What to Expect in Canada’s Election Where Populism Isn’t on the Ballot Paper

by Joe Ryle

8 October 2019

Like it or not, the upcoming federal (general) election in Canada on 21 October is all about Justin Trudeau and whether he can hold on as prime minister.

In stark contrast to the neighbouring US, where Donald Trump has totally rewritten the political rule book, Canada’s election feels eerily outdated with the traditional two main parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, fighting it out on all too familiar territory.

Justin Trudeau is no Jeremy Corbyn but what he lacks in radicalism, he certainly makes up for in charisma. The undeniably charming son of a former prime minister put on a glitzy display in 2015 with the Liberal party increasing their share of seats from only 36 to 148. This was the first time in Canadian history that a party won a majority of seats without having been either the governing party or the opposition, leapfrogging the New Democratic party (NDP) who were in opposition at the time.

But this time round, Trudeau’s campaign has veered from one disaster to the next.

In the current upside down world of British politics, it was the kind of story that wouldn’t last the 24 hour news cycle anymore, let alone a few years, but in Canadian politics it was a big deal. Just days before the start of the official campaigning period, the long awaited verdict of the Ethics Commissioner into a corruption scandal involving Trudeau’s office was released. Trudeau was found guilty of improperly pressuring his former attorney general to halt the criminal prosecution of a company, which his office then attempted to cover up. In the end he was embarrassed and forced to apologise.

A few weeks later and he was apologising again. This time after images appeared in the media, leaked by the Conservatives, of Trudeau wearing blackface on multiple occasions when he was younger. The images were shocking and outright racist, but they were especially sad to see given Trudeau’s commitment to multiculturalism on which his record speaks for itself. Under his leadership, Canada continue to take in more refugees than any other country in the world and on one occasion he even showed up at Toronto airport to welcome Syrian refugees.

On much else he has failed, letting down his supporters in the process. On climate change Trudeau eventually backed the expansion of the Trans mountain oil pipeline, a divisive issue for Canada in this election. On proportional representation, another major promise from his 2015 campaign, he caved.

A potential threat. 

The other major party in Canadian politics is the NDP, who are officially allied to the British Labour party. Their leader is Jagmeet Singh who is to the left of recent federal NDP leaders, but perhaps not left enough.

Unfortunately for Jagmeet, in a similar story to the UK Labour party, much of the party haven’t fully accepted the shift in direction.

Provincial parties in Canada are very strong and have more power compared with local government in the UK. Provincial parties can form government’s in the provinces and here in Alberta, as only one example, the provincial NDP are openly in disagreement with the federal leadership over their rejection of the pipeline.

Singh has launched some decent looking policy platforms in traditional Labour areas – healthchildcare and the environment, but he seems to be struggling to gain any serious momentum or cut through.

Considering climate. 

With climate change high on the agenda like never before, many analysts are predicting a good display for the Green party this time round – with some even predicting they could finish as high as third place, ahead of the NDP.

Their leader Elizabeth May has been touring the country with an innovative plan to transition oil and gas workers to renewable energy jobs.

Like the NDP, the Greens don’t seem to have drummed up any significant momentum so far but that could change in the final two weeks when voters take a closer eye at all the options in front of them.

The people’s party? 

There is one example of a genuine attempt at populism in this election but unfortunately it comes from the right and via a particularly nasty form of politics.

People’s party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier made headlines for all the wrong reasons last month when a Twitter rant ended with him labeling climate activist Greta Thunberg “mentally unstable”.

The party openly refuses to accept the scientific consensus on climate change and are polling at around one percent.

So what will happen? 

Turnout at the last election was the highest in two decades, with a significant rise in younger voters who were enthusiastic about Trudeau’s platform of ‘real change’. A key factor in this election will be whether Trudeau can do enough to prevent his dispirited and diminishing support base from staying home.

With the Conservatives firmly positioning themselves on the side of business instead of the environment, including a pledge to repeal the Liberals carbon tax, Trudeau could also benefit from the upsurge in concern about climate change. The number of these voters who decide to go for the Greens instead of the Liberals will have an impact.

All the most recent polls have the Liberals and Conservatives tied neck and neck. With the NDP and the Green party most likely to finish in third and fourth place ahead of the People’s party and Qubec nationalist party Bloc Québécois, the most probable outcome is a Liberal coalition with the NDP and/or the Green party.

Joe Ryle is a former press officer for the Labour party and adviser to the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. Before that he was active in UK activist groups Plane Stupid, Climate Camp and Squatters Action for Secure Homes (SQUASH).

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