Trudeau’s increasingly difficult balancing act

by Connor Macdonald

Trudeau cropped

Steve Jurvetson via Flickr

For the fourth time in 15 years, Canadian voters have returned a hung parliament. After eight years of majority government – four under the Conservatives, four under the Liberals – a frustrating election campaign has revived the regional fragmentation that characterised Paul Martin’s minority victory in 2004 and Stephen Harper’s minority wins in 2006 and 2008. This fragmentation reveals familiar themes in Canadian politics: an alienated west dominated by the Conservative Party, and an east largely captured by the Liberal Party, excluding some rural areas in Ontario and the Maritime Provinces (Conservative) and predominantly francophone regions of Québec (Bloc Québécois). On the surface, not much seems to have changed.

Although Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government looks reasonably secure – with 157 seats out of 338 and a divided opposition – the results still mark a significant rebuff for the Prime Minister and his team after a compelling victory four years ago. On one level, it is tempting to attribute the Liberal losses to contingent circumstances – particularly surrounding the Prime Minister’s own behaviour – and political miscalculations. Mid-campaign revelations that Trudeau had worn blackface on at least three occasions in the early 2000s deprived the Liberal Party of a major part of their election strategy, which was to paint the Conservative leader Andrew Scheer as awkward and out of touch with modern Canada. When the story broke, the Liberal campaign was making heavy use of video clips of Scheer saying clumsy things about gay marriage during his time as a backbencher. Trudeau’s blackface – which came on the heels of a widely panned India trip in 2018 and the SNC-Lavalin ethics scandal this spring – cast doubt on the Prime Minister’s judgement and undermined his carefully cultivated image as a model progressive leader.

On the other hand, reducing the election result to mere contingency risks obscuring the underlying structural conflicts which have developed in Canadian society, and which have crystallised around the issue of climate change. It also ignores how electoral power has shifted in the last 20 years, and how the once-dominant Liberal Party may find its position challenged in the years to come.

Justin Trudeau’s government is the first in Canadian history to offer only conditional support to Canada’s fossil fuel industry.

Firstly, regardless of the Prime Minister’s actions and scandals, it was almost inevitable that the Liberal Party would lose most of its seats in western Canada. To address the issue of climate change, the Trudeau ministry has passed significant environmental assessment legislation that makes it very difficult for Alberta and Saskatchewan, two provinces whose economies are dependent on natural-resource extraction industries, to develop those industries further. Simultaneously, the federal government has imposed a carbon tax in Alberta after the left-of-centre provincial government was defeated and the incoming Conservative government repealed the province’s own carbon pricing scheme.

Trudeau and his Liberal colleagues have presented the carbon tax as part of a grand bargain: by imposing this tax, Alberta would receive the social licence from the rest of Canada to build the pipelines it needs to export its oil to overseas markets. In practice, however, there are two problems with this approach. Firstly, Justin Trudeau’s government is the first in Canadian history to offer only conditional support to one of Canada’s major industries. No previous Liberal government has offered the fossil fuel industry anything less than its full support. By making pipelines contingent on strict new regulations and a carbon tax, it is difficult to see how many Albertans could see the government’s policies as anything other than a historic shift in position for the federal government.

This is particularly true given the fact that these policies have failed to mollify environmental activists and those parts of the country that support more vigorous action on climate change. Indeed, although the Trans Mountain Pipeline from Alberta to the Pacific Ocean is backed by the Alberta and federal governments, the centre-left New Democratic Party (NDP) government in British Columbia (which relies on a confidence-and-supply agreement with the Greens) has attempted to block it, and the matter is still being litigated. It is not difficult to see why many western voters in both Alberta and Saskatchewan feel that no compromise is possible, and some are openly talking about separatism.

At the same time, there are reasons to think that Justin Trudeau’s perceived half-hearted response to climate change may have lost the Liberals votes across the country, particularly in Québec (thanks to the resurgence of the Bloc Québécois) and in the Maritime Provinces. Crucially, though, the lack of willingness of the Conservative Party (dominated by western interests) to speak constructively on climate change, became a wedge issue for the Liberal Party in central Canada, particularly Ontario. Justin Trudeau was able to dominate in suburban Ontario, where elections are usually won, and to persuade centre-left voters to cast strategic votes for the Liberals instead of backing the social democratic NDP. Justin Trudeau’s strong minority government thus rests heavily on the Liberals’ success in winning 79 out of 121 seats in Ontario, including 47 out of 53 in the Greater Toronto Area.

Justin Trudeau will find it harder and harder to win the country when the west has deserted him.

Across Canada, the Conservatives won more votes than the Liberals, but their support was inefficiently distributed thanks to huge margins in the west. They won one seat in the suburbs of Edmonton, Alberta, by over 51,000 votes. Conversely, the party underperformed in the Atlantic region, Québec and especially Ontario, where Andrew Scheer’s perceived social conservatism and stance on climate change cost him swing voters. However, this seat spread belies the fundamental change in Canada’s long-term geographical distribution of power. In the 1974 election – the last time the country was so divided – the Liberal Party was able to win a majority despite solidly losing the west and performing worse than in 2019 in the Atlantic Provinces thanks to a similar performance in Ontario and a stronger performance in Québec.

By contrast, the Liberal Party’s decline in the west over the last 30 years has deprived it of any room to grow in the fastest-growing part of the country. In 1974 Alberta elected 19 out of 19 Conservatives. In 2019, Albertans returned 33 Conservatives and one New Democrat. In 1974 the Liberals saw 8 MPs elected in British Columbia out of 23 seats. In 2019, they 11 out of 42 were elected. The west now belongs to the Conservative Party and, thanks to the shattering of the Liberal Party’s Québec dominance in the last 30 years, Justin Trudeau will find it harder and harder to win the country when the west has deserted him. By contrast, the Conservative Party remains competitive in Ontario. Despite a lopsided seat count, the Liberals only won Canada’s largest province by 8 points. Under Stephen Harper, the Conservatives won Ontario in 2008 and 2011, and it could easily flip sides next time around.

Thus, while carrying off the spoils on election night, the Liberal Party’s position is still precarious in the long term. The Conservatives can do more on climate change policy as long as they continue to keep the west within the fold, which is, nonetheless, a challenge. Conversely, Justin Trudeau is now dependent on support from the NDP and Green Party to his left, both of which will find any concession to the west’s major industries unacceptable. The balancing act Trudeau has struggled with over the last four years – of legitimating the federal government’s actions in the west while keeping his own supporters on board – is only likely to get more difficult by the day.

About the author

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Connor MacDonald recently graduated from the University of Cambridge with an MPhil in International Relations and Politics. He is working in politics in Canada.

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