Many analyses of the 20 September 2021 federal election have described it as a “status quo” result. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Admittedly on the surface this claim may seem self-evident. The final distribution of seats in the House of Commons is almost identical to 2019 and the Liberals have once again been limited to a minority government. Still, the Liberals increased their seat count from 155 at dissolution to 159, while the Conservatives – who for a short time during the campaign were considered to be on the cusp of forming their own minority government – actually lost two seats (down from 121 to 119), thereby turning in a worse performance than two years earlier under the hapless Andrew Scheer. Similarly the NDP, who expected to improve their performance significantly to around 40 seats under popular leader Jagmeet Singh, added only one seat, leaving them once more in fourth place behind the Bloc. And the Bloc, perceived to be fading fast and vulnerable at the start of the campaign, actually increased their seat count by two (from 32 to 34).
The overall similarity in seat count also masks the fact that more than forty seats changed hands. Not a record by any means, but nevertheless significant for a number of reasons, including which seats were in play and why. To begin with, the Liberals reclaimed the riding of Vancouver Granville that was won in 2019 by Jody-Wilson Raybould as an Independent. Similarly they re-took the riding of Fredericton that had been held since 2019 by the Greens’ Jenna Atwin, who had crossed the floor to the Liberals only months before the election.
This riding-level movement also includes one seat the Liberals lost, (Kitchener Centre) but would certainly have won if their incumbent MP, Raj Saini, had not been obliged by the party to drop out of the race after accusations of sexual misconduct surfaced. Since this occurred after the cut off date for withdrawals the riding was left with no Liberal candidate. The result was that Mike Morrice became the first Green candidate ever elected in Ontario. (Morrice’s victory, in turn, allowed the Greens to avoid total humiliation by claiming one seat in addition to their bedrock riding of former leader Elizabeth May in B.C.)
Even more striking is the fact that another Liberal candidate, Kevin Vuong, was elected in a long-time Liberal riding, despite the fact that he too had been disowned by the party, but again too late to have his name removed from the ballot. (However Mr Vuong subsequently announced he would sit as an Independent, depriving the Liberals of another safe seat.) If these two seats had not been lost for easily avoidable reasons the Liberals therefore would have increased their seat count to 161. Adding to this bizarre twist is the fact that two Conservative and two NDP candidates were also repudiated by their respective parties, but none of them was in a riding where their party was competitive. Still, the fact that six nominated candidates were disowned by their respective parties — despite allegedly rigorous vetting processes which failed to detect problems — was certainly a surprising and unprecedented development. (In previous elections any such incidents were typically resolved before the cut off date, or, in rare instances where this was not possible, with the candidate issuing an abject apology which allowed them to remain.)
More importantly, by almost all other measures than overall seat count this “status quo” interpretation of 20 September is far from an accurate description of what transpired. Significant changes took place during the campaign, and more change is definitely coming in the weeks and months ahead as a result of the final tally. For one thing, the political party system as we know it may be in for some major upheavals. For another, the Trudeau Liberals will certainly perceive their re-election as a mandate to pursue their agenda aggressively, and the opposition will be far less able to constrain or modify it, hobbled as they are by their failure to make meaningful gains and increased public expectations that parliament should now get down to work and function well.
The 36-day campaign itself was hardly a “status quo” event either. From the very beginning, with the eruption of the Afghanistan issue on the day the writ was dropped, blindsiding the Liberal government, the number of extraordinary developments and atypical behaviour on the part of voters and candidates alike was actually something to behold. These exceptional events, in turn, have already had consequences. As mentioned above, more are coming, seriously undermining the narrative that we can now expect “more of the same” in national politics.
On the day the writ was dropped, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau described the election as one of the most important in many decades. Clearly he expected the election to be about the future direction of the country as it emerged from the global pandemic. He also had good reason to expect voters would be supportive of the Liberals’ plan for the future. This was hardly surprising, given that polls only days earlier had continued to suggest his party was far ahead of the opposition and on track to form a majority government. As well, on three issues identified as top priorities by Canadians, (health care, climate change and COVID-19 economic recovery) the Liberal positions were the clear favourite. The Liberals were also more than 20 percentage points ahead of their nearest rivals in terms of their perceived ability to competently manage the pandemic.[i]
Hard as it may be to believe after the fact, these polls also demonstrated that Canadians were beginning to focus on other issues precisely because they saw the pandemic as something that had been brought under control and would soon fade in their rear view mirror. Equally surprising in retrospect is the fact that other polls only days before the writ was dropped indicated that the vast majority of Canadians, (roughly 83%) were not overly concerned about whether there was an election or not, and in any event they were categorical about the fact that their feelings on this issue would not change their voting intentions.[ii]
Despite these findings, significant change in public opinion about the election did occur. First and foremost, within a week or two of the election call the pandemic had re- emerged as a serious concern for the majority of Canadians, who now saw the election as both unnecessary and unwanted, a view exacerbated by the opposition’s focus on the cost. For the Trudeau Liberals, who had provided sufficient vaccine to immunize the entire population several times over, and who had earlier confidently predicted a one-shot spring and two-shot summer, the frustration level must have soared as several provincial governments, (notably the conservative-led regimes of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario), blithely disregarded public health advice and prematurely opened their jurisdictions to a deadly and almost entirely preventable fourth wave.
Even so, as the campaign progressed the increasing volatility of the electorate continued to surprise pollsters and politicians alike. One unexpected result was the sudden increase in support for the People’s Party of Canada (PPC) led by renegade former Conservative MP Maxime Bernier. A far-right melange of libertarians, anti-immigration and frequently racist malcontents, the fringe party had always been expected to siphon off a small number of Conservative votes in Alberta and Saskatchewan. But the Conservative margin of victory there was typically so great that the impact would have been irrelevant. However the dramatic rise in support for the PPC across the country surprised both pollsters and politicians. In short order the party surpassed the Greens in popular support in every province except BC, forcing analysts to examine in more detail where this support was coming from.
Most agreed that a coalition of anti-vaxxers and medical conspiracy theorists were now the principal drivers of PPC support both inside and outside of western Canada, a factor Bernier quickly utilized by stressing his anti-vax stance in speeches and at rallies. These new sources of support, in turn, have led most observers to conclude that the dramatic increase in popular vote for the PPC, (which rose from 1.6% in 2019 to 5% in 2021, double that of the Green Party), while certainly concerning, will likely be a temporary phenomenon. Nevertheless there were tentative suggestions that the party may actually have played a role in the Conservatives’ loss of several ridings in southwestern Ontario and B.C., although it must be noted that in most cases there is little or no hard evidence to conclude where the PPC vote would otherwise have gone.
Hand in hand with this sudden increase in support for far right political views, the federal campaign also saw an unprecedented increase in violence and physical confrontations. One of the Liberal leader’s early scheduled events was actually cancelled due to the RCMP’s determination of a credible threat. Subsequently, and throughout the 36-day period, the Liberal leader’s public events were routinely disrupted by a cadre of violent protesters, some of whom were identified as PPC and Conservative Party volunteers. At one event the leader was pelted with gravel, resulting in criminal charges being laid against a former PPC riding president. Violence on the campaign trail, along with expressions of anti-semitic, racist and anti-LGBTQ rage, reached heights not seen in living memory, with incidents reported by individual candidates from all parties.[iii]
Meanwhile the Green Party, which had seen its representation rise from 1 to 3 seats in the 2019 election and had expected to increase its popular support even further in this election, was reduced to two seats and obtained less than half of its previous vote count. While this development was hardly surprising, the reasons for the sharp decline were unusual to say the least. In essence, the party was responsible for its own demise, having engaged in a highly public and lengthy internecine battle with its new leader only months after she was elected. In the end the party’s national executive and the embattled leader launched lawsuits and countersuits against each other only days before the writ was dropped and the party cut off funding for her own campaign in Toronto Centre. In this context her humiliating fourth-place finish was no more surprising than her failure to engage in a national campaign or appear in support of all but a few other Green candidates. As one commentator noted, it was difficult to imagine what more the party could have done to ensure its dismal showing.
Perhaps even more surprising was the failure of the NDP to benefit significantly from the collapse of the Green vote, even though it had been widely assumed that this would be the case. Apart from the defeat of incumbent Green candidate Paul Manly in Nanaimo-Ladysmith by the NDP, it was unclear in the immediate aftermath of the election whether NDP candidates in any other specific ridings could be seen to have benefited directly from the Green demise. Star candidate Avi Lewis, for example, finished a disappointing third in another BC riding, which was easily held by Liberal incumbent Patrick Weiler while the Green candidate finished in fourth place with 6.5% of the vote.
Another series of surprising developments, this time in the province of Quebec, added to the sense of electoral volatility. First, while the NDP and the Conservatives had not been expected to make gains in that province, the Liberals had good reason to believe at the start of the campaign that they would make significant inroads in flipping Bloc-held seats, quite possibly in sufficient number to achieve a majority. In addition to solid advance work by the party at the riding level in targeted Bloc seats, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau had assiduously courted the highly popular Quebec premier, Francois Legault, with offers of various program funds and careful avoidance of criticism on a controversial piece of provincial language legislation, Bill 96. Given the apparently good relations between the two men as a resuIt, it was widely assumed that Legault would, at a minimum, remain neutral during the federal campaign rather than support the Bloc.
Yet, in another highly surprising move, the premier promptly launched a scornful attack on both the Liberals and the NDP on the eve of the English-language leaders’ debate. Denouncing them as “centralist” and “dangerous” he implicitly urged Quebecers to vote for the “decentralist” Conservatives, not the Bloc. (This attack, moreover, succeeded in overshadowing media coverage of the positive performance Trudeau had delivered in the French-language debate the night before, which many observers felt he had won.)
Since the Conservative platform placed the party on the wrong side of public opinion in Quebec with respect to top priorities such as gun control, climate change and childcare, the premier’s unexpected move astonished many observers and infuriated the Liberals. In the end the impact of Legault’s meddling was to annoy many voters in the province sufficiently to prompt a backlash against the Conservatives, as pollsters began to observe support moving instead to the previously flagging Bloc campaign.
A second unanticipated and exceptional development in the Quebec campaign was the outsized influence of the English language leaders’ debate. For years pundits have downplayed the importance of these debates, which in truth rarely result in one leader scoring a knockout punch and most often produce an uninspiring draw. On this occasion, however, it was not the participating leaders but the debate moderator, Sachi Kurl, who delivered what would prove to be a serious blow, in this case to the fortunes of the Liberals in Quebec. With her unexpected question to Bloc leader Yves-Francois Blanchet about what she termed the discriminatory nature of Bills 21 and 96, Kurl managed to inject more new life into the Bloc campaign as furious Quebecers of all political stripes construed her approach as an attack on their character and that of Quebec’s political culture. The Liberals’ hopes of a pathway to a majority through Quebec – once highly realistic — were effectively dashed.
Apart from such a bizarre influence on the Quebec campaign, the English-language debate also distinguished itself as badly organized, particularly in comparison with the well-managed and productive French language debate. The chaotic and frustrating format, which essentially prevented participants from actually debating each other at all, featured the moderator herself intervening repeatedly to interrupt their responses. Despite this, two significant points managed to emerge which seriously impacted the Conservative campaign, namely their stated positions on gun control and the funding of childcare.
Although leader Erin O’Toole avoided responding to repeated questions on these two issues by Trudeau, Blanchet and Singh that night, he was ultimately obliged to change the party’s position on both planks in an attempt to salvage his campaign. In the case of gun control, this involved the extraordinary move of changing a printed platform plank with a hastily-drawn unconvincing amendment. In the case of child care, it involved a vague but equally unbelievable written commitment to premier Legault that Quebec would somehow receive at least part of the funding committed by the Liberals in the event of a Conservative victory, even if other provinces did not.
Another noteworthy moment in the debate involved O’Toole’s reference to a prominent and wholly erroneous allegation about the Liberals’ housing platform that was circulating on social media, an allegation he knew to be false. Several commentators and human rights experts were quick to denounce O’Toole’s comments, which they saw as perpetuating the negative role that social media have increasingly come to play in promoting conspiracy theories and spreading disinformation on a range of issues. Another observer described O’Toole’s ploy of presenting the falsehood indirectly (“some Canadians are worried about”) as a deliberate use of the duplicitous technique so frequently and effectively employed by former US president Donald Trump.[iv]
This of course was far from the only false claims to be made during the campaign on social media. As one Liberal organizer commented, it was simply not possible to pursue all of them for correction while trying to focus on the positive message, a problem which all parties agreed they were increasingly finding frustrating. In terms of fallout from the election, therefore, there is little doubt that the role of social media will be the focus of renewed interest by those considering amendments to electoral legislation, as will the structure and functioning of the election debates commission.
Of greater interest to a broader segment of the Canadian population will be the imminent fallout from the election results for the futures of NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole and Green Party leader Annamie Paul. Underlying those leadership concerns, however, will be far more serious deliberations about the very future, if any, of the Green Party. Equally important will be internal party deliberations about the future direction of the Conservative Party vis a vis the competing claims of the right via the PPC, and the centre via the old blue Tory wing of the party.
One leader whose immediate future is not in doubt is Justin Trudeau. Despite his admittedly polarizing persona there can be little doubt his personal popularity played a key role in the party’s recovery in the latter stages of the campaign. And despite wishful thinking on the part of some right-wing commentators in the immediate aftermath of the election, the Liberal leader has in fact emerged as the clear winner in this contest, a conclusion shared by prominent Canadian scholar Kathy Brock of Queen’s University. “I disagree with the analysis that this election result is status quo, and that it’s just confirmation,” Brock said. “The big winner in this election is Justin Trudeau, and that’s because this is an example of change that is changeless. It appears that nothing has changed, but everything has changed. The seats are the same but the dynamics are entirely different.”[v]
One dynamic that will undoubtedly change is the relationship between the federal and Quebec provincial governments. Premier Legault’s unexpected and risky intervention will have gained him nothing and may well lead to much stronger pushback from the Trudeau Liberals on a number of files. There also can be little doubt that the Liberals now have the momentum to implement an ambitious agenda. Not only are they likely to face less, not more, obstruction from the weakened opposition parties who have seen the public’s clear direction that parliament not be dysfunctional, but they have also been forced to accept that this minority government may well last for far more than the 18 months threatened by Erin O’Toole. Even Bloc leader Yves-Francois Blanchet recently admitted that he foresaw the possibility of the Liberal minority surviving for nearly the normal four-year term. If the Liberals are able to regroup and plan their agenda strategically, the country may well see a period of major new initiatives introduced in short order, similar to that of the Pearson minority era. If the Liberal platform is an accurate indication of their thinking, the status quo is not an option.