What a difference two seats can make.
Twenty-three months ago, Justin Trudeau sounded chastened as he met reporters in the wake of an election that saw his Liberal party win 157 seats.
“Canadians gave me a lot to think about on Monday night,” the Liberal leader said at the time. “And I’m going to take the time necessary to really reflect on how best to serve Canadians and how to work with those other parties.”
On Tuesday, a week after voters gave his party a total of 159 seats, Trudeau was less apologetic.
“I think it is very clear from the debates during this election and from the mandate given by Canadians that we get to move even stronger, even faster on the things that Canadians really want,” Trudeau said. “I’m really excited about all the things that we’re going to get to do as a Parliament and as a government in the coming years.”
Compared to his situation two years ago, Justin Trudeau is surely in a better position now. Compared to where he was two months ago, however, it’s less obvious that Trudeau is better off.
WATCH: Justin Trudeau on policy priorities for his re-elected government
And so, Trudeau’s first task is to make the case that the Liberal win last week was, in fact, a victory.
In 2019, the Liberals lost 31 seats and were reduced from a majority government to a minority. Trudeau’s party was completely shut out in Alberta and Saskatchewan and national unity was a burgeoning source of concern. His own personal standing was undercut by a blackface scandal.
“I think many of us regret the tone and the divisiveness and the disinformation that were all too present features of this past election campaign,” Trudeau told that first post-election news conference in October 2019.
“There were big substantive ideas that weren’t fully debated” and “much of this campaign tended to be around me,” he added.
Within months, a global pandemic would turn Trudeau into something like a wartime prime minister. That experience reset the public’s perception of him — though obviously not enough to win the Liberals a majority this fall.
Trudeau’s Liberals did at least manage to win a couple of seats in Alberta this time — two more than many people expected them to see them win ever again. Ontario Premier Doug Ford is now expressing interest in signing on to the Trudeau government’s child care plan.
But Trudeau’s post-election tone is partly defensive. Unlike 2019, the timing of the 2021 vote was entirely his own choice. So he now stands accused both of coming up short and of wasting everyone’s time.
“The discussions we had during this election campaign were significant on very big things,” Trudeau said on Tuesday. “We put forward a plan to go even faster and harder and deeper on fighting against climate change. To do even more on reconciliation, to do even more on supporting families … and Canadians were very clear that they want those progressive, big, bold ideas to be delivered by their Parliament and by their government, and that’s exactly what we’re going to work on.”
A minority that might last a while
Both the clarity of the electorate’s message and the relative quality of discussion during the campaign are debatable. But as he did in 2019, Trudeau might point to the combined support for the Liberals, NDP and Greens and claim some broad support for a progressive agenda.
The Liberal platform also proposed to move the government’s agenda in a few new directions, particularly on climate policy. But it is still fair to ask whether Trudeau could have carried on doing many or most of those big, bold and progressive things without a new election.
The campaign saw both the Conservative and NDP leaders repeatedly stating how much they did not want an election and how selfish they thought it was for Trudeau to launch one. In the short term, that should make it harder for them to do anything that might provoke a new election.
For at least a little while, the public’s decision to elect 159 Liberal MPs (one of them, Kevin Vuong in Spadina-Fort York, will have to sit as an Independent) might also undercut the condemnation that Conservatives and New Democrats have heaped on the Trudeau government over the last two years.
The House of Commons eventually will revert to its usual level of noise and umbrage. In the last Parliament, the opposition parties showed enthusiasm for investigating the Trudeau government’s actions and it stands to reason that this new Parliament will be just as aggressive in its curiosity.
But if the message of this election was that everyone involved should get back to work, there is something to be said for Trudeau’s aggressive focus on doing things.
Whenever the next election comes, the Liberals need to be able to say that they got some new things done — or that the opposition was unreasonable in standing in the way.
Ultimately, the result of this election will be what Trudeau makes of it.