With his trademark theatricality, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau called Canada’s 44th federal election the most important one since 1945.
Voters did not agree. After five weeks of watching the party leaders struggle to define what the election was about, Canadians effectively gave their MPs a “back-to-work” order, returning them to a Parliament that will look very much like the last one.
Commentary: Winners and losers of the 2021 election
It was a risk-averse campaign in a risk-averse time. The party leaders struggled with empathy and with authenticity, universally afraid to admit errors lest they hand more ammunition to their rivals. Their campaigns had one thing in common: they believed they must cater to citizens rather than lead them.
And so, they all told us we could have something for nothing: untold billions in spending commitments, with the improbable suggestion that middle-class citizens — or their children — will not have to pay the bills.
Of course, we did not believe them. And, as we saw on election night, we did not reward them.
Trudeau had hoped to emulate his father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, in his six-year path from triumphant majority to chastened minority and back between 1968 and 1974 — precisely the same length of time the younger Trudeau has been in office.
Instead, this campaign will likely be quickly forgotten — a footnote like the elections of 1965 or 2008, when voters denied an incumbent prime minister hoping to trade a minority government for a majority — but allowed him to remain in office.
If the leaders of the four largest national parties are wise, however, they will not forget this campaign. Instead, they may reflect on its lessons. And so should we.
Liberal lessons: Reconsidering a polarizing leader
Canadians judged Trudeau the way an employer assesses an employee with a middling performance review who wants a promotion. He’s solid enough, but hasn’t earned it — and you’re annoyed he asked in the middle of a major project.
“We heard you,” Trudeau said in his election-night speech. But did he? Unlikely. While the prime minister has many gifts as a communicator, the empathy seems calculated — a feeling reinforced by his subsequent words talking about his “clear mandate,” and his tone-deaf assertion that “some have talked about division, but that’s not what I see.”
More reflective Liberals will consider:
- The high risks of hubris: Had the Conservative brand been stronger, Trudeau would have lost. The Liberals need to govern in a more humble, collaborative way.
- The responsibility for needless division: Calling an election during a pandemic — at a time of high anxiety — was a cynical move that predictably unleashed a torrent of anger, breathing new life into divisive political forces such as Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party.
- Leadership succession: Justin Trudeau has become a polarizing politician — and yet, strangely, the Liberals made this campaign all about him. It’s time for some frank backstage conversations — and opportunities to let some of its other leading lights shine more often. The movement to draft former Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney may gather steam, particularly if the Conservatives become more of a threat in the political centre.
Conservatives: Repositioning a polarizing brand
If the election was Trudeau’s performance review, Conservative leader Erin O’Toole was the candidate you secretly interviewed to replace him. He exceeded your expectations, but you weren’t yet convinced.
O’Toole’s strategy was the right one: build a bigger tent. He effectively blunted the Liberals’ attacks with a moderate platform and persona well-targeted at the mainstream urban and suburban voters who decide Canadian elections.
The problem is that the message sounded nothing like the Conservativism of recent years, nor the way O’Toole had to position himself to win the party leadership. The Conservatives were too slow to change. Party members’ ridiculous opposition to carbon pricing — long after businesses, investors, consumers, the country and the world had accepted it — is an example. The conversion to common sense was too sudden to be credible — as the voters showed them on election night.
The lessons for Conservatives:
- You can’t reposition your brand overnight: Had O’Toole had been able to start the pivot to moderation earlier, the Conservatives could have won. Political brands are best prepared in a slow cooker, not a microwave.
- You can be fiscal conservatives: To avoid handing the Liberals any clubs to beat them with, the Conservatives adopted the most fiscally profligate platform imaginable — at the risk of alienating everyone who fears loading up our children with massive public debt. But the real risks to the Conservative brand comes from ignoring issues such as climate change or Indigenous reconciliation. With better policies in those domains, they can return to a more balanced fiscal path.
- The Conservatives’ problem is not Maxime Bernier: It’s that whether or not the People’s Party exists, the Conservatives have a ceiling of about 35 percent of the vote. The good news is that they have at least two years to reposition their brand, by which time mainstream Canada may believe it. If O’Toole persists and the party supports him, it may again contend for a majority government.
The classic NDP dilemma: Protest or power?
Since its growth into a national force under Ed Broadbent in the 1980s, New Democrats have often faced an existential question: are they a party of protest or power?
In the job interview, Jagmeet Singh made a good impression: he is a likeable, charismatic leader who polls well among Canadians — a blessing for the party as it softens a message that relies increasingly on divisive identity politics. When it came to the job requirements, though, he was less than convincing, at times struggling to explain the details of increasingly extravagant promises that only make sense if viewed as a wish list rather than a governing agenda.
For New Democrats, the election is less about lessons, and more about strategic questions:
- Who’s in the coalition? While New Democrats do best with the poorest and youngest voters, it should give them pause that both the Conservatives and Liberals comfortably outpoll them among Canadians who define themselves as working class.
- Is there a place for pragmatism? New Democrats have a long tradition of practical governance, particularly in Western Canada. Working-class voters typically respond well, knowing that promises paid for by taxing large corporations will only make life less affordable by making everything more expensive.
- Does math matter? When the NDP last tried a form of socially progressive fiscal conservatism under former leader Tom Mulcair, the party nearly imploded. But surely it’s time for an adult conversation?
The Greens: Is there a place for us (somewhere)?
By any measure, the 2021 election was a disaster for the Greens. At a time when the mortal perils of the climate crisis are painfully obvious to all, the party has no reason to be in such a perilous state. But it is.
Green Party leader Annamie Paul is the candidate for the job who got stuck in transit and never arrived. Her fourth-place finish in a poorly chosen downtown Toronto riding suggests that, even more so than the NDP, the Greens were not serious about playing a role in the next Parliament. If former leader Elizabeth May retains ambitions to lead the Greens, officially or not, she may have the chance once more.
- Politics is about strategy, not stubbornness. Leaders need to win their ridings, and parties need to put them where they can win — a lesson the party should have learned from May’s early struggles to win a seat in Nova Scotia, where the Greens had weak roots. It is unfathomable that Annamie Paul ran in Toronto Centre, a safe Liberal seat.
- Governance reform must be a priority. It is difficult to apportion the blame for the party’s widely publicized but ill-explained internecine warfare. The safe conclusions are that a leader’s first duty is to unite their party, and party executives’ first duty is to give the leader a chance to do so. The party surely needs to review both its structure, and its culture.
A challenge for all leaders — and all citizens
The last seven elections have produced five minority Parliaments. One question is whether there is room to change our system — not necessarily to produce more majorities but to inspire better debates, less pandering and stronger leadership.
How often we have seen a modern leader take a truly bold risk, as Brian Mulroney did on his constitutional accords, sales tax reform or free trade, or Jean Chretien did on eliminating the deficit, implementing the Clarity Act, or keeping Canada out of the second Iraq War? The closest we have come is Justin Trudeau’s successful battle to make carbon pricing a reality, notwithstanding the opposition of many and the risks of it being seen as a new tax.
Late in the campaign, the prime minister expressed renewed openness to electoral reform, unhelpfully reminding voters of his broken promise to end the first-past-the-post voting system — or at least to try.
It is a debate we must have now. We have a political system that is too adversarial, an electorate with far more information than attention, and an underfunded, undervalued journalistic profession.
With the combination of both structural and cultural change to our politics, perhaps as a nation we can once more accept common truths, and find the common will to address them.
Daniel Tisch is the CEO of Argyle, one of Canada’s largest public engagement and communications consulting firms. He has advised a long list of private and public sector leaders, including cabinet ministers and heads of government representing all major parties