Canada: Liberal Party’s Modest Victory Reveals Broader Tensions6 min read

A Limited Victory… 

On Monday, October 21, Canada’s parliamentary elections returned interesting results. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party won a plurality, with 157 out of 338 seats, but remained 13 seats shy of a majority (“Canada Election: Trudeau’s Liberals Win, But Lose Majority”). The Liberal Party has been in power under Trudeau since 2015, but now will have to lead a minority government, as a coalition is unlikely.  The opposition Conservative Party won the second-highest number of votes, with a total of 122 seats, followed by the Bloc Québécois, the group for an independent Quebec, which won a surprising 32 seats (“Canada Election: Trudeau’s Liberals Win, But Lose Majority”). The election may have been a general success for the Liberal Party, but there were many unexpected nuances that made it more complicated than one’s first glance at the numbers.

Despite the Liberal Party’s number of seats taking a slight dive, the election itself should be considered a victory in light of the controversy surrounding Trudeau in the lead-up to this election. In early 2019, the SNC-Lavalin ethics scandal broke when word spread that Trudeau had bullied the attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, in the handling of a lawsuit against the SNC-Lavalin engineering company. Trudeau wanted to make sure the company could continue to do government contracts, which would not be the case if the company was convicted of a crime, and therefore Trudeau allegedly harassed Wilson-Raybould about simply fining the company (“Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party Weakened”). Trudeau has built his image around the idea of transparency and progressivism, and this scandal was a departure from that narrative, which hurt public perception of him. Trudeau eventually removed Wilson-Raybould from the Liberal Party, and the fact that Wilson-Raybould won as an independent running for parliament on Monday was a significant triumph for her and her credibility (“Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party Weakened”). While this scandal had a chance to die down a bit before the election, information surfacing later in the year would prove to hurt Trudeau’s campaign more.

Photos of Trudeau dressed in blackface for costumes from when he was a young adult also hurt his image, as these racist images were against everything he supposedly stood for with his progressive platform. The weaker election results showed a rebuttal of such behavior, but his margin over the opposition signifies Canadian citizens’ desire to continue to have him as prime minister despite his unsavory past. Shachi Kurl, the director of the Angus Reid Institute, a research and polling group, stated, “Trudeau comes out of this likely relieved but chastened” (Qtd. in “Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party Weakened”). Trudeau’s victory speech summed up that sentiment, as he was grateful and optimistic to be bringing together Canada, but he recognized that he heard the complaints of voters who helped the Conservative Party and other opposition groups win their seats.

Broader Implications… 

The election returns highlighted the divisions that are becoming more pronounced in Canada’s society. The western prairie provinces, where the oil industry is critical, were alienated by Trudeau’s ambitious plan to combat climate change, which includes the carbon tax that he imposed during his first term. Both Alberta and Saskatchewan voted overwhelmingly for the Conservative Party. The divide over Trudeau’s climate change policies and broader cultural differences has led to the rise in the #Wexit campaign, which advocates for the secession of western provinces from Canada. The head of the polling group Ekos Research, Frank Graves, has discussed the deepening divide, saying, “The two Canadas are now eyeing each other from cliffs on opposite sides, and they’ve got very little common ground on key issues” (“Trudeau Re-election Reveals Intensified Divisions in Canada”). The increasing polarization in Canada is just another instance of furthering societal tension worldwide.

Overarching Themes… 

These most recent parliamentary elections underscore the benefits and potential disadvantages of having such a system of governance. Although Trudeau’s party won a plurality, a parliamentary regime does not work like a presidential regime, and therefore that plurality does not turn into a “winner-takes-all” scenario. Although coalition governments are often more common in parliamentary regimes, Canada has not had much success with such arrangements in recent years. Trudeau will be leading a minority government, but that does not necessarily mean there will be gridlock. The fusion of the executive and legislature allow for more flexibility and ease when it comes to passing legislation. Canada itself has proven its success with minority governments in the past, and it was minority governments that created the federal student loan program and nationalized healthcare (Albert 567). In other countries, presidentialism does not allow for minority governments to rule with any semblance of cooperation. Chile’s coup after the election of Salvador Allende, who received just 36% of the vote in 1970, illustrates the precariousness of winning a plurality in a presidential system. Despite Trudeau and the Liberal Party not winning a majority, there is a much higher need for collaboration within Canada’s parliamentary system. If all else fails, voters will be able to show at the polls whether or not they approve of the government, and that vertical accountability maintains order. 

Digging Deeper… 

Although Canada’s most recent parliamentary election exhibits healthy political engagement, the rhetoric surrounding the election could be considered worrying. The #Wexit campaign exemplifies the radical sentiments that are gaining steam in many countries, including the UK and the United States. The scandals that emerged prior to the election were concerning, as well, as they showed that the regime may not be as transparent and forward-thinking as many citizens had liked to believe. Watchdog groups also found that the campaign was much more personalist than it had been in years past. One professor of political science at Dalhousie University, Lori Turnbull, stated, “It shocks me that this has been one of the most policy-void elections that we’ve ever seen” (Qtd. in “Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party Weakened”). This criticism has potentially grave consequences for the future of Canada’s elections. How does this instance of personalist politics fit into the discussion of worldwide polarization? Do we have real reason to be concerned about parliamentary elections in Canada, and, if so, should we be more or less concerned about them than elections in other countries?

Works Cited

Albert, Richard. “The Fusion of Presidentialism and Parliamentarism.” The American Journal of Comparative Law, vol. 57, no. 3, 2009, pp. 531-77. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25652657.

Austen, Ian, and Dan Bilefksy. “Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party Weakened but Re-Elected in Canadian Election.” The New York Times, 21 Oct. 2019. Accessed 25 Oct. 2019.

—. “Trudeau Re-election Reveals Intensified Divisions in Canada.” The New York Times, 22 Oct. 2019. Accessed 25 Oct. 2019.

“Canada Election: Trudeau’s Liberals Win but Lose Majority.” BBC News, 22 Oct. 2019. Accessed 25 Oct. 2019.

1 thought on “Canada: Liberal Party’s Modest Victory Reveals Broader Tensions<span class="wtr-time-wrap after-title"><span class="wtr-time-number">6</span> min read</span>”

  1. Awesome job on this, Josie! You do a great job of explaining the context behind the elections and why the controversies surrounding Trudeau caused the elections to be so personalist and policy-void. Having never heard of the #Wexit campaign, I think that your discussion of the growing polarization in Canada is an interesting one. Is the campaign really credible enough to cause internal legitimacy issues for Canada? Although Canada has been able to pass significant legislation in the pass during minority governments, this government could be different due to the growing polarization and the #Wexit movement’s support of the Conservative party. In order to keep its constituents in the western provinces happy, the Conservative party might prove more difficult to work with than in the past, especially when it comes to initiatives to combat climate change that harm the oil industry. Depending on the seriousness of the movement, I see two potential problems for Canada: the #Wexit movement’s threat to internal legitimacy and the potential for gridlock. As you stated, Canada generally has not had much success with coalition governments, so the parties will need to find some way to coexist despite the growing polarization.

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