau's ambition
It turned out not to be the most important election since 1945. Newspapers with deadlines just minutes after the polls close in British Columbia are always conscious of the infamous “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline in the Chicago Daily Tribune from 1948, which erroneously handed victory in the presidential race to New York governor Thomas E. Dewey.
But there are certain things that seem apparent.
Justin Trudeau propelled the country to the polls in mid-august with the rationale that a “pivotal” shift was required to finish the fight against the pandemic — the most important election since the Second World War, in his words.
In the event, it appears Canadians didn't want to pivot in any direction, returning a Parliament that may end up looking remarkably similar to the one that was dissolved.
When the House of Commons last sat, the Liberals had 155 MPS, the Conservatives 119, the Bloc Québécois 32, the NDP 24, there were five Independents, two Greens and one seat was vacant. As this went to press, final tallies were not available.
Networks were calling it a win of some sort for the Liberals, but the Conservatives indicated it would be a closer race than many pollsters had predicted when they came roaring out of the gate in Atlantic Canada, winning Liberal seats in Cumberland—colchester and South Shore—st. Margaret's (taking down Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan) in Nova Scotia.
They also threatened a surprise win in Newfoundland and Labrador, where they had no seats in the last Parliament, in Coast of Bays—central—notre Dame. And at deadline, they were ahead in another Liberal seat in New Brunswick, Miramichi—grand Lake.
Every loss means Trudeau needs to make up a seat somewhere else just to stand still, which is not as easy as it sounds when Liberal supporters are as grudging in their support of their leader as many are right now.
The NDP was thwarted in its hopes to hang on to Jack Harris's former riding in St. John's East on the Rock and to pick up Halifax, where it won seats in the recent provincial election. The party is confident it will add to its seat count in Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C. But it was an inauspicious start to the evening, a sign that a credibility gap still exists that cannot be bridged by Jagmeet Singh's undoubted charisma alone.
Trudeau's hope was the word that must not be named — majority. But Canadians appear set on justifying Abraham Lincoln's aphorism about the “patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people.”
They may not be ready for a Conservative party that is still in the throes of adapting itself to the age of disruption — a political world in which more voters want greener, interventionist policies.
But neither did they seem keen on rewarding Trudeau's selfish ambitions with a majority.
The Conservatives prepared the ground for defeat in an extraordinary intervention by campaign chair Walied Soliman, on election day, when he told the Toronto Star that holding Trudeau to a minority would be a win. Given polling that had them hitting record lows over the summer, it is an understandable impulse. But saying it while the polls were still open and there was still the prospect of an upset, was highly unusual.
Soliman's comments speak to the lack of job security for any modern Conservative leader who loses, but especially one who was elected by only one-third of the party members in the last leadership contest. Leader Erin O'toole has tried to shift the centre of gravity of his party to the centre-right of the political spectrum, which is where the future of this party resides.
But, from the rise of the People's Party, it seems that O'toole may have upset almost as many voters as he has attracted. If he ends up losing seats, there will be pressure for the party to hold its third leadership contest in five years.
As for Trudeau, he was warned against the folly of holding an opportunistic election in the middle of a pandemic — particularly when he said he wouldn't.
It was not only the fact there was an election, it was the nature of it — as bad-tempered and unhealthy as any I have covered. The anti-vaccination protests that followed the Liberal campaign in Ontario, and the rise in support for Maxime Bernier's People's Party, took me back to biology lessons on mutualism — the ecological interaction between two species that benefits both.
The Liberal leader fed the anger of anti-vaxxers and in turn benefitted from the abhorrent response by making himself a more sympathetic figure. Liberal candidates said they saw an uptick in support in the days after the cancelled rally in Bolton, Ont.
Bernier stoked the anger and gave protesters a political outlet. But both men are playing with weeping gelignite.
Trudeau abandoned sunny ways on the first day of the campaign, when he tried to wedge O'toole on the issue of mandatory vaccination, in effect delegitimizing anyone who for reasons of conscience, religion or health would not or could not get vaccinated. Over the course of the campaign, an issue that required compassion and understanding became toxic and divisive.
Trudeau calls anyone who doesn't agree with him a cynic, but this was the height of cynicism and many voters seem to have seen through it.
If he emerges weakened and chastened, Trudeau should proceed with humility and try to heal the divisions in the country, many of which he aggravated during this sour campaign.
THIS WAS THE HEIGHT OF CYNICISM AND MANY VOTERS SEEM TO HAVE SEEN THROUGH IT.