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Justin Trudeau

Justin Trudeau. Photo: Franz Mahr / World Bank / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

John Clarke analyses Justin Trudeau's cynical election gamble in which he fell short of securing a parliamentary majority

Justin Trudeau’s hapless and cynical effort to regain a parliamentary majority has ended in ignominious failure. Having called an unnecessary federal election, his party has emerged from it with almost exactly the same number of parliamentary seats it held after the 2019 election. The whole self-serving exercise, costing an unprecedented $600 million in public funds, has left the Liberals, Canada’s party of the neoliberal centre, even more weak and discredited than they were at the start of this ill considered venture. This is true, even though a wider malaise facing the country’s other parliamentary parties has once again enabled the Liberals to hold onto power by default.

Trudeau and his party were prompted to roll the dice in this way because the polls had been suggesting some improvement in their ratings. However, with the fourth wave of Covid hitting large parts of the country, there was a significant backlash against the Liberals that rapidly put them on the defensive. Seeking to cash in on his rival’s misstep, Tory leader, Erin O’Toole, held back his reactionary core base of support and ran a campaign that was based on an entirely contrived ‘moderate’ image. For a time, it looked as if this might work and the Tories seemed poised to come in from the political wilderness.

In the end, however, the Tories only managed to closely replicate the result of the 2019 election. They won 122 seats to the Liberals 157 (with 95% of polls fully confirmed) and their share of the popular vote was 34.1%, compared to the 31.8% attained by their rival. This failed effort to embrace the political centre will now be the source of considerable discord within Tory ranks. The National Post, which can be regarded as Canada’s equivalent of The Telegraph, made an entirely correct assessment of the situation, when it suggested that “If O’Toole’s centrist, socially liberal message and relatively positive campaign can’t even best Andrew Scheer’s poorly reviewed performance in 2019, it must raise existential questions for the party.”

The Tory leadership also faces the additional problem of a significant pole of attraction to the right. Led by a former Tory leadership candidate, Maxime Bernier, The People’s Party of Canada (PPC), is a hard right and overtly racist organisation that no one should disregard. Though, as in 2019, they didn’t manage to win any seats, the PPC ran a campaign that seized upon right wing anti-vaxxer sentiment so that ‘it was soon difficult to distinguish between a People’s Party rally and an anti-lockdown protest.’ This dangerous political force very much more than doubled its share of the popular vote, attaining a full 5% across the country and reaching 7.6% in Alberta.

The social democratic, New Democratic Party (NDP) and its leader Jagmeet Singh sought to present a progressive alternative to the left of the Liberals. They stressed plans to tax the rich and to introduce dental coverage and a ‘pharmacare’ programme. Sadly, at the same time, the NDP castigated the Liberals and Tories for not allocating enough resources to the Canadian military. Unfortunately the perennial problem of Canadian social democracy remains its reluctance to substantially distance itself from liberalism to a degree that could create the basis for any major political shift. In this election, the NDP gained an extra seat, now holding 25, and it increased its share of the vote slightly, taking 17.7%. As in 2019, there is talk of the party now ‘holding the balance of power’ but its ability to pressure the Liberals will be limited by its obvious reluctance to trigger another election.

Though they retained two seats, with a third hanging in the balance, the crisis ridden Green Party saw its share of the popular vote collapse, falling from the 12.5% achieved in 2019, to a mere 2.3%. The hardline support for Israel that has been shown by its leader, Annamie Paul, who came fourth in her own bid to enter parliament, has been one of the major factors in the internal conflicts within the party. This is, clearly, a crushing blow to the Greens’ hope of replacing the NDP as the left alternative to the Liberal Party. Finally, the Bloc Quebecois, a nationalist political formation that only contests seats in Quebec but sits in the federal parliament, also failed to generate momentum and pose a credible alternative. It now holds 32 seats, as it did before the election was called.

Political crisis

This election has been an energetic exercise in going nowhere but the utterly shameless Justin Trudeau tried to put a brave face on the debacle anyway. According to him, the voters are "sending us back to work with a clear mandate to get Canada through this pandemic and to brighter days ahead.” His words ring hollow and the days when his camera hungry antics struck a chord are long gone. Trudeau may well face a reckoning for the disastrous miscalculation that has just unfolded and the knives could come out in the top ranks of his party. Similar problems may be brewing for some of the other party leaders. However, the crisis that is unfolding cuts much deeper than one that can be resolved with a few leadership reviews.

A year and a half into the pandemic, its fourth wave is now having a terrible effect. The impact of climate change is no longer a disturbing prospect but an intensifying reality that is being experienced in everyday life. Breezy talk of improved conditions is belied by a lingering recession and huge economic uncertainty. The limited measures of social protection that were hastily improvised to keep millions of people afloat, as the pandemic forced a large scale suspension of economic life, are being removed. The  Liberals are ending the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) that many have relied on, even though they know that the recovery is weak and will leave many behind.

The political volatility that underlay this election and the crisis of legitimacy that the Liberals unsuccessfully tried to recover from are only going to increase. Trudeau, with great difficulty, has bought some more time for the neoliberal centre. To the right, mainstream conservatism is in disarray while the hard right is advancing but lacks the mass of support that can make it a winning electoral force. On the left, a bold and radical alternative is not yet being articulated by any political force capable of seriously contesting elections.

The need for a left electoral strategy is not in dispute but, at the same time, the question of who will pay for the present crisis in society isn’t going to be settled in parliamentary debates. Governments at every level will seek to make hard pressed communities carry the burden through social cutbacks and the restriction of public services. An employer offensive against workers is already underway and it will intensify. Effective resistance and the generation of political momentum in this situation is going to come, first a foremost, through the struggles of our unions and social movements. Without such resistance on the streets, the electoral path is likely to remain blocked.

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Tagged under: Canada Covid19
John Clarke

John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

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