Don’t let the déjà vu deceive you.
The headline summarizing the results of the election for Canada’s 44th Parliament is that nothing changed.
Overall, this is true. Each of the parties ended up with nearly identical seat counts to what they had prior to the election being called 37 days ago. And the “win is a win” elements of the Liberal Party will push on as though this is exactly what happened.
To paraphrase BQ leader Yves-Francois Blanchet, this election seemed like a short interruption of summer BBQs.
Commentary: Winners and losers of the 2021 election
But just under the surface, the election caused some changes that could have important and lasting consequences.
The first change is an even more diminished status for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. What makes you strong in politics also makes you weak.
In 2015, Justin Trudeau could do no wrong. He was the strength of the Liberal Party. He was the Sunny Ways Prime Minister who united Canada’s progressive voters behind an agenda for meaningful change. There was no problem on the progressive agenda that a Trudeau-led interventionist government couldn’t solve and no limits to the good they could do in the world.
By 2019, the prevailing public view of Trudeau had devolved into disappointment. A combination of missteps and scandals reduced him to being just another prevaricating politician.
By the end of the 2021 election disappointment had, for many Canadians, morphed into genuine anger. Once anger enters the picture, it’s almost impossible to return to anything that looks like sunny ways ever again. The Liberal’s biggest strength, Justin Trudeau’s leadership, has now become a significant weakness.
The next change is to the status of Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole. Was he made stronger or weaker by this campaign? His bold gambit to reunite the winning Harper coalition (Western and rural Canada together with the suburbs of major cities) did not pay off with an election win.
But a closer examination of the voting data shows he was close to a significant breakthrough. The Conservatives managed to cut the Liberal margin of victory in Ontario by half from 2019. But it occurred at the expense of narrowing the Conservative margin of victory in Western Canada.
Will Conservative Party activists see O’Toole’s strategy as a step in the right direction or will it be seen as breaking faith with what Conservatism should be going forward?
If it is seen as breaking faith, O’Toole’s days as Conservative leader could be numbered. That means another leadership contest to find someone who can win again. If this was easy to do it would already have been done.
What it will do for sure is turn the Conservatives inward and let the vulnerable Liberals off the hook.
One final change to note is the position of NDP leader Jagmeet Singh. The NDP campaign was more a winner in the polls than it was at the ballot box.
While Singh and the NDP will try to position their election performance as holding onto the balance of power in a minority Parliament, that is no truer today than it was before the election.
The Liberals can pass legislation with any of the three major opposition parties, not just the NDP.
If Singh didn’t make his party the power broker in the next Parliament, he still proved himself as a very effective litigator against the Liberal Party record, and especially Trudeau’s performance on progressive issues.
It was clear in the election that while Trudeau relished the opportunity to rough up the Conservatives, he didn’t have an effective retort for the NDP attacks. The usual Liberal trope that a vote for the NDP is a vote for the Conservatives didn’t stick.
The voting data show the late decline of the NDP had more to do with NDP voters not showing up than it did with them switching to the Liberals to stop the Conservatives. This shows that Singh has the power to stop the switch, but now he needs to find a way to get NDP-friendly voters to the polls in greater numbers.
Where Have All the Voters Gone
At the time of writing, voter turnout in this election was a historically low 58.44 per cent of eligible voters. In 2019 voter turnout was 66 per cent. In 2015 it was a century high of 69%.
Given the decline in participation, we experienced in this election I’ve heard several commentators lament that this indicates declining interest in Canadian democracy. What it really shows is the effect of the pandemic on the turnout for this specific election.
In our election polling for Global News, nearly a quarter of respondents said they were worried about the health risks of voting in person on election day. This is why advance voting to avoid busy polling stations on Sept. 20 was up 18 per cent and why there was a big increase in mail-in balloting.
But the availability of advance voting and mail-in ballots was not enough to maintain previous participation rates. So rather than declaring our democracy to be in peril, why don’t we wait for an election to happen when the pandemic is under control?
My expectation is that participation rates will return to around where they were for the 2019 election.
No Purple Wave
A theory that got some play in this election was that polling was missing out on the Canadian equivalent of evasive Donald Trump voters who planned to vote for the People’s Party — those who either refused to respond to polls or lied about their true voting intentions when they did respond.
The phenomenon led to underestimates of Trump’s support in both the 2016 and 202 elections. But with the PPC, this wasn’t the case.
One of my favourite quotes is from an English botanist named Thomas Huxley. It’s framed and sits on my bookcase.
“The great tragedy of science — the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact,” Huxley said.
In this case, the facts show there were very few shy PPC voters who wouldn’t talk to or lied to pollsters. Our last poll has the PPC at four per cent. When all the ballots are counted, they could get to five per cent. That number was constant throughout the entire campaign. It didn’t increase or decrease — a beautiful hypothesis killed by an ugly fact.
Darrell Bricker is the CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs and the author of ‘Next: Where to Live, What to Buy, and Who Will Lead Canada’s Future’ (Harper Collins, 2020).
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