It was summer 2021, one of the hottest on record. Justin Trudeau was sitting comfortably, with a healthy and consistent 6-8 point polling lead over his Conservative opponent, Erin O’Toole. O’Toole’s caucus was simmering in near-open revolt, while Trudeau was riding high on Canada’s own ‘vaccine bounce’ as it came from behind to lead the world in doses administered. Every incumbent government at the provincial level—many of them with minority governments, like Trudeau’s—who called an election during the pandemic came back with a stronger showing. Minorities turned into majorities in British Columbia and New Brunswick, and Saskatchewan re-elected a majority. It seemed like a good time to call an election.
Trudeau had been frustrated by a minority parliament for nearly two years, where concessions had to be made to the plucky New Democrats. The NDP’s signature achievement included turning a $1000 ($Cdn) monthly benefit for the unemployed into a $2000 benefit, as the first Covid lockdown forced Canada to rapidly supplant its traditional unemployment insurance system, after years of austerity had made it too slow, miserly, and narrowly targeted to respond to a massive increase in unemployment. Pressure from the NDP on this, and other measures, such as turning a 10% wage subsidy to 75%, helped to make Canada’s fiscal response to the Covid-19 pandemic the largest in the G20 as a percentage of GDP. With the NDP making calls for a wealth tax to make billionaires pay for the pandemic and the recovery, the prospect of holding all the cards with a majority government seemed all the more alluring to Trudeau.
His opponent, Erin O’Toole, looked weak, and just like Theresa May before the 2017 UK election, victory seemed assured. Recently elected to lead his party after running a hard-right ‘true blue’ leadership campaign, O’Toole readily outflanked his more centrist opponent, Peter MacKay. But soon after winning, O’Toole quickly pivoted to the centre, dropping almost everything he promised during the leadership campaign, from defunding Canada’s public broadcaster, the CBC, to scrapping the carbon tax. He also quickly distanced himself from his previous dalliance with the anti-abortion crusaders within his ranks, proclaiming himself as proudly pro-choice. Like a political chameleon, he transformed himself with the help of UK political consultants who previously worked with Boris Johnson and the Vote Leave campaign. His team were inspired by Johnson’s ability to steal working-class votes and win ‘Red Wall’ seats. It has even led him to make appeals directly to union members – raising many eyebrows among political observers.
Inspired by Johnson’s example, O’Toole quickly began a top-down re-organisation of how his party presented itself to the public. This culminated in a widely-publicised moment at the Conservative Party convention, in which delegates voted down a resolution acknowledging that climate change was real. It looked as if as he wanted to reform the Conservative Party, but it simply did not want to be reformed – and was simply not ready to govern. Some writers even went as far to say that it was even conceivable, though not likely, that the near-ceaselessly third-place New Democratic Party could end up with more seats than the Conservatives.
Justin Trudeau dissolved parliament and called a snap election on 15 August, the same day that Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. Immediately he was hounded by the press and the opposition with questions as to the timing – in the middle of a pandemic, and a foreign affairs crisis. It only got worse from there. Two days after the election call, the Nova Scotia conservatives won a surprise majority government, besting the incumbent liberals who too called an early election without giving people a clear reason for re-electing their government – and simply expected to coast to a majority on vaccine gratitude. This suddenly broke the commonly-held assumption in Canada that pandemic elections return incumbent governments to power.
Beginning to drop in the polls (and the Conservatives starting to rise), Trudeau tried a series of wedge issues that could catch his opponent flat-footed – mandatory vaccines being one, gun control being another. Each time, O’Toole pivoted, and immediately abandoned a position if it was hurting him electorally. He even went so far in one case as to update his election platform in writing, stating that all guns currently banned would remain banned. Without a foil and a bogeyman, Trudeau’s attempts to land punches on his opponent continue to miss – and he is having a harder time scaring NDP voters into ‘strategically’ voting for the Liberals to prevent the Conservatives from taking power.
The recent leader’s debates were no exception. The format organised by the independent commission he himself created out of a consortium of media outlets seemed to cater more to aggrandising the egos of the journalists involved rather than allow for the leaders to challenge each other in debate. The two-hour event in English seemed more like a ‘scrum’ or a press conference with all opportunities for Trudeau to stem the bleeding and land a punch being interrupted or cut off by the moderator.
With election day—20 September—rapidly approaching, the fight to the finish will be over a Liberal or Conservative minority – with the prospect of Trudeau losing government entirely becoming ever more likely. Standing to gain the most, however, are the New Democrats. Polling at around 20-21%—up from 16% in the last election—they stand to make significant gains, potentially increasing the size of their caucus from 24 members to nearly 40. If these trends continue, it could be one of the best showings for the party ever.
The pledges they’ve made this election are very similar to those of the last election in 2019, from a wealth tax on those with more than $10 million, a pledge to move towards fare-free public transit, an aggressive plan to build more social housing, a plan for ambitious climate action that resembles proposals for a ‘Green New Deal’, and a radical agenda for the expansion of public healthcare to include mental health, dental care, and prescription drugs. Added to the agenda this time around is a commitment to effectively nationalise long-term care (social care), after abysmal care standards led to significantly higher deaths from Covid-19 in private homes over non-profit ones. Canada has the worst record for Covid-19 deaths in long-term care homes compared with other wealthy countries. It became so bad during the pandemic that the Canadian military was deployed to staff these institutions, and soldiers were traumatised by what they saw – people dying of neglect, rather than just Covid-19.
But by far the most pressing issue on the agenda this election is housing affordability. Canada is in the middle of a deep housing crisis that has only been turbocharged by the pandemic. The country already had the lowest amount of housing units relative to population in the G7, but with extra loose monetary policy making mortgages cheap, a class of professionals with a significant amount of extra savings after their consumption was curtailed by lockdown, and now the new possibility of working remotely from anywhere, the drastic housing price and rent increases previously seen only in Toronto and Vancouver have been exported across the entire country. Halifax, a mid-sized city of only 400,000, saw housing prices go up by 30% in a single year. Many jurisdictions similar to it, who have never seen this before, have no rent control in place – and capital from central Canada has been flooding in to redevelop and ‘renovict’ tenants, with outrageous stories like rents doubling overnight becoming commonplace.
What remains clear, however, is that Trudeau continues to lack a significantly good reason for calling the election two years early. All the proposals his campaign puts out—in healthcare, climate, or housing—are instantly met by questions as to why they haven’t been done earlier – while the problem has only gotten worse under his watch. The most notable example is paid sick leave: Trudeau unveiled it as a platform proposal, but voted against it multiple times when it was proposed by the NDP, and when it mattered most – at the height of the pandemic. His scare tactics on strategic voting ring hollow when it is his own fault that a Conservative government is a legitimate possibility, due to his broken promise on electoral reform.
Trudeau’s government is set to introduce a socialised childcare system—after decades of pressure from the NDP—and has made it hostage to his party winning re-election. The NDP’s answer has been that they would have supported its immediate implementation rather than calling an early election – casting Trudeau’s move as supremely cynical. His answer as to why he’s called the early election—that ‘Canadians deserve a say in the post-pandemic recovery’—may sound nice, but most Canadians aren’t buying it.
On 20 September, he may come to regret his hubris. Let’s hope Canadians don’t end up paying for it.