The Bittersweet Election

Justin Trudeau doing what he does best—working the crowd. At the end of a campaign neither major party won, he now leads a minority government. Adam Scotti photo


Between the polls directing the narrative, social media setting the agenda and a notable gap between the concerns voters were expressing in real life and what leaders talked about on stages across the country and in debates, the 2019 federal campaign was arguably as close as Canada comes to a dumpster fire. The results, as Robin Sears writes, delivered enough punishment to go around.

Robin V. Sears

Not every election delivers a clear victor, but few are as ugly and deliver as many losers as Canada’s did on Oct. 21. It was bittersweet for all parties. Perhaps for the country as well.

Justin Trudeau and Andrew Scheer both lost votes, status and leadership credentials as a result of exceedingly poor campaigns. Jagmeet Singh ‘saved the furniture’ and re-energized his leadership, but still lost a batch of valuable members. About Elizabeth May’s campaign, kindness dictates the less said the better.

Even the Bloc have reason to be anxious. Their surge to prominence in Quebec was a new high-water mark — from which they will surely sag. Just as they did in the wake of their first surge to fame. The existential question for them, remains, “What is the point?” Is Premier François Legault going to use them to apply pressure on Ottawa? No. Is the Parti Québécois’ competitiveness going to be enhanced by having a large bench of Bloc MPs? Not if history is any guide.

If we were on the national executives of either the Liberal or the Conservative parties, we’d summon the team of campaign strategists for a post-election analysis. No matter how they struggled to defend themselves, the answer would surely be the same: “You’re all fired.”

Each campaign was based on an improbable and bizarre thesis. For the Conservatives, it was that they would make their pitch a referendum on Trudeau, an admittedly divisive figure. Having a bland, pro-life, pro-gun, anti-climate change closeted American — as one angry Ontario Tory insider put it to John Ivison — as their alternative was perhaps not the most adroit campaign strategy.

The Liberals’ strategy was, if anything, more gormless. They pounded on the despised premier of Ontario, and it helped them there, no doubt, but they elected not a single MP between Winnipeg and Vancouver. The Doug Ford ghost stories were less resonant as proof of Andrew Scheer’s scariness in St. John’s, Saskatoon or Salmon Arm, not surprisingly.

They failed utterly to give their leader the material he needed to look less like an actor or to help him shed some of the patrician tone that had made him the most polarizing prime minister in a generation. Liberal insiders said grimly that the campaign as Gerry Butts had envisioned it was to be ‘all carbon, all the time.’ To which there was understandable resistance from those whose memories went back as far as Stéphane Dion.

When Butts fell on his sword over SNC Lavalin — he joined the campaign on paper but never recovered the influence he wielded in 2015 — carbon campaigning went with him, leaving behind a basket of boutique electoral plums that, collectively, added up to not very much. A tax credit to go camping! International pundits fell about laughing, Canadians mostly winced.

Jagmeet Singh was the surprise of the campaign, with reporters covering their previous derision with faux astonishment: “Where has this guy been hiding?” It was a man and a moment. The blackface controversy and his response to it helped. Bill 21 did, too. But it was his gracious response to the revelation that not all Canadians are actually colour blind that helped him erupt as a national political figure. He also solidly anchored the party on the progressive left, giving up the fatal centrism of the Mulcair 2015 disaster.

His youthful joy and playfulness distinguished him from two competitors who sounded like old men woodenly reading their focus-tested lines. Singh and his young team had fun with online jokes and dancing at events, and it worked.

So, now what?

Political insiders have their preferences as to which past minority government serves best as a template. The youngest and most conservative point to the Harper success; older, wiser heads point to Martin, Trudeau père, and Pearson. But let us not be complacent. Given that the Tories still have a full campaign war chest and an embattled leader, their temptation for an early rematch is high. Minorities often collapse out of mishap — Clark 1979, Martin 2005 — so no one should be sanguine about the path forward.

But for the country, the ugly, undemocratic outcome has laid a hostage to political fortune that must now be addressed. Almost two out of three Canadians opposed the choice of Justin Trudeau as prime minister — yet there he was on election night hailing his “mandate.” Some mandate. However, in vote ‘efficiency’ it was a triumph. It took more than ten times as many Green voters to elect an MP as Grits (387,000 vs vs 37,600). It took three times as many New Democrats, compared to Liberals, to elect a member.

“Well, too bad, that’s the way our system works,” mutter the political old boys. But consider the consequences for Canada. The Conservatives have more than a handful of urban seats in only three of Canada’s metropolises: Calgary, Edmonton, and Winnipeg. For other Conservatives, among the 85 percent of Canadians who live in cities, this means they should not expect to elect an MP anytime soon…unless they move. For western Liberals, with no seats between Winnipeg and Vancouver, this means that like most rural or small-town Canadians, they will not soon help elect their own member of Parliament.

These distortions of a balanced democratic outcome continue across demography, class and geography. In a federation as perennially fissiparous as ours, this is a dangerous pattern to permit to set over time. We’ve seen this movie. It encourages local troublemakers to seek partisan gain at the expense of Canadian unity — sometimes even using taxpayers’ dollars to stir a secessionist pot. It encourages no premier or prime minister to make concessions across the federal/provincial divide. It incites too many to make social media threats. There’s a lot of nonsense spoken in defense of our electoral system and the competing methods used by mature democracies. The first is that it produces stable majority governments: No, it does not, when you have more than two parties, as in Canada where we have had seven minorities in the past half century.

Another foolishness is that ‘First-Past-the-Post [FPTP]’ ensures ‘local empowerment’ over ‘party bosses’ choices: No, it does not, unless you are a Liberal voter in English Canada in a non-urban, contested riding — a rather small sample of Canadians. For the rest of us, nominations are increasingly a joke. FPTP means party leaders can choose candidates who are then certain to be elected in more than half of the ridings in Canada. Effective? Yes, if you are a Liberal party boss in Ontario or Quebec or their peer Tory operatives west of Winnipeg. Democratic? Hardly.

The ignorant claims get worse when discussing any system that divides seats more accurately, proportional representation. Preferential balloting, a Trudeau enthusiasm apparently, has nothing to do with PR. It is merely a system allowing party bosses to swap second ballot choices among their activists to enhance the size and strength of the largest two parties. We did a version in B.C. for many years, until it’s obvious openness to partisan corruption meant that it was killed.

Today of the 27 major democracies, there is only one that does not use some form of real proportional representation for some part of their democratic decision-making, other than us.

One. The United States of America.

That icon of clean democratic transparency, free of bought candidates or gerrymandered seats, with equal representation for all. Really? Do Canadians want our most important democratic institutions to follow the American electoral system. No, perhaps not. Since 1979, when Ed Broadbent first formally proposed it, Canadian experts on democratic reform have almost all landed on the German model, called Mixed Member Proportional [MMP] voting. Two votes, for two members, for every citizen. One for a local MP on a FPTP basis, the other on a regional PR basis. It’s worked very well for more than 60 years in the only competitor to Canada as a successful federal state. They have had stable governments, a minimum of regional tensions – and a consistently booming economy.

Toronto could remain a Red — with a smattering of Orange — fortress for the foreseeable future, but Greens and Tories would have representation at the regional level too. Before we stage one more half-hearted referendum of an entirely unfocused query about reform, why not do it the normal way, with legislation? Sunset it after two elections, if folks are squeamish about having Parliament deciding how parliamentarians will be elected. Put the MMP system into law and see if it makes things less dangerously distorted. If not, ditch it or correct it. New Zealand went through several tweaks before settling on their new voting system — the sky did not fall.

This is an ideal moment in our history to sort this out. October 21 was a loud wake-up call about the consequences if we don’t.

Contributing Writer Robin V. Sears, a Principal of the Earnscliffe Strategy Group, was National Director of the NDP during the Broadbent years.