I would say that I was surprised by the last night’s election results, but I’d be understating my shock by a few metaphorical orders of magnitude. In the spring I’d predicted dire straits for the Liberal Party. And even as I became increasingly impressed by the Grits’ campaign and Justin Trudeau’s exceeding of expectations, I couldn’t bring myself to predict anything more ambitious than a red minority; and even when I did, I hedged by adding that a Conservative minority was certainly possible. I wasn’t alone. Today, we all have some explaining to do.
What happened? Pundits, partisans, pollsters, political scientists, and others will be sorting that question out in the days and weeks and months to come. Indeed, scholars will be interested in this race for decades. But for those too impatient to wait for dispassionate scholarly analysis, I can offer some working explanations for what happened in Election 42 and a discussion of where we go from here.
What was this election about?
First, this election was primarily a referendum on the Harper Government. That’s been apparent for some time. We thought the election would be about the economy. It mostly wasn’t. It was about whether Canadians wanted another four years of Stephen Harper as Conservative prime minister of Canada. They did not. They really, really, really did not.
Because the vast majority of Canadians wanted to boot the rascals to the curb, this election was also about how to coordinate electing a government to replace the Conservatives. I don’t mean that Canadians got together in the world’s most elaborate Google Hangout. (Is that still a thing?) But massive amounts of time and energy were poured into discussing, analyzing, and organizing the “anyone but Conservative” (ABC) vote. And while we can debate whether interested citizens and civil society groups, most notably Lead Now, had an effect on this mass coordination, what’s clear is that large numbers of Canadians, over time, converged on the Liberal Party as the preferred replacement option. Was that option was chosen strategically or out of principle? Probably a mix of both.
Nothing should be taken away from Mr. Trudeau or the Liberal Party. Of course it’s worth nothing that the Conservative Party and the New Democrats didn’t run the most inspired campaigns – the NDP campaign often looked an awful like the train wreck campaign that former British Columbia NDP leader Adrian Dix ran here in 2013, and the CPC and Mr. Harper looked increasingly desperate as the contest wound down. And for those who want to blame the NDP decline on the niqab nonsense and Quebec, look at the trends prior to that silly distraction; things were already looking bad for the NDP before that. But, regardless, the Liberals and their leader ran an excellent campaign with very few missteps.
The worst potential setback for the Grits might have been the shenanigans of campaign co-chair Dan Gagnier, who resigned days before Election Day when it was revealed that he had been lobbying TransCanada on how to approach dealing with a new government. But that was too little, too late. Neither the CPC or the NDP could make the “Hey! Hey all you guys! Remember AdScam! This is AdScam again!” narrative stick. Mr. Trudeau seemed too squeaky clean. Too new, too hopeful, too not-Chretien-or-Martin. His numbers were not affected.
Keep in mind that the bar was set low for the leader of Canada’s “natural governing party.” I know in part because I was one of the pundits who’d help set out to set that bar low. I did it in earnest. I expected little. Also, the Conservative Party had been hammering on the “just not ready” line for so long. And the NDP had been telling anyone who’d listen that “Justin” would make a great opposition leader, but not prime minister. So, in essence, they were doing the same thing. Then Mr. Trudeau performed well during the debates. He stayed positive and on message. He shook every hand and kissed every baby. His smile wasn’t creepy. His campaign was often a substantive affair, and the party took a big risk, committing to running a deficit for infrastructure spending, further distinguishing itself from both the Conservatives and the NDP, while indicating that they were unafraid to swerve in the opposite direction of conventional economic wisdom during a campaign. That helped.
So did Canadians vote for the Liberals or against the Conservatives? That’s hard to say. But I’d bet there was a bit of both, but more of the latter. The Liberals revealed themselves throughout the campaign to be a fine choice, but I suspect folks were more concerned about jettisoning the Tories than choosing the Grits. I do think the strategic vote coalesced around the Liberals over time, which is why, if you look at a graph of the party’s support between August and October, you can see a steady increase with some surge moments. The Conservatives stayed mostly flat. The NDP sank like a dumbbell in the deep end. Live by the strategic vote, die by the strategic vote, I suppose.
Where do we go from here?
The Liberal Party has made many ambitious promises. Revisiting C-51. Electoral reform. A middle-class tax cut and a tax increase on top earners. Legalizing marijuana. Electoral reform. Infrastructure spending. Curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Letting in more Syrian refugees. Electoral reform. Ending our bombing mission in Syria. Oh, did I mention electoral reform?
The party has a robust majority. Now the pressure will be on them to generate an ambitious Parliamentary agenda and to keep these promises. They have a strong and clear mandate to do just that. They also have the talent required to fill a cabinet with ministers capable of getting the job done. So there is no reason why Mr. Trudeau and his party shouldn’t be able to deliver substantive reform of the sort that the country has desperately needed for some time. All jokes aside, this especially applies to democratic reform, which the party has a moral imperative to pursue aggressively and immediately.
Back in July I asked “Why do we need a Liberal Party?” I couldn’t for the life of me tell what purpose this then-staunchly-centre party could fill in contemporary Canadian politics. The Liberal campaign answered that question. The decline of the Liberals didn’t become the new normal. And now the party and its leader have a chance to prove to the country that not only can the centre hold, it can thrive.
David Moscrop is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of British Columbia, and a pundit whose work has appeared in the National Post, Maclean’s, the Globe & Mail, and other outlets. You can follow him on Twitter at @david_moscrop.