Federal leaders face post-election questions about their futures

Sep 21 2021, 6:52 pm

Federal leaders across Canada’s political spectrum woke up Tuesday facing postelection hangovers characterized by questions and uncertainty about their respective futures following an election campaign that produced no clear winners.

While final results in some ridings might not be known for days, Monday’s election saw the Liberals headed by Justin Trudeau re-elected with another minority government, the Conservatives under Leader Erin O’Toole continuing as official Opposition, and the Bloc Quebecois and NDP holding the balance of power.

It was a political landscape virtually unchanged from mid-August, when Trudeau pulled the plug only two years into his minority mandate and sent Canadians to the polls in the hopes of riding a post-vaccine campaign high to secure a majority.

Yet that status quo in the House of Commons is unlikely to extend to the majority of leaders involved in this campaign, with a number expected to face new challenges to their leadership over their respective failures to dramatically improve their party’s fortunes.

Trudeau was the first to appear in public on Tuesday, making his traditional postelection day appearance at a Montreal metro station to greet voters on their morning commute. Some commuters congratulated the prime minister, others posed for selfies, and one woman threw her arms around him before security could intervene.

While the prime minister was glad-handing, questions continued to swirl about the wisdom of having called an election in the first place, and what the result of the vote would mean for not only his government, but his own future as Liberal leader.

“Mr. Trudeau has obviously been humbled a bit,” said Jonathan Malloy, a political scientist at Carleton University in Ottawa. “I think his party is still with them, even though they’re maybe not very happy about this.”

Unlike in Australia, where a series of sitting prime ministers were tossed by their own parties, Trudeau is not in danger of being ousted from what was formerly known as Langevin Block despite little to show for the election. Yet Malloy believes the blind faith that has characterized the Liberal party under Trudeau will wane.

“The party has really followed Trudeau very loyally,” he said.

“And I think they still will, but there’s going to be a little less trust in the leader’s judgment and a little more reluctance to just go along with what he has to say.”

Trudeau is also facing the reality that the clock is officially ticking on his leadership, said Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant, a political scientist at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. That could spark talk about “legacy projects” that will leave a lasting effect on Canada, while potential successors start jockeying for position.

“I’m not suggesting there’s any major factionalism or anything in the party,” she Goodyear-Grant said. “But there are people who are waiting in the wings for their turn. And they will become more critical of the leader and less willing to defer to his vision.”

While Trudeau is secure to remain Liberal leader and prime minister for the foreseeable future, there is no certainty with O’Toole. Despite winning the popular vote for the second election in a row, the Conservatives made little headway in terms of seat gains and will return as the official Opposition.

O’Toole on Monday night sent a clear message that he had no intention of stepping down, and would continue trying to move the Conservative party more toward the centre to appeal to a broader base of voters — a strategy criticized from within his own party throughout the campaign.

The question now is whether Tory members agree with O’Toole’s strategy or reject it — and him.

“Any discussion about his leadership is going to be really a discussion about the entire future of the party,” Malloy said.

“And I don’t know how that’s going to play out except to say it’s going to be a bigger issue where O’Toole is actually less relevant than the strategy he has chosen.”

Jagmeet Singh is also facing questions about his leadership after his second election as NDP leader but insists he feels secure in his job and has not hit his ceiling.

New Democrats had high hopes heading into Monday’s vote that a breakthrough might be coming — and for good reason. Singh was consistently polling high among the other leaders while the NDP had more money to spend than in 2019. The Greens were also in disarray, and the Trudeau Liberals looked vulnerable.

Yet none of that factored into a second orange wave as the NDP appeared on track to win between just one and three new seats, leaving it with around 25 — far short of the 30 that some within the party had identified as a benchmark of success.

Singh on Tuesday expressed disappointment that more NDP candidates were not successful, even as he sidestepped questions about what went wrong with the campaign given the numerous factors lined up in its favour, and where the party goes from here. The only certainty: Singh has no plans to leave.

The NDP has enough seats to hold the balance of power in the House of Commons, as was the case in the last parliamentary session when it propped up the minority Liberal government on several occasions while pushing more progressive policies.

Meanwhile, Ontario Premier Doug Ford offered his congratulations to Trudeau on Tuesday morning and called for unity, promising to work with the newly elected Liberal government to advance his province’s interests during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For many, this has been an extremely difficult and divisive election and I would like to take this opportunity to urge unity. Emotions have run high as candidates from all parties debated pandemic policies, including vaccine certificates,” Ford said in a statement.

“I want to be clear: COVID-19 doesn’t care about partisanship or politics and I will continue to work closely with the Prime Minister. People elected our government to work in the best interests of Ontario, not in service of one political party over others.”

Quebec Premier Francois Legault, who had endorsed a minority Conservative government, was more terse.

“I congratulate (Justin Trudeau) for his victory,” Legault wrote in French on Twitter. “I will work with him to advance the interests of Quebec.”

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