Even If He Wins, Justin Trudeau Loses

With a majority government unlikely, the Liberal leader's decision to call a snap election appears to have resulted in all pain, no gain.
Anya Zoledziowski
Toronto, CA
September 15, 2021, 12:59pm
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau makes a campaign stop in Vancouver, B.C., on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

In mid-August, then Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a snap election in a not-so-subtle effort to secure more political power. It was a move that surprised no one: Trudeau, who had been heading a minority government, was hopeful that his pandemic track record would catapult his party into majority territory. 

Trudeau gained widespread favour after securing the world’s largest COVID-19 vaccine portfolio for Canada—despite having zero capacity to produce vaccines domestically—and implementing temporary universal basic income (CERB by another name) for people laid off during the pandemic. The initiatives were so successful most pundits assumed a pandemic election would result in a home run for the Liberal leader. 

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To get a majority, a single party needs to earn 170 seats in Canada’s 338-seat House of Commons. When Canadians last headed to the polls in 2019, the Liberals won 157—a setback, considering they had a majority during the prior term.

“In this pivotal, consequential moment, who wouldn’t want a say? Who wouldn’t want a chance to help decide where our country goes from here? Canadians need to choose how we finish the fight against COVID-19 and build back better,” Trudeau told reporters in Canada’s capital, Ottawa, last month, after the election was triggered.

As it turns out, Canadians don’t want an election right now. A poll published by the Toronto Star three days before the election was called found that two-thirds of Canadians didn’t want one. Weeks later and mid-way through campaign season, Nanos found that three-quarters of Canadians said they consider the election “unnecessary.” 

"Many people complain about elections, which is natural… but that usually only lasts about a week. This is now dogging the Liberals, and it looks like it's going to dog them to the very end of the campaign,” Nik Nanos, founder and chief data scientist at Nanos Research, told CTV News.

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According to several pollsters, including Nanos, 338Canada, and Angus Reid, the Liberal and Conservative parties have been neck and neck during the entire election season, with the numbers pointing to the same outcome: it appears unlikely that Trudeau will win the majority he so desired. 

The question now is whether Trudeau, a legacy politician who has enjoyed international celebrity, will be able to save face following an unwanted election campaign, even if he wins.

“Unless he gets his majority, I don't know how he could recover,” said Audrey Brennan, a political science PhD candidate with Laval University and Université libre de Bruxelles. “Why go into an election that's going to cost so much to essentially have the same result?”

Trudeau continues to promise major changes for Canada if he is re-elected, “but I can’t see what the big change is,” said Brennan. Canadian progressives are currently weighing whether they can trust Trudeau, who has a mixed track record: after campaigning on electoral reform, for example, Trudeau walked back on his promise and dropped the idea altogether. He also promised to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which requires all governments to get “free, prior, and informed consent” from Indigenous nations before embarking on development projects. Trudeau instead used public funds to pay for the Trans Mountain pipeline, despite a lack of support from many Indigenous communities. 

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Others, largely anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers on the right, are heckling Trudeau at every campaign stop, something that other political leaders haven’t had to endure to the same extent. Protesters have thrown gravel at Trudeau, yelled sexist expletives about Trudeau’s wife, and even shut down one of Trudeau’s appearances because of security concerns. 

“Trudeau’s strong suit is being very direct and I think it's helping him in some sense… He’s not struggling to answer questions and he goes straight to the point. But I feel like in some instances it can backfire,” Brennan said. 

The Liberal leader has also homed in on tangible policies—tackling the housing and climate crises, and vowing to implement child care for $10 per day—that matter to voters, especially younger ones, Brennan said. She added that by championing progressive policies, it’s likely Trudeau is positioning himself as an alternative for voters who usually support the NDP, Canada’s centre-left political party that typically finishes third in the popular vote. (This year appears to be no different.) 

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Brennan said she’s noticed an ideological shift across the board, with Conservatives trying to court Liberal voters while maintaining their right-wing base, and Liberals moving even further to the left. One of Trudeau’s main hopes, she said, is that the People's Party of Canada, a far-right fringe party led by Maxime Bernier that is gaining in the polls by courting anti-vaxxers and the anti-lockdown movement, takes votes away from the Conservative Party, while Trudeau secures the progressive voting bloc. NDP support dipped by more than 4 percent over the weekend as voters likely started to swing to the Liberals.

It’s hard to say, though, whether progressive Canadians will trust Trudeau enough to vote for him en masse. When Trudeau first became the leader of the Liberal Party, he branded himself as a progressive, feminist candidate. He touted support for Indigenous rights, achieved gender parity in his cabinet, legalized cannabis, and promised a change to Canada’s electoral system. Yet, in his six years in power, Trudeau has been slow moving to bring clean water infrastructure to First Nations across the country and did away with electoral reform altogether. Two women cabinet ministers left his caucus during his tenure under very public circumstances. Those actions, among others, eroded voter trust in the leader known best around the world for being young (he’s still under 50 but is the oldest of the three main candidates), progressive, and good-looking.

“How do Canadians trust him? I don't know,” Brennan said, before reiterating Trudeau’s major Hail Mary: “Out of those that are undecided, some of the NDP and Green voters—a small percentage—given the risk of a Conservative government actually might switch to Liberals.”

With such a tight race, it’s uncertain if Trudeau will even win, never mind get his majority. His long-term leadership prospects are also unknown. People, including Brennan, are starting to wonder whether Trudeau will face pressure to step down as party leader even if the Liberals win, but fail to win big.

What is clear is that Trudeau’s once firm hold over Canadian politics could turn out to be a relic after Canadians head to the polls next week. That’s when we’ll all know the answer to the biggest question in Canadian politics today, stated bluntly by Angus Reid pollsters: “Are Justin Trudeau’s days of enjoying unmatched political rock god status well and truly over?” 

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