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25 October 2019

This was one of the strangest and most ambiguous results in Canadian electoral history

Canada’s House of Cards.

By Luke Savage

When Canada’s federal election campaign officially began last month, it showed every sign of being a sleepy and workmanlike affair. The Liberals and the Tories – the country’s two traditional parties of government – traded in platitudes and empty barbs ahead of a vote that many observers privately expected would simply reproduce a version of the status quo. 

Yet, following a volatile second act in its final weeks, Monday’s election managed to generate one of the strangest and most ambiguous results in Canadian history: somehow frustrating the ambitions of all three major parties and yielding a parliamentary dynamic that could plausibly send the country back to the polls in less than a year.

From the soaring heights of 184 out of 338 seats just four years ago, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party saw both its vote share drop and its caucus diminish. It fell more than six points in the popular vote from the nearly 40 per cent it received in 2015, and failed to secure the 170 MPs necessary to form a majority government.

Arguably just as significant is the precipitous fall of the meticulously crafted Trudeau brand that helped carry the Liberals to power. Already tarnished by scandal and the well-founded frustrations of many progressively minded voters, the prime minister who had built an international image as a standard bearer for inclusive liberalism was revealed to have a fondness for wearing blackface so perennial that he proved hesitant to put a figure on the number of times he’d worn it. 

Though the Liberals ultimately emerged with a plurality of seats, there can be little doubt that the euphoric aura of 2015 has evaporated. Lacking a clear programme, let alone a parliamentary majority, it’s unclear what the new government’s goals or modus operandi will be. 

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The Conservative Party, meanwhile, secured a narrow victory over the Liberals in the popular vote, earning 34.4 per cent to the latter’s 33.1 per cent. While the Tories successfully squashed a challenge on their right flank from former cabinet minister Maxime Bernier and his newly formed People’s Party (Bernier handily lost his seat in Quebec’s Beauce), leader Andrew Scheer came up far short on his ultimate goal of ousting the Liberals. 

No Canadian election has ever given both parties such a poor result, and no administration in history has ever formed a government with a popular mandate as razor-thin as Justin Trudeau’s. Despite both Trudeau and Scheer’s predictable declarations of victory, the outcome can safely be deemed a unique failure for both of the country’s two traditional ruling parties 

The evening also proved a disappointment for Jagmeet Singh’s social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP), which was ultimately shut out of downtown Toronto and most of the Maritimes – a region in eastern Canada – and also haemorrhaged seats to the sovereigntist Bloc Quebecois, the night’s only clear winners. Despite signs of a significant surge in support during the campaign’s final weeks, the NDP managed just 24 MPs. While this was arguably a better result than many expected at the campaign’s outset – a few polls this summer actually placed the party behind the traditionally tiny Greens – it still fell significantly short of expectations. 

Yet the election paradoxically leaves the NDP better-positioned in the House of Commons than it was before. It’s down some 15 seats, but its leadership recently suggested that the new minority parliament would leverage to advance priorities like ending fossil fuel subsidies, introducing a wealth tax on the super-rich, and creating a national pharmacare programme. 

What happens next is very much an open question. While there appears to be little appetite for another election at present, the electoral arithmetic is likely to produce a volatile parliament with an uncertain lifespan. While Canada is no stranger to minority governments – it experienced three successive minority parliaments between 2004 and 2011 – no prime minister has ever led the House after polling a mere 33 per cent support in a federal election. 

Thanks to the intrinsic disproportionality of Canada’s voting system, the Liberals will begin the next parliament with an exaggerated seat count, strengthening the case for electoral reform (something Trudeau incidentally championed and subsequently abandoned). Given its newfound position, the NDP may hope to force the Liberals’ hand, though its capacity to do so effectively will likely be undermined by the Bloc Quebecois, who’ve historically benefited from First Past the Post. 

Irrespective of what follows, no Canadian election has ever yielded such a peculiarly ambiguous and unpredictable result. If 2015 represented a return to political normalcy, 2019 has decisively taken the country’s politics into uncharted waters – and delivered a humbling rebuke to Canada’s traditional political class in the process. 

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