Fall starts tomorrow, but Justin Trudeau flirted with a fall of his own in the early morning hours today.
The Liberal leader came up short trying to secure the majority mandate he wanted in forcing this early election five weeks ago, arguing Canadians needed a say in how Canada faces the challenges of the future.
What Canadians told him is that they liked the last minority government. They returned a near replica of the results in 2019, when the Liberals won 157 seats and the Conservatives took 121.
With hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots still to be counted, the final seat numbers for this election may change, but the preliminary numbers for the Liberals and the other three parties in the last Commons are remarkably similar.
Yet, despite that, Trudeau sounded a triumphant note when he addressed the nation in the wee hours Tuesday from Montreal.
“You are sending us back to work with a clear mandate to get Canada through this pandemic and to the brighter days ahead,” he said. “And my friends, that’s exactly what we are ready to do.”
There was no acknowledgement that he once again will lead a country divided by region. He said nothing about how the Liberals once again failed to make inroads in the Prairies provinces, or take advantage of a Bloc Québécois campaign that struggled to find a raison d’être until the final 10 days of the race, when backlash in Quebec over a question in the English-language leaders’ debate handed party leader Yves-François Blanchet the opening he couldn’t create for himself.
“The duty we took on as a party, and will continue to fulfil, is to reflect the will of the [Quebec] National Assembly in Ottawa,” Blanchet said in a brief post-election address.
There was likewise nothing from Trudeau, or any other major party leader, about the surge of the People’s Party of Canada, with its anti-immigration policies and strident opposition to many COVID-19-related public health measures. Or about the angry, even hostile, protests over vaccine passports and mandatory vaccinations that party leader Maxime Bernier sought to exploit in the final days of the campaign. The PPC’s share of the popular vote rose to roughly five per cent nationally, and into double-digits in some ridings, even though the party failed to win any seats, including in Bernier’s own riding.
“I see Canadians standing together,” Trudeau said on a stage, flanked by his wife and two older children, “Together in your determination to end this pandemic. Together for real climate action, for $10-a-day child care, for homes that are in reach for middle class families. For our shared journey on the path of reconciliation.
“As Canadians, you’ve elected parliamentarians to deliver on all this, and our team, our government, is ready.”
Conservatives fall short
For the Conservatives, waging their first campaign under party leader Erin O’Toole, the gamble to move closer to the centre of the political spectrum may well have cost the party a handful of winnable seats.
“A few months ago, I told Conservatives that our party needed the courage to change because Canada has changed,” O’Toole told supporters at a hockey arena in Oshawa, Ont., east of Toronto. “Over the past 36 days, we have demonstrated to Canadians that we have set out on a path to engage more Canadians in our conservative movement. One that addresses the challenges of today.”
O’Toole also fell short in his bid to breakthrough in the suburbs around Toronto, even though his own seat is in the region and much of his campaign was spent in the 905 area code.
More challenges for Trudeau
So what does this election result actually signal for the next Parliament?
First, if Trudeau found governing with a minority for the past two years to be inconvenient, the task now could prove even more challenging as he looks for partners to advance his progressive agenda.
With the NDP potentially picking up a few more seats than the 24 it won two years ago, leader Jagmeet Singh could well drive a harder bargain for his MPs’ support in the next Parliament.
Both Singh and O’Toole worked hard to turn Trudeau’s campaign to rebuild a fairer, more inclusive economy once the pandemic is over into a referendum on the Liberal leader’s leadership and character.
“We’re gonna make sure that we fight hard to defend our environment, to make sure we’re fighting the climate crisis like we really want to win,” Singh told his supporters in Burnaby, B.C. “You can count on New Democrats to keep on fighting to make sure you can find a home that’s in your budget.”
The truth is that issues Trudeau campaigned on, the ones that were supposed to be at the core of this election — child care, climate change, health and long-term care — didn’t require a new mandate.
The Liberals’ program for a national, $10-day child-care program was already endorsed by Parliament in the vote on the budget tabled earlier this year. The deals with eight provinces and territories were already in place, with the others expected to follow before Trudeau pulled the plug on Parliament for the election.
The same is true for the more ambitious climate change law that would see Canada reduce emissions by 40 or 45 per cent below 2005 levels. The only real challenge Trudeau faced in advance of November’s COP 26 climate change conference in Scotland came from the NDP and Greens, who wanted even more ambitious emission-reduction targets but had no plan to achieve them.
And the Trudeau government’s 2020 cabinet order banning 1,500 different models of assault-style firearms remains on the books. There will be no review now as promised by O’Toole. No prospect, it would seem, that weapons used in some of this country’s deadliest mass shootings could once again be legally available for purchase.
Longtime Liberal strategist David Herle, who hosts the Herle Burly podcast and heads the market research firm The Gandalf Group, says Trudeau should reflect more deeply on the message Canadians sent in this election.
“He has to reflect on how much of this outcome was about him” Herle said during CBC Radio’s live coverage of election night. “There will be no honeymoon for this government. There is no new mandate.”
So Trudeau approaches this new Parliament that looks so much like the old one with the challenge of knowing that cementing that progressive legacy for himself and his government will likely be more complicated than it was when Parliament was dissolved at his request.