A University of B.C. professor of political science said that the upcoming federal election serves no good purpose for Canada – and might not help Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, either.
“It’s not as if the Trudeau government was having trouble legislating,” said Richard Johnston, professor emeritus, adding that the Liberal government had a “working majority” on pretty much all policy decisions.
“Mostly, the problem of the minority parliament was that the government didn’t control the flow of debate and information… they had they actually had to at least negotiate with the opposition parties, or even just put up with flak on questions that were uncomfortable, and they would rather not have to continue in that.”
While Trudeau is billing this snap election – scheduled for Sept. 20 – as a referendum on who should lead the country out of the pandemic, Johnston said that won’t be enough for a majority – and the Liberals know it.
“The additional cards that he will be trying to play are policy cards, right?” Johnston said, noting the eight child care agreements signed with provinces in the weeks before the writ was dropped. “He’s opened the spigot for infrastructure, and he’s done so in very targeted ways.”
That includes SkyTrain funding announcement for ridings like Cloverdale-Langley City, which Conservative Tamara Jansen took from the Liberals in the 2019 election.
But while Trudeau may be looking at pandemic-era snap elections in B.C. and New Brunswick, where the incumbents were able to transform minorities into majorities, Johnston said that federal politics are more complicated and that the Liberals don’t have much wiggle room. They have 155 of the 338 seats in Parliament currently, with the Conservatives at 119, the Bloc Quebecois at 32, the NDP at 24, the Greens at two and independents at five.
Johnston said that since the 1970s, the political divide between the Conservatives and the rest of the parties has grown wider and wider, leaving fewer and fewer swing voters between the right and the Liberals.
“But the fact is that the Prime Minister side of the political spectrum is the divided side. There are competitors for a lot of those vote,” he said.
In both the party’s platform released just prior to the write being dropped and in public appearances, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has targeted the increasing costs of housing and child care, problems his party has laid squarely at Trudeau’s feet.
The NDP, Johnston said, while remaining not popular enough to form government has a “certain credibility at the moment… as a party that is strong enough that it can be a plausible destination for voters who don’t want the Conservatives, but don’t want to reward Mr. Trudeau for his gamble.”
But while the NDP may be stronger this year than in past ones, Johnston said that only in some parts of the country – such as B.C. – will more votes for the New Democrats turn into more seats for Jagmeet Singh. In places like Ontario, votes for the NDP could well turn into Conservative seats as the party takes advantage of confusion on the left side of the spectrum.
And the Conservatives are better prepared this time, Johnston said. The Tories have already unveiled their platform – a contrast to 2019, when they released it a week prior to Election Day – and it includes initiatives that “you haven’t heard from Conservatives” before.
“It’s time for Conservatives to take inequality seriously, because that’s becoming more of a problem in our country,” Leader Erin O’Toole states in the document. He also promises to “take climate change seriously,” but Johnston said that could be a double-edged sword for the Conservative leader.
“I think that O’Toole is a more credible leader for the broad mass of voters than Andrew Scheer was,” he said. “(But) I do think that O’Toole has his own problems and these are the problems of the Conservative Party.”
The Tories’ issues are long-term ones, Johnston added.
The Conservative Party of 2021 is a merger of the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance (formerly the Reform Party) that took place in 2003. The current party, Johnston said, “clearly a party of the right” and created a gap between the more right-leaning candidates popular with party members and those popular with voters overall.
“Although O’Toole has dragged his party toward the centre on climate change, his party doesn’t really want to be dragged. And as that question comes up, Trudeau will be reminding people all the time, of the consequences of going over to that side.”
The other issue it created, Johnston added, is that O’Toole – like prior leaders – needs to keep all facets of his own party happy with policies that cater to social conservatives without turning away fiscal conservatives.
But the problem all around the political spectrum this year will be turnout. In 2019, 67 per cent of voters cast a ballot. But this year, voters already fatigued from an 18-month pandemic – and in B.C. the raging wildfires – may decide it’s not worth it for them to head to the polls.
“I think it’s hard to see this as a campaign that’s going to inspire anyone,” Johnston said. His guess for the results?
“If had to put money down, I’d bet on roughly replication of the status quo.”
Editor’s note: The previous version of this story stated that the NDP had not released their platform. In fact, the party released it on Aug. 12, prior to the writ being dropped.