Why Nobody Made it to 170

Nobody reached the 170 seats required for a majority in the House of Commons, though all the recognized parties could claim some victory. Otherwise, Lori Turnbull writes, the election would have been an all-round “epic fail”. Parliament of Canada photo


Aside from all the other political developments of 2019, it may be remembered as the year when Canada acceded to the growing global club of ambivalent, no-such-thing-as-a-clean-getaway election results. In the United States, in Britain, in Israel, in Germany and elsewhere, discordant outcomes have produced intractability and division. Dalhousie University’s Lori Turnbull explains why, here in Canada, we got anything but a landslide.

Lori Turnbull

If it weren’t for a few qualified silver linings, the general election of 2019 might be described as an epic fail for every political party except the Bloc Québécois. 

To be fair, all of the parties won something — with the exception of Maxime Bernier and his People’s Party of Canada, who failed to claim a single seat. The Liberals “won” the election in the sense that they continue to hold enough seats for a strong minority government. The Conservatives claimed the popular vote — albeit by a hair — and increased the size of their caucus by 23 seats. The New Democratic Party did better than many expected, and the Greens picked up a seat in New Brunswick. The Bloc were the big winners; their seat count went up by 22 and they regained official party status, which allows Bloc MPs to be members of standing committees in the House of Commons. Both the NDP and the Bloc elected enough MPs to be potential kingmakers for the Liberal minority government, which presumably they will do on an issue-by-issue basis as matters of common purpose arise. 

But the losses that this election produced were more significant than the victories. Justin Trudeau and the Liberals lost their majority government status and their share of the popular vote was six points lower than it was in 2015. That’s a lot of votes. On several occasions during the campaign, it looked like Andrew Scheer and the Conservatives could form a government — an outcome unthinkable not so long ago. The Trudeau brand that catapulted the Liberal Party back into the Prime Minister’s Office only four years ago has been tarnished, mostly by allegations of poor judgment on the part of Trudeau. But despite the traction that these allegations have held, Scheer was not able to turn this election into a real win for himself and the Conservatives. Granted, he was never really supposed to. When he was selected as the leader of the Conservative Party — again, by a hair — it was assumed that a Trudeau victory in the 2019 election was inevitable and that the Conservatives would have some time to rebuild before making a real play for government, whether under Scheer’s leadership or someone else’s. However, the Liberals’ first mandate was bumpier than expected and there is a palpable sense that this was Scheer’s election to lose, and that he did. 

Even though the Liberals came first in seats, it didn’t seem like a revival of the Trudeau brand or even the Liberal one, for that matter. It was more that the Conservatives didn’t convince enough people that they were the better option, despite a series of revelations that sowed doubt about Trudeau’s authenticity. 

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh was facing an uphill battle since day one. It took him a year and a half to become a member of his own parliamentary caucus, which gave him less than a year as a parliamentarian before he faced another election. He spent most of his first days as leader handling internal party matters, including accusations of sexual harassment against Saskatchewan MP Erin Weir, which distracted from his messaging about himself and his vision for the party. He lost 18 seats in this election but based on how things looked for the NDP a year ago, it could have been worse. He ran the most upbeat campaign and that might have counted for something among voters who grew tired of the truly uninspiring exchanges among leaders. Elizabeth May and the Greens really ought to have done better, given that climate change was a prominent policy issue (to the extent that policy featured at all). Instead of leveraging recent electoral gains for several of their provincial counterparts, which were generally at the expense of the NDP, the federal Greens seemed to take these outcomes as reasons to rest on their laurels. To be fair though, both of these parties got shortchanged by the first-past-the-post exchange rate. 

The fractured state of the party system didn’t help matters. With so many to choose from and no bright light among them, there was no compelling gathering point for likeminded voters. Instead of bringing us together, the parties are dividing us up. They all have succumbed to the temptation to micro-target voters whose support they can count on and to abandon the nation-building cause, which requires parties and leaders to extend their growth beyond their base and attract new votes. This is why Trudeau and the Liberals were successful in 2015: they appealed beyond their base. But none of the parties did that in the 2019 election. 

All the parties need to do some soul searching lest the status quo be allowed to prevail in four years’ time (or sooner). These existential reflections must include questions about leadership for every party except the Bloc. Scheer already has sharks in the water and May has expressed doubt that she’ll continue for another four years. Singh might have some runway but needs to solidify the identity of the party, especially since many of its brass — including veteran MP Nathan Cullen — decided not to accompany Singh into this election.

Even Trudeau would be wise to think about a succession plan. A big part of his strategy in 2015 was to recruit star candidates with high profiles and impressive track records. This approach might have helped him to win votes and to form government, but it also has the effect of increasing the number of potential leadership contenders in cabinet and caucus. Leadership and brand are virtually synonymous these days. If his brand is not restored and soon, the Liberals might consider looking around the caucus room for a replacement before the country votes again.  

Dr. Lori Turnbull is the Director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University. She is a co-winner of the Donner Prize.