Whatever dreams Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau had at the outset of this election about regaining the majority his party lost in 2019 are likely dashed.
Canada appears to be heading to a result in which neither the Liberals nor Conservatives gain the 170 seats necessary to control the 338-seat House of Commons. In other words, we’re almost certainly getting another minority government.
Depending on the precise number of seats each party wins, it won’t immediately be clear how that next Parliament will operate, which parties’ agendas will shape government policy or even who will get to become prime minister.
That’s right: finishing first in Monday’s vote is not an iron-clad guarantee the top party’s leader will take command of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
However, the threshold for forming a government isn’t complicated. Strike a formal or tacit agreement among 170 MPs to pursue a legislative agenda — from as many parties as it takes — and you get the keys to the kingdom.
Prepare to hear politicians, professors and pundits invoking terms such as “Westminster model,” “hung Parliament” and “legislative alliance.”
And brace yourself for this chilling possibility: a mid-winter election less than six months from now if some combination of party leaders doesn’t figure out a way to make Parliament work sustainably in the wake of Monday’s vote.
In the end, politics gives way to simple math. Once the ballots are tallied, all those complex, late-campaign calculations about swing ridings and vote splits will turn to the grade-school arithmetic of seat counts.
When Trudeau called the election on Aug. 15, the standings in the House were: Liberals 155, Conservatives 119, Bloc Québécois 32, NDP 24, Greens two and Independents five, with one vacancy. The Liberals gambled that they could hold their 155 seats and flip at least 15 opposition ridings to reach the 170-seat mark to secure a majority government.
Pollsters generally agree this won’t happen in the Sept. 20 vote. They don’t always get it right, but the leading public-opinion leaders predicts an election result with about 10 fewer Liberal MPs, 10 more Conservatives and relatively benign shifts in the other parties’ numbers — though it’s acknowledged the Bloc and NDP could see solid increases in their seat totals.
The upshot? The Liberals are likely to fall even shorter of a majority than they did in 2019, and the evident rise in the fortunes of the Conservatives still won’t get them anywhere near 170 seats. That leaves a variety of minority government what-ifs to contemplate, along with the potential upsides and downsides for each of the parties and their leaders.
Liberal minority redux?
With pollsters predicting a Liberal seat count in the mid to high-140s, a Trudeau-led minority government is seen to be the election’s likeliest outcome. The NDP is expected to win 30 or more seats, a noteworthy increase over the 24 it won two years ago. Altogether, it would be enough to give Canada’s two main progressive parties more than the 170 seats necessary to control the governing agenda in the House of Commons, at least for a year or two. Sound familiar?
Depending on whether the combined Liberal and NDP seats actually reach 170, a Green MP or two — if the party musters them on Monday — could hold the balance of power in the House.
All of this would hinge, of course, on whether and how long NDP leader Jagmeet Singh continues to lend his party’s support to a Liberal-led legislative plan.
Harsh words have been exchanged during the campaign. But arguably, a strengthened NDP would have even greater leverage to influence the government’s agenda given the Liberals’ failed bid for a majority and potentially shrunken caucus.
Without Singh’s steady support, Trudeau would have to cobble together at least 170 votes with backing from the Bloc or Conservative parties, depending on the issue, to pass legislation on a bill-by-bill basis. Reluctance to go back to the polls, especially after an election unanimously panned by opposition leaders as unnecessary, would be a strong incentive for all concerned to sustain a Liberal minority government for at least a while.
Still, there’s no guarantee the government would survive for a long time before the Liberals themselves or the other parties trigger another election.
Polling’s not an exact science, so projections that Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives could push their seat count to about 130 on Monday may be an underestimation. If the Tories move closer to 135 seats, Liberal support is softer than expected, and Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada fails to attract as many right-wing votes as the polls are suggesting it might, the Conservatives could edge out the Liberals for the top finish on Monday night.
But would that be enough for the Conservatives to form a stable minority government for any length of time? Ideally for O’Toole, he’d find a willing parliamentary partner — Yves-François Blanchet of the Bloc Québécois, perhaps, assuming the BQ wins 35 seats or more — to forge a working alliance of at least 170 Tory and Bloc MPs. Could they find enough common ground on certain key issues to sustain a legislative agenda for a good stretch of time?
Blanchet has ruled out any kind of formal coalition to prop up either a Conservative or Liberal government, bluntly stating that one of those parties would have to “do something that is good for Quebec in order to secure the support of the Bloc.”
O’Toole has signalled many times throughout the campaign that he would run a decentralized federation, promising to respect provincial jurisdiction over the spending of health transfers and leaving Quebec’s controversial secularism law, Bill 21, unchallenged.
Maybe those overtures could overcome stark differences between the Conservatives and Bloc on climate change, gun control and other issues, at least long enough to keep an O’Toole government afloat for 18 months or so, which is the average lifespan of a minority in Canada.
The Conservatives could also attempt to pass legislation on a case-by-case basis, drawing NDP support, for example, on worker-friendly measures, mental health initiatives and other broadly progressive promises in the Tory platform.
Support from other parties might be similarly secured on issues of common concern. The two minority Conservative governments of former prime minister Stephen Harper lasted from 2006 to 2008 and from 2008 to 2011 by lining up cooperation from at least one of the opposition parties for every bill passed.
When a first-place finish isn’t a win
Now imagine the Conservatives edging the Liberals by a single seat on Monday: 130 to 129 — a result within the outer range of possibilities in pollsters’ predictions. It’s in keeping with the closeness of the race, the apparent sagging of Liberal fortunes and the uptick in Conservative support.
That might leave the NDP with 40 seats and the Bloc with 38 — also within the realm of possibility, according to the latest polls. And let’s say the Greens take a single seat with the re-election of former party leader Elizabeth May in B.C.’s Saanich–Gulf Islands.
Combine the seat totals of the second-place Liberals, third-place NDP and fifth-place Green party, and the magic number of 170 is attained.
Conceivably, a formal “coalition” or looser “legislative alliance” of those three left-of-centre, progressive parties would represent the most stable governing arrangement in a sharply divided Parliament. It would put the first-place Conservatives on the opposition benches and a “defeated” Trudeau back in the PMO.
Unlikely, all of this, but it could happen.
And in a parliamentary system based on the Westminster model, in which the right to govern falls to the party commanding the confidence of the House in the form of a majority of MPs, it would be a constitutionally legitimate arrangement — however controversial.
If a party demonstrates that it could secure 170 votes in support of a throne speech — its blueprint for governing — and other critical pieces of legislation, such as the federal budget, it would likely gain the blessing of Gov. Gen. Mary May Simon to form government.
But imagine a slightly different set of numbers emerging from Monday’s vote: Liberals 130, Conservatives 129, Bloc 40, NDP 37, Greens 1 and the PPC with a lone MP: Bernier in Quebec’s Beauce riding. Could the Conservatives, Bloc and PPC — with exactly 170 seats — strike a legislative accord to implement an agreed-upon set of policies over a year or 18 months? Yes.
In this scenario, O’Toole might visit May Simon in the days after Sept. 20 with a Quebec-friendly agreement signed by Blanchet and Bernier to wrest power from the first-place Trudeau Liberals. To drive home the point about the 170-seat threshold, the document might even include the signatures of all freshly elected or re-elected MPs from the three parties.
Faced with either of the above scenarios in which second-place parties strike deals to govern in a “hung Parliament,” it’s hard to imagine May Simon resisting such an arrangement in favour of another pandemic election likely to yield a similar outcome. But that could happen, too.
In the world of post-election hypotheticals, it’s prudent to anticipate the likeliest outcomes while also expecting the unexpected.
Trudeau’s tarnished brand
Regardless of the precise outcome of Monday’s vote, Trudeau seems certain to emerge from the election campaign a weakened figure — his grasp for greater power rejected by Canadians.
There was the ill-timed election call amid the surging fourth wave of COVID-19 and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. There was his repeated failure to articulate a compelling reason to have gone to the polls to begin with. And there was the resurrection of controversy over his falling out with former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould, author of a searing new memoir that was released mid-campaign and painted Trudeau in a terrible light.
In their estimation of Trudeau’s leadership and character, progressive voters aren’t likely to forget the high-profile dressing-down the Liberal leader received from the Greens’ Annamie Paul during the English-language leaders’ debate: “I do not believe Mr. Trudeau is a real feminist. A feminist doesn’t continue to push strong women out of his party.”
Will the expected disappointing result for the Liberals in Monday’s vote be the beginning of the end of Trudeau’s leadership of the party?
O’Toole’s risky left turn
If the Conservatives exceed expectations Monday night and capture a minority government, O’Toole will be hailed as a brilliant tactician for moving the party back toward the centre of the political spectrum after 20 years.
The Conservatives’ campaign platform was peppered with progressively framed measures to show support for Canadian workers, increase funding for mental health services and stiffen laws to — yes — protect puppies.
O’Toole also attempted (albeit clumsily) to scrap his party’s planned repeal of a Liberal ban on assault-style weapons when it became clear the policy was hurting his campaign.
But the rekindling of a “Progressive Conservative” vibe in the party has its potential perils. If the election doesn’t yield a Tory win, O’Toole’s attempt to moderate Conservative messaging could be interpreted as a failure — dismissed by too many mainstream voters as see-through hypocrisy; seen by too many bedrock conservatives as a reason to abandon O’Toole’s “Liberal Lite” party and seek shelter with Bernier’s PPC or Alberta’s Mavericks.
It should be remembered, too, that former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer lost his job after a 2019 election in which the Tories won the popular vote, added 26 MPs to their caucus and reduced the Liberals to a minority government.
As with Trudeau, O’Toole’s future as party leader will be in the balance on Monday night.
Singh: Soaring hopes or failure to launch?
It may be enough for NDP supporters to stick with Singh as leader if the party increases its seat count on Monday after a disappointing drop from 39 to 24 MPs in his first campaign in 2019.
And there’s every chance the NDP could again exercise considerable power in shaping the country’s agenda — as it did over the past two years — if the Liberals are held to a minority. Perhaps the NDP will even insist on a formalized, high-profile role in a Liberal government — with Singh as justice or foreign minister — in the spirit of an offer Trudeau’s father once made to NDP leader Ed Broadbent to join his cabinet after the 1980 federal election. (Broadbent flatly rejected the idea.)
But how well has the Singh-led NDP translated its recent influence in Ottawa into serious growth in the party’s popularity? Why has the NDP remained so susceptible to dire Liberal warnings with every election that votes for New Democrats will only help elect a Conservative government? How can the party regain the Official Opposition status it achieved under the late Jack Layton’s leadership?
Other pointy questions from NDP stalwarts would surely dog Singh if he is seen as too cooperative with a Conservative minority that might try to secure NDP support to pass certain pieces of legislation.
Blanchet’s transparent opportunism
Give him credit for being frank. The Bloc leader has made it clear he’ll lend support to either a Conservative or Liberal minority government as long as it pursues an agenda “that is good for Quebec.”
If the pollsters are right, after Monday night Blanchet will have an increased number of seats to bargain with in the House of Commons, occasionally helping to prop up whichever party is in power. His cards are on the table.
Paul’s fragile hold on Green leadership
Despite her solid performance on the national stage during the two official leaders’ debates, the internal party conflicts that threatened to engulf Annamie Paul’s leadership of the Greens in the months before the election have not been resolved. To borrow a metaphor from the climate-change crisis, Paul remains on thin ice.
Her impoverished, Toronto-bound campaign — despite her silly insistence it was designed to avoid the unnecessary CO2 emissions of cross-country travel — seemed amateurish.
And the likelihood that May will emerge from the election as the only Green MP (yet again), along with the party’s stalled efforts to increase its nation-wide share of the popular vote, underscores the impression that the party’s significance is waning.
The slim possibility that the Greens could hold the balance of power in a fragmented post-election Parliament is the one hope for the party’s renewed relevance and restored national profile.
Bernier’s refusal to disappear
As if the Greens needed more bad news, the election has marked the startling — and disturbing — rise of Maxime Bernier’s PPC into the No. 5 spot in popular vote rankings among parties competing for seats in the House of Commons. Pollsters are now routinely tracking the People’s Party well ahead of the Greens and just behind the BQ in Canadians’ voting intentions.
The gravel-tossing groundswell of support for a party that fuels anti-vaxxer conspiracies and hostility towards immigrants likely won’t translate into a recaptured seat for Bernier in Beauce on Monday.
But the damage that PPC vote-splitting could do to the Conservatives, and the warped and worrisome worldview that the former Tory cabinet minister and near-leader drags into the national conversation, has put the PPC squarely on Canada’s political map in this election after a vanishingly poor showing in 2019.
Randy Boswell is a Carleton University journalism professor and former Postmedia News national reporter.