How do you lose a million votes and still win government? Answer: you’re the Liberal Party of Canada.
In the 2015 election, the Liberals garnered just shy of seven million votes; in 2019, their total fell to 5.9 million. Yet the party still managed to garner 157 seats, holding its own in Atlantic Canada, winning nearly half the seats in Quebec and almost sweeping the riding-rich Greater Toronto Area.
Trudeau’s lustre may have faded, but the Ford factor took its place. Progressive voters united behind the Liberals: the NDP vote collapsed, notably in Ontario, with that party down 600,000 votes nationally from its total in 2015 and its seat count reduced to 24.
Contrast this with the Conservatives, who won over 500,000 more votes in 2019 than in 2015 and scored higher in the popular vote than the Liberals. Yet that only got them 121 seats, 22 more than the previous election.
The Green Party also increased its vote count by more than half a million and eked out one more seat for its efforts, going to three from two. As for the Bloc Québécois, it made similar gains in the popular vote yet ballooned to 32 seats from 11. You’d think this would have been Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet’s night, yet some Bloc-istes looked a bit … disappointed. And there’s good reason for that.
Because in this Parliament, the winners are the losers. Scheer’s Tories grew their popular vote and seat count and remain in opposition. Trudeau’s Liberals shrunk their popular vote and seat count and remain in government.
Blanchet’s triumph won’t give him the balance of power because the Liberals will try to avoid dancing with separatists; NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh’s losses make him the king because he’s a natural ally on the left. Green Leader Elizabeth May has more company in the Commons but will remain a lone, if loud, voice in the wilderness. It’s like the Upside Down of Canadian politics, to borrow a much-abused Stranger Things metaphor. And like that alternate universe, the next Parliament will not be a happy place.
Like Canada, it will be divided as never before. Trudeau can claim that in giving him a second mandate, Canadians rejected division: this was the biggest untruth of the night. The popular vote is highly fractured on ideological and regional lines, starting with the three western provinces painted almost solid blue. Liberals lost seats in Calgary and Edmonton, and veteran cabinet minister Ralph Goodale went down to defeat in Saskatchewan. Anger against the Liberals’ carbon tax and their double-speak on the Trans Mountain pipeline fuelled the Conservative vote, and these two issues will loom large on the new government’s agenda.
With both the NDP and the Bloc solidly opposed to Trans Mountain, Trudeau faces the choice of building a pipeline or staying in power by maintaining their support for his minority government.
But it also puts the Conservatives in a strange position. They are the official Opposition, but they are the only other party supporting the pipeline. Would they back up the government in a confidence situation that hinged on pushing the pipeline ahead? Or would they vote against the interests of their constituents in Western Canada if it ensured the government’s defeat?
Then there’s Quebec. The NDP is a dead letter in the province, with a lone holdout, Alexandre Boulerice, in Montreal. Jack Layton’s orange wave has receded completely and has been revealed for what it was: the embrace of a leader the province saw as pro-Quebec, in part because he was born there. The hard truth is that Quebecers vote for parties led by Quebecers: Layton, though he lived in Toronto, hailed from Montreal, as did his successor, Thomas Mulcair, who, while not as successful, still won 16 seats in the province. This time around, native sons Trudeau and Blanchet reaped the bulk of seats; Singh and Scheer both sustained losses.
Both men also waded into a climate where religion was a hot-button issue; Singh’s Sikhism and Scheer’s faith-based, anti-abortion positions didn’t appeal in a province where the government passed a law banning the wearing of religious symbols by the public service. While Bill 21 won’t get to the Supreme Court any time soon, the Bloc will make a host of demands on the new government, including a Quebec-only income tax return and increased immigration powers — and will likely tag team with Quebec’s pugnacious premier, François Legault, in this effort.
Trudeau will also have to turn on the taps for spending if he wants to stay in power. While the Liberals and the NDP share many priorities — think pharmacare, carbon taxes, support for housing — the NDP version comes with much higher price tags and big-government involvement. Expect the size of the state to swell, which will only further exacerbate regional tensions both in the West and Ontario, which is tightening its belt in a desperate attempt to balance the books after 14 years of provincial Liberal spending sprees.
How long will this Parliament last? A divided house can’t stand forever, and there is an interesting precedent for the current situation: the 1979 minority government of Progressive Conservative Joe Clark. Like Trudeau today, Clark formed it with less of the popular vote (36 per cent) than the outgoing prime minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau (who got 40 per cent). That movie ended nine months later, when the Social Credit, or Creditiste, Party withdrew its support for Clark’s budget after he refused to allocate gas tax funding to Quebec.
In most cases, minority governments rarely last more than two budgets — so Canadians can expect that they will be going back to the polls within the next two years, or maybe sooner. And those million votes will be up for grabs once again.
Tasha Kheiriddin is the founder and CEO of Ellipsum Communications and a Global News contributor.