Reflections on the 2015 Canadian federal electionBy Gary Levy on 21 October 2015
Former Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was asked in 2013 what he thought about his old rival Pierre Trudeau’s son, Justin, seeking leadership of the Liberal Party following its devastating results in the 2011 election. Mulroney said “he’s young, articulate, attractive – a flawlessly bilingual young man. What’s not to like with this picture? Anybody who treats Justin Trudeau with scorn or derision or underestimates him, does so at his own peril,” What a prescient analysis considering what happened in the General Election earlier this week when Canadians voted for a Liberal government giving Justin Trudeau 184 out of the 338 seats in the House of Commons.
Scope of the Victory
The government’s majority is only 14 but the scope of the victory is immense when one considers the Liberals had only 34 seats in 2011. In the four Atlantic provinces the Liberals won all 32 seats. In Quebec where they had been reduced to 7 seats they took 40 leaving the New Democratic Party led by Thomas Mulcair with 16 compared to the 59 seats they held in 2011. The pro-independence Bloc Quebecois increased from 4 to 10 in Quebec but that left them 2 short of official party status and without their leader, who was defeated, they will not be a force in the new Parliament.
In Ontario the Liberals took 80/121 seats to secure their majority. The Prairie Provinces remained firmly in control of the Conservatives but the Liberals won seats in Calgary for the first time since 1968 and picked up a few additional seats in Manitoba. The Green Party retained one seat, that of its Leader, Elizabeth May, in British Columbia.
Fourteen cabinet ministers went down to defeat including the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Immigration. Five other high profile cabinet Ministers voted with their feet and did not seek re-election.
In terms of popular vote the Liberals won 39.5% of the vote almost exactly the same as Stephen Harper won on the way to his 2011 majority. But the turnout was 68% up from 61% in 2011 and 58% in 2008.
Aside from a desire for change (Prime Minister Harper was trying for a fourth consecutive victory something not achieved since 1908) the economy was a big issue. Having finally balanced the budget after 6 deficits Mr. Harper promoted the same low tax, small government, free market agenda that has been synonymous with the new Conservative Party since it merged with the Reform Party in 2003. The New Democrats who led the polls when the election was called, promised to balance the budget and to continue many of the Harper policies as they anticipated heavy criticism about big spending, irresponsible socialists. It was a fatal mistake. The Liberals countered with a proposal for three years of deficits which they called investment and stimulus spending in order to promote growth, stagnant for a decade under Mr. Harper. Trudeau promised that after three years of stimulus he would balance the budget. Slowly over the long 78 day campaign this idea gained support and votes started to shift from the NDP to the Liberals with the Conservatives maintaining their 30% base.
Other issues emerged and the Liberals succeeded in portraying themselves as the clearer alternative to Harper. They proposed to legalize and regulate the sale of marijuana, they said they would cancel purchase of the super expensive F-35 fighter planes and withdraw from the combat mission in Iraq and Syria. They would repeal some of the Conservatives law and order legislation notably the law to strip citizenship and deport dual citizens found guilty of terrorism or certain other serious crimes. The Liberals opposed a Conservative attempt to ban a few women wearing niqabs from taking the oath of citizenship unless they uncovered their faces during the ceremony (despite the fact they had already uncovered to officials during the identification process). For good measure the Liberals promised tax cuts for middle income Canadians and increased taxes for the top income earners.
Even on Senate reform which was barely discussed in the campaign the Liberals had a distinctive policy – create a non-partisan commission for appointments whereas the Conservatives and NDP argued for popular election or abolition both of which require a constitutional amendment for which there is insufficient support.
Mr. Trudeau benefitted from a new approach to debates. The traditional widely viewed network sponsored debate was cancelled because the Conservatives wanted several privately sponsored debates. Before the first one the Conservative Communications director said that if Mr. Trudeau showed up wearing pants he could probably consider it a success. After 5 of these debates in two languages Mr. Trudeau not only remained fully clothed but was widely considered to have won a couple of them.
The Governance Issue
Issues of governance were not discussed in any detail in either the campaign or the debates but the Harper style of governing was very much an issue. The lack of respect for opposition, the win at all cost mentality, the use of omnibus bills and time allocation to limit debate, the prorogation of the House in the face of a non-confidence vote weighed on the minds on voters. Years of refusing to hold press conferences, limitations on the number of questions by the press and even tightly controlled public access to campaign events made the press very unsympathetic to the Prime Minister. Incredibly local Conservative candidates were encouraged to avoid the traditional all-candidates meetings. The Conservatives spent millions on negative advertising including a desperate one near the end that claimed Justin Trudeau would legalize brothels.
Mr. Trudeau improved as the campaign went along and he projected the sunny ways of optimism echoing the approach of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the last person to win 4 consecutive elections. In the last week of the campaign, in a marked departure from Conservative rhetoric that has demonized Liberals for a decade, he told a cheering crowd that “the Conservatives are not our enemies, they are our neighbours” a line repeated in his victory speech. After years of American-style vitriol, division and scare tactics Canadians were hungry for some his old fashioned clichés, slogans and attitudes that used to give the perception, if not the reality, of Canada as a caring, generous, society and Canadians as modest, tolerant, do gooders.
The traditional weakness of Liberals has been their sense of entitlement, arrogance and occasional misdirection of public funds. Toward the end of the campaign the co-chairman of the Liberal campaign resigned because he had written a letter, in his capacity as a lobbyist, to a major pipeline company offering advice on how they might deal with a new government. There was nothing illegal about the letter and it did not slow down the momentum for change. But it was extremely poor judgement in the circumstances and perhaps an omen of problems to come.
Trudeau must realize that his biggest challenge will be to keep his newly elected members from falling back into those old habits. If that can be done, re-establishing Canada’s international reputation, re-engaging in the climate change struggle, finding markets for Canadian oil, rebuilding cities, re discovering co-operative federalism and eliminating aboriginal poverty may be easy by comparison.
Maybe popularity does win Elections
After visiting the Governor General on August 4 to ask for dissolution Mr Harper made a rather unusual observation to assembled reporters. He said “a national election is not a popularity contest” He repeated this in an advertisement at the end of the campaign where he added “this election is not about me.”
In fact it was about him and Canadians had grown to dislike Mr. Harper. For various reasons they discovered they liked Mr. Trudeau. Books and articles will analyse the 2015 results in infinite detail and no doubt there will be lessons for the future and theories about what it means. In the meantime one obvious conclusion seems to be that Popularity Does Win Elections.
Gary Levy is a Fellow with the Bell Chair in Canadian Parliamentary Democracy in the Political Science Department of Carleton University in Ottawa.
Image: davehuehn CC BY-NC-ND