Nick Greenwood reports on the recent reelection of Justin Trudeau and examines the fate awaiting his minority government.
Prime Minister Trudeau will form a minority government after a first term marked by scandal and squandered opportunities, his majority evaporating amidst regional backlashes in Quebec and the West. His star has fallen quite considerably since the heady days of 1968.
Got you there. What once applied to Pierre Trudeau and the 1972 election can equally be applied to his son after last week’s federal election. The tired adage that history repeats itself seems quite apt for the Trudeau family, with both father and son reaching the highest office in the land before suffering bloody noses in their bid for re-election.
Justin Trudeau has just lost his majority but will return with a strong minority, having won 157 of 338 seats in parliament. The Conservatives won 124 and the popular vote, whilst the New Democrats fell back to just 24; it proved a good night for the sovereigntist Bloc Québécois, surging from 10 to 32 seats, while the Greens won 3.
The 2019 election was always going to be ugly, particularly amidst accusations of broken promises; Canadians had rewarded the Liberals with a strong majority in 2015, giving them a mandate for commitments that included electoral reform. Trudeau was unequivocal: ‘2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.’ The pretence of reform lasted about a year before being unceremoniously dumped in February 2017.
Electoral reform wasn’t the only broken promise of Trudeau’s first term. He had promised action on western oil pipelines; in office, he gave his blessing to the controversial Trans Mountain project. Facing down anger from the left and hoping to build support in a sceptical West, the decision did not bear fruit. Of the 62 seats in Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, the Liberals won just 4.
Earlier this year, his government was rocked by a corruption scandal involving a construction giant
Scandal has also dogged Trudeau. Earlier this year, his government was rocked by a corruption scandal involving a construction giant. SNC-Lavalin is responsible for around a quarter of Canadian construction jobs, mostly in the swing province of Quebec. Trudeau pushed his Attorney General, Jody Wilson-Raybould, to relieve the company of criminal liability amidst a court battle. Wilson-Raybould refused, was demoted, and subsequently quit the Cabinet in protest. Trudeau was subsequently criticised for ethics violations by the Ethics Commissioner, but was not sanctioned. Wilson-Raybould contested, and won, her seat as an independent last week.
The Liberals thought it couldn’t get worse. We are all familiar by now with the blackface/brownface scandal that erupted during the campaign. Trudeau’s admittance that he didn’t know how often he’d done it reinforced the fear that many Canadians carried about their prime minister: that he was a frat boy at heart. Blacking up in 2004, aged 30, raised serious questions about his judgement and hit his public image as a progressive champion hard.
History shows that Canadian minority parliaments only last a couple of years.
Given the scale of the challenges facing the Liberals, it is remarkable that they nearly won a majority. Saddled with a minority government, Canadians almost certainly won’t have to wait four years to vote again; history shows that Canadian minority parliaments only last a couple of years. Whether that election comes by choice, with Trudeau calling a snap election, or whether his government is ousted in a no-confidence vote, remains to be seen.
What is for sure is that a re-elected Trudeau will preside over a fractured nation. In the western provinces, resentment and alienation is simmering. In Quebec, the Bloc Québécois is on the march, threatening to pull the carpet out from out beneath the Liberals. The tricky issue of Bill 21, a Quebec religious bill prohibiting religious garb, also needs to be resolved. Trudeau was open to action against the bill during the campaign, but he has danced around similar issues before; in 2015, his relative silence during debates about the niqab saw his party benefit from the NDP collapse in Quebec.
With Scheer lacking in charisma, and unable to oust a government hamstrung by scandal, some are wondering whether he’ll be able to evict Trudeau next time.
The other parties are licking their wounds. Andrew Scheer might be ousted as Conservative leader, potentially at a leadership convention in April. The Conservatives jumped to 121 seats in the election, and won more votes (34.4% to 33.1%), but some in the party fear that Scheer has shot his bolt. Some estimates had put the Conservatives as the largest party prior to polling day, and polling day came as a disappointment. With Scheer lacking in charisma, and unable to oust a government hamstrung by scandal, some are wondering whether he’ll be able to evict Trudeau next time.
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh is safe for now, losing half of his MPs but running a better campaign than many had expected. Elizabeth May, the long-time Green leader, may stand down after the Greens failed to capitalise on expected gains on Vancouver Island. With a number of near-misses and an unexpected win on the other side of the country, their future might be bright.
To conclude, can we draw any lessons from history? Pierre Trudeau formed minority government, backed by the NDP, in 1972. The opposition leader, Robert Stanfield, stayed on, which is good news for Andrew Scheer. The NDP were comfortable with their position as kingmaker, which is good news for Jagmeet Singh, although they went on to lose half their seats in the next election.
Pierre Trudeau won back his majority in 1974, and went on to become one of the longest-serving Prime Ministers in Canadian history. We can only assume his son is praying for the same outcome.