With the dust settling from Sept. 20’s federal election, here are three takeaways:
Justin Trudeau isn’t – and never was – a political giant
When Justin Trudeau thwarted Stephen Harper’s 2015 effort for an unprecedented fourth consecutive term, he looked like a political rock star. He had charisma to burn, adoring fans, media enthusiasm and the demonstrated ability to rocket from third place and electorally kill the king. He was the antithesis of the unloved stodgy Harper.
Six years on, the comparison is more mixed.
Both men won three consecutive elections, one majority and two minorities. Harper began with a precarious minority and built to his majority, whereas Trudeau went in the other direction.
In terms of seats won, Trudeau has a slight advantage. Over his three elections, he averaged 49 per cent of the available seats compared to Harper’s 47 per cent.
The popular vote is a marginally different story. Harper averaged 37.8 per cent over his three victories versus Trudeau’s 35.1 per cent.
Trudeau, in contrast, was viewed through an entirely different lens, attributing qualities that he didn’t actually have. In reality, he was more of a political celebrity than a political giant.
Yes, Trudeau decisively beat Harper in 2015. But having spent almost nine years in power, Harper was politically long in the tooth and ready to be taken down. Prime ministers invariably wear out their welcome.
The Conservatives are in an iffy place
Replacing the hapless Andrew Scheer as leader was supposed to yield tangible benefits for the Conservatives. Perhaps they wouldn’t win power right away with a new leader like Erin O’Toole, but at least they’d gain seats and vote share. They’d build for the future.
Instead, they lost two seats and just over half of a percentage point in the popular vote. Statistically, they’re further away from power than they were after the disappointing 2019 election.
And for those with any memory of the 1990s, there’s an ominous speck on the horizon.
I’m referring to the five per cent vote share – twice that of the Greens – won by the People’s Party. It’s reasonable to surmise that most of those votes came out of the Conservatives’ hide.
In the 1990s, Reform destroyed the old Progressive Conservative Party by gutting its traditional vote and replacing it as the largest right-of-centre entity on the federal scene. Alienated by what was perceived as an abandonment of conservative principles, a huge chunk of the hitherto reliable Progressive Conservative base jumped ship.
The Progressive Conservatives were initially dismissive of Reform. Then Reform ate their political lunch, after which there was no way back. And while the People’s Party bears little comparison to Reform in terms of coherence or heft, the warning signal is there.
Canada’s majority political disposition can be characterized as centre-left, with emphasis on the centre bit. If the Conservatives want to win federally, they need to hold on to their base and increment it by peeling off some additional centrist votes.
Any material base erosion will be fatal. The party simply doesn’t have the margin to spare.
For all his many deficiencies, Harper was able to do this during his winning period. Because the base trusted him, it was prepared to accept his straying from conservative orthodoxy as a necessary compromise.
So far, O’Toole hasn’t been granted – or for that matter earned – the same licence. Unless and until he does, his prospects aren’t great.
Vote efficiency matters
The election again underlined the paramount importance a first-past-the-post polity puts on efficient vote distribution. For the second time in a row, the Liberals lost the popular vote to the Conservatives but still won far more seats. No wonder they’ve no interest in electoral reform!
During the Donald Trump era in the United States, many progressive Canadians were outraged that he’d lost the popular vote but won the presidency in 2016 and could do the same in 2020. It was, the argument went, undemocratic.
There are significant similarities in Canada.
Just as U.S. Republicans enjoy an efficiently distributed presidential vote, the same applies to the Liberals here. And while U.S. Democrats run up huge wasted majorities in California and New York, Conservatives do the same in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Somehow, though, people aren’t quite as outraged.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps a little bit. For interview requests, click here.
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