More than anything, the 2021 federal election was a referendum on the Trudeau government’s handling of Covid-19, its generous support for both employers and individuals who lost their jobs (or who were in danger of losing their jobs), and its follow-up initiatives to jumpstart an economic recovery – including the April budget.
There has been a subtle change in the Liberal government in the past 18 months amounting to at least a temporary suspension of the ironclad rule that has existed for Liberal governments since at least the late 1960’s. That rule has been: If you want to do something good “for the people,” then you have to do something nice for the powerful.
With past Liberal governments, to prescribe measures rooted in economic populism, the price has typically been a considerable measure of corporate accommodation.
But that has been less the case since March, 2020 and the advent of the Covid era. And that’s what makes the present moment so interesting – even beyond the considerable value of the specific policy elements embedded within the Liberal program (such as $10/day childcare). In other words, what we’re currently seeing from the Liberals are initiatives that deliver most of their benefits to the non-affluent and very little to the truly wealthy and large corporations. In fact, the Liberals are even venturing into NDP “tax the rich” territory with their new taxes on Canada’s largest banks and insurance companies and a minimum tax on high-income earners.
And at least in urban and suburban Canada, where the Liberals and the NDP dominate, the election results seem to suggest that this is what most people want. And while it may not be their top priority, it is likely that most supporters of the Green Party and Bloc are just fine with this “for the people” slant too. Taken together, this all adds up to roughly 60% of the electorate – a comfortable majority in favour of centre-left policies.
Here are a few highlights of the Liberal plan.
The $10-a-day child care initiative outlined in the Liberal government’s April budget was definitely at issue in the Sept. 20 election, since Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole had pledged to cancel it. Now Mr. Trudeau can finalize agreements with every province (Ontario, Alberta and New Brunswick are the lone holdouts) and can start subsidizing fees and expanding spaces. Once those agreements are signed, it won’t be easy for any federal party to run on scrapping it. It will start to build a national child-care system that will encourage the participation of women in the labour force, as it has in Quebec over the past 20 years.
Then there is Mr. Trudeau’s climate policy. Over the next two years, the Liberal carbon-pricing mechanism will ramp up, and businesses will make long-term plans on the assumption that it will keep rising. The energy sector may still put up a fight but with the results of the 2021 election, they now have solid evidence that they are on the wrong side of majority opinion (and history).
The fly in the ointment for the Liberals during the campaign was that Trudeau lacked a coherent explanation for why he had called an election. The program the Liberals presented during the campaign was largely acceptable to the NDP and, as such, it was clear that the Liberals had a willing partner for at least two more years of governing – without a costly election during a pandemic.
The Conservative Party
Which brings us to the Conservatives. Last week, the Conservatives lost four seats in B.C. – all in suburban Vancouver. They lost three seats in Alberta – all in Edmonton and Calgary. Two Conservative incumbents from the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) went down to defeat, leaving the party holding just five of 53 Toronto-area ridings.
The Conservatives partly made up for those losses by capturing four seats in rural Atlantic Canada and two seats in small town Southern Ontario – four new MPs from the shrinking parts of the slowest-growing region in Canada and two new seats in semi-rural Southern Ontario.
If Mr. O’Toole’s goal was to break the Liberal-New Democrat stranglehold on Canada’s booming cities, his roster of Conservative MPs in the next Parliament will show that did not happen.
The truth of the matter is that Canada is mostly urban and suburban, and becoming more so every day. In fact, the map of Parliament will be redrawn over the next couple of years, in light of the 2021 census. Since the last census, Metro Vancouver gained more than 400,000 people. Calgary gained more than 300,000, Ottawa a quarter-million, Montreal more than half a million, and the GTA roughly one million people.
All those places will be getting more seats before the next election. That’s a real problem for the Conservative Party if they continue to be primarily a voice for white, rural English Canada.
That said, the most unsettling aspect of the current iteration of the Conservative Party is not its anti-urban slant but its fraught relationship with science.
For example, efforts to enshrine the reality of climate change at the official Conservative party policy convention last March failed.
Though the party’s policy declaration already contained a lengthy section on that subject, 54 per cent of delegates voted against expanding it to include the sentence “we recognize that climate change is real. The Conservative Party is willing to act.”
Thus, at their own official policy convention, Conservative Party delegates voted to deny the reality of man-made climate change and to oppose any meaningful action to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
And this particular denial of reality on the political right is not limited to climate change. Accepting evidence and logic is a sort of universal value, and you can’t take it away in one area of inquiry without degrading it across the board. That is, you can’t declare that honesty about the reality of climate change is unacceptable and expect to maintain intellectual standards everywhere else. In the modern right-wing universe of ideas, everything is political; there are no safe areas where hard evidence is respected over unsubstantiated musings and conspiracy theories found on social media.
This politicization of everything inevitably creates a huge tension between conservatives and institutions that try to respect science – such as public health institutions (and their related health protocols such as mask and vaccine mandates).
This hostility to science had a real impact on the campaign. For example, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole refused to say how many of his candidates were vaccinated, leaving his party the only major party not to disclose the information. It was Mr. O’Toole’s position that vaccination was a personal choice for his candidates.
The NDP and Bloc Québécois both said all of their candidates were vaccinated. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said all but one of his candidates was vaccinated, the sole exception being a candidate with a medical exemption.
On a related note, the Conservatives suffered from the abysmal Covid record of the Alberta and Saskatchewan Conservative governments which dominated the last week of the election.
So that’s why the urban and suburban majority voted Liberal and not Conservative. But why did the urban and suburban majority vote overwhelmingly Liberal and not NDP?
Essentially, in the 2021 election, the federal NDP faced its perennial issue. Many Canadians respect its underlying values. In fact, Jagmeet Singh’s high favourability ratings may very well be as much about people’s respect for what the NDP stands for as his undeniable personal charisma.
But it’s also clear that, as in past federal elections, there was not enough public confidence that an NDP government would have the expertise to pull off the significant spending agenda the party brought forward in its platform. Nor was there a sense that an NDP government could win the myriad political battles against powerful organized interests needed to implement that agenda (remember public auto insurance and the Ontario NDP government of the early 90’s?). In other words, there were serious questions as to an NDP government’s ability to competently implement the exhaustive list of spending initiatives contained in its 2021 election platform – especially in Ontario where the NDP was able to win only five seats (down from a paltry six in 2019).
Here is the core of the problem for the federal NDP. Centre-left parties need the support of moderate income urban and suburban voters. Such voters, in turn, are intensely pragmatic (although not necessarily middle of the road). They vote for governments that they believe will deliver very concrete and practical things for them. They also vote for parties they think have a realistic chance of winning.
These voters think about politics in the short-term, not the indefinite long-term. They are not moved by endless enunciations of principle – which, in politics, is all that statements of long-term objectives are. Nor do they yearn for a radically different world – they simply want things from government that will make their everyday lives just a little bit easier and more secure.
Much of the lack of NDP relevance stems from an aspect of NDP culture that prevents it from admitting that, in any given election, it may not be elected to govern. Therefore, its campaigns fail to play their best and most realistic hand — positioning themselves as a crucial player holding the balance of power in a minority Parliament. It was astounding that Singh did not emphasize his own truly significant Parliamentary achievements during Trudeau’s last minority government. If only he’d said, “Vote NDP and we’ll keep the Liberals on a progressive track,” instead of pretending to run for government; that candour would have attracted attention from media and support from voters. Always saying, “We are running to govern,” makes the party look delusional.
The federal NDP also does itself no favours when it criticizes the Liberals more than the Conservatives. It goes without saying that there are many areas where federal Liberal governments fall short from a progressive vantage point. But to argue that the Liberals and Conservatives are basically the same, and to suggest to the electorate that the NDP was open to supporting a Conservative minority government, as Singh did in this campaign (thought not in the last), is seen as dangerous by progressive voters. Most Canadians (and not just progressives) have noticed sharp differences between Liberal and Conservative governments; the present iteration of the federal Liberals is simply far more progressive than the Conservatives and suggesting that this is not the case makes the NDP look out of touch.
Perhaps, rather than providing a long laundry list of progressive policy planks in its election platforms with little sense of what can really be implemented over a four-year period, the federal NDP may want to make a case for its competence in governing by committing to incremental, doable change in most policy areas, but on one issue of national significance (like reforming employment insurance) propose deep, radical change. This could be complemented by a long overdue wealth tax to pay for at least some of the costs of a considerably enhanced employment insurance program.
A greatly enhanced permanent Employment Insurance program and a new wealth tax would be enormously popular but because of the opposition of Corporate Canada and the wealthy, would be difficult for the Liberals to implement without a pretty big push from the NDP. The NDP should make the two policies the price of its support in the coming minority government. If they do, they will likely be rewarded for their efforts in the next federal election.
As much as prime ministers past, present and future would like you to believe otherwise, the truth is that the absence of a majority government doesn’t mean things can’t get done.
Mr. Trudeau was hardly hamstrung by his previous government’s minority status. He was able to pass a budget, bring in hundreds of billions of dollars of COVID-19 relief, launch a program to provide low-cost child care for Canadians, and enshrine into law a commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
The things Mr. Trudeau should have done before he called an election, such as introducing a federal vaccine mandate or speedily creating a common federal vaccine passport, were not the result of his government’s minority status. He had partners in Parliament who would support these measures and therefore he had the power; his government simply chose not to use it.
And yet he sold the need for a snap election on the grounds that Parliament had become too divisive to continue. Canadians weren’t buying it. By the time of his victory speech in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, even Mr. Trudeau had entirely dropped that pretense.
The makeup of the new Parliament will be almost exactly the same as the old Parliament in terms of the mix of seats, which means with a little effort the Liberals can govern, and produce and pass important legislation.
There were interesting ideas introduced during the campaign that ended Monday over and above $10/day childcare: the Liberal climate change plan; the NDP’s wealth tax proposal; the Conservatives’ enhanced tax credit for low-income workers. The government could find parliamentary support for any and all of them.
Progressive Canadians (the majority) need to recall their recent experience with majority governments. Two full decades of back-to-back majorities under successive Conservative (1984–1993) and Liberal (1993–2004) governments delivered largely on the demands of corporate Canada, not the broader electorate. For Canadian citizens, election promises seemed to vaporize.
In contrast, the two Pearson minority governments of the 1960s brought in far reaching reforms greatly valued by Canadians to this day, including the Canada Pension Plan, the Guaranteed Income Supplement, the Canada Student Loan program, increased federal transfers to the provinces, the Canadian flag and Canada’s most cherished social program –– Medicare.
Both of Pearson’s minority Liberal governments between 1963 and 1968 required the support of a small group of NDP MPs under leader Tommy Douglas to enact the landmark initiatives that define modern Canada.
And between 1972 and 1974, Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government was propped up by the 31 New Democrat MPs under the leadership of David Lewis. His co-operation with Trudeau senior led to the creation of the government-controlled Petro-Canada and a new national program for affordable housing and other progressive initiatives.
Finally, progressive voters should look at the results of an indecisive 1985 Ontario provincial election, which saw the Progressive Conservatives under premier Frank Miller reduced to just 52 seats against Liberal leader David Peterson’s 48 and NDP leader Bob Rae’s 25.
Rae held talks with both Miller and Peterson before signing a Liberal-NDP deal that made Peterson premier in exchange for agreeing to implement a number of NDP-backed legislative initiatives.
That deal, which ended 42 years of Progressive Conservative rule in Ontario, was not a formal coalition because no NDP members were included in the Liberal cabinet. But the NDP’s support ensured Peterson a two-year mandate to implement a raft of progressive policies as stipulated in a written agreement presented to Ontario’s lieutenant-governor and made public when the deal was announced.
Canada needs a parliament that will pass measures that will challenge corporate power and make life easier and more secure for the non-affluent majority.
History suggests that a minority government is the most likely vehicle to deliver such an outcome.
Jagmeet Singh announced in the final days of the campaign that a wealth tax would be the NDP’s number one priority in a minority Parliament.
Let’s get started!