Playing the Prediction Game: An Election in 2021

Column / Don Newman

When Don Newman couches his predictions with qualifiers about how predictions are for suckers, we advise readers to recall that he predicted that Donald J. Trump would win the 2016 election.

With all due respect to the theme of this issue of Policy, predicting the year ahead can be a mug’s game. One year ago, who could have foreseen that COVID-19 would transform life as we know it—not just in Canada but across the world?

But as we bid farewell to 2020, there is an optimism in the air that one or more of the vaccines either just starting to be distributed or still in trial will provide protection for most people as they are rolled out and 2021 unfolds. So with that hope in mind, and the promise that as 2021 progresses things are actually going to get better, it is time to make what surely will be a rather safe prediction: That the New Year will be an election year in Canada. 

By April, when the minority Liberal government will be a year and a half into their second year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his team will be looking for the ideal time to try for an election that will provide them with a majority. With a commitment to distribute vaccines efficiently and effectively and promises of virtually unlimited spending of borrowed money to restart the pandemic-stricken economy, the Liberals should be in a good place to make a run at the extra seats they need to govern uninterrupted for another four years.

There will be a budget in March confirming the Liberals’ spending plans that will also serve as the party’s election platform. The decisive variable on the timing of an election call is not the huge amount of spending or the size of the deficit but the availability of the COVID-19 vaccine and the distribution of it across the country. If that goes well—if some Canadians have been vaccinated and most others can see they too will be soon—the timing will be right for the Liberals to invite Canadians to make a trip to the polls. 

When the election is called, the Liberals should be in a strong position. They will run on the myriad programs the government  rolled out as COVID-19 hit and the stability they helped to maintain as the economy collapsed. And now the Liberals claim to have a plan to restore the economy through massive investment in environmentally friendly infrastructure development, plus investments in education, high tech and artificial intelligence. And they have a new sherpa to guide the transition. Michael Sabia, the former head of the Caisse de Dépôt pension investment fund in Quebec, who was also in a series of C-suite positions at Canadian National, BCE, the Canada Infrastructure Bank and, earlier in his career, the federal public service, has been parachuted back to Finance as deputy minister to run the post-pandemic recovery. 

As usual, the Conservatives will be the only viable national opposition to the Liberals. But they will have to explain what programs they would cancel, which spending they would not make to restart the economy, and how a party with people in it who oppose vaccinations will be able to conquer COVID-19. On their right flank they will also face a challenge on the prairies from the Mustang party, a western separatist group that formed after the last election when voters in Alberta and Saskatchewan excluded themselves from representation in the Liberal government. Now they want to separate their landlocked provinces from Canada, a dubious proposition at best. While they are unlikely to win any seats, they will take votes from Conservative candidates.

Three other parties will win seats in an election this year: The New Democrats, the Greens and the Bloc Québécois. The most important of these is the Bloc. How many seats the Bloc wins will determine whether there is a majority or minority government. The New Democrats have been in decline for the last two elections and the Greens remain a special-interest party with just three seats  in the House of Commons. 

As I said, forecasting what will happen in the coming year is a mug’s game, but somebody has to play it. I predict that in 2021, the Liberals will again be elected to be the government of Canada. Only some failure of the vaccines to combat COVID-19 might prevent that. You can take it to the bank.  

Columnist Don Newman, Executive Vice President of Rubicon Strategies in Ottawa, is a lifetime member of Parliamentary Press Gallery, and author of the bestselling memoir, Welcome to the Broadcast.