Chastened Trudeau gets back to work after Canada delivers poll shrug

Selina Johansson

When Justin Trudeau walked on stage at his party’s election headquarters in Montreal on Monday night to claim victory in a snap poll, he sounded more relieved than elated.

“I hear you when you say that you just want to get back to the things you love, not worry about this pandemic or about the election, that you just want to know that your members of parliament of all stripes will have your back through this crisis, and beyond,” Trudeau said.

The Liberal leader began his campaign last month within sight of a majority. His popularity had risen since his election victory in 2019 on the back of an effective pandemic response, which included generous stimulus cheques and the delivery of at least one Covid-19 jab to roughly 80 per cent of Canadians.

But that lead soon evaporated. Trudeau’s snap poll was seen by many as a self-interested power grab after nearly two years of minority rule that had worked well enough, with the Liberals passing significant legislation. The Conservatives, led by Erin O’Toole, ran as centrists with billions of dollars of spending pledges.

Conservative party leader Erin O’Toole speaks to supporters during the election night party
Conservative party leader Erin O’Toole speaks to supporters during the election night party, in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada, on Tuesday night. © Blair Gable/Reuters

So when voters sent the parties back to Ottawa with almost exactly the same distribution of seats, it looked like the Liberals had won largely by avoiding a disaster.

“I think that people didn’t really want an election,” said Gerald Butts, Trudeau’s former top aide and now vice-chair of the Eurasia Group. “They didn’t understand why there was an election. So they sent everybody back with the same result that they gave them two years ago. And the verdict was: ‘Didn’t you hear us the first time?’”

Trudeau’s ascent to national power came in 2015, two years into his election as Liberal leader. The energetic, photogenic Trudeau led a party that had languished in third place in the House of Commons with a mere three dozen seats to a whopping 186 seats — the largest increase ever in a federal election.

The son of Pierre Trudeau, a charismatic former prime minister who led the Liberals for 16 years and governed for most of the 1970s as head of four governments, the younger Trudeau promised a new “sunny ways” era of reconciliation in Canadian politics. His rise contrasted sharply with the gathering strength of populist movements in Europe and the US — as part of his campaign, he pledged to resettle thousands of Syrian refugees in the country.

“He represents some people’s vision of Canada, bilingual, comfortable in both languages, and I think he reminds people of the 70s, because of his father, when Canada might have been a bigger player on the international stage,” said Éric Grenier, who runs the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s poll tracker and writes The Writ, a newsletter about Canadian elections. Trudeau’s celebrity status on the international stage, he added, improved Canadians’ self-image.

“But the results of the last two campaigns do show that he might not be able to get to where he was in 2015, because what he represented in 2015 was a new energy, representing what a lot of Canadians like to think of Canada as,” he added. “He couldn’t live up to that — and maybe nobody could.”

Syrian refugees wait to complete their migration procedures to Canada in 2015.
Syrian refugees wait at Marka Airport in 2015 to complete their migration procedures to Canada. Trudeau’s campaign in 2015 pledged to resettle thousands of Syrian refugees © Raad Adayleh/AP

Trudeau will probably govern as he did for the last two years as leader of a minority government. The Liberals have passed legislation on key priorities by enlisting the aid of the New Democrats, a socialist, progressive party to the left, and even occasionally the Conservatives to their right.

That position as the natural centre of Canadian politics, in a country where most citizens pride themselves as being moderate centrists, is perhaps the part of the Liberal brand with the most enduring power. O’Toole appeared to make inroads with the electorate by running in that centre space — a proposition that brought him popularity until debates about guns and vaccine mandates ensured the Liberals continued to hold Canada’s urban centres.

“The Liberal Party brand is the strongest political brand,” said David Herle, a former top Liberal campaign strategist and host of the Herle Burly podcast, a show on Canadian politics.

“Most Canadians don’t think of themselves as being ideologically extreme or pure — and the Liberal Party, it triangulates,” Herle added. “It’s got a party to the left and a party to the right. It’s the porridge that’s just right for most Canadians. So that’s a very strong starting position.”

The party will probably focus its attention on some of the priorities outlined in the campaign, including the post-Covid-19 recovery and vaccine mandates, affordable housing, and a proposal for $10-a-day childcare across the country. Butts, Trudeau’s former top aide, said that after the pandemic, the time might be right for a debate on reforming healthcare, whose shortcomings were laid bare during the crisis.

Trudeau’s popularity has declined from its 2015 high, he lost the popular vote and failed to win a majority, but he has yet to actually lose. Minority governments are becoming the norm in Canada — since 2004, only two elections have yielded majorities. There are also no obvious Trudeau challengers, and it is unlikely the Liberal leader intends to cut his mandate short any time soon.

“Trudeau is obviously not as popular as he was in 2015 — and that would be true of anybody who has governed for six years — but he’s still an electable leader,” said Herle. “And I think probably still more electable than anybody else that the Liberal party has.”

Butts added that the opposition parties had “had three trips to the plate to beat him, and they haven’t”.

“Majority governments are hard to come by in this country, and in my lifetime there’s only been two liberal leaders who’ve achieved a majority government against a united Conservative party, and they both were named Trudeau.”

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