Elections in Canada: Same old, same old?

November, 2019
Louis Butt, Blog Correspondent

As Canadians made their way to the voting booths on October 21, polls around the country had the Liberals and the Conservatives neck and neck to lead with a minority government. The tension showed that the stark divisions in Western democracies have not evaded our Great White North, with topics like wealth disparity, climate policy, and immigration dominating parties’ policies. With our elections being much less combative, grandiose, and–let’s admit it–impactful than those of our American counterparts, it is difficult for the general public to notice these rifts. But if we have learned anything from the circus underneath our southern border in the past eight years, it is that they must not be overlooked.

As historian Robert Bothwell puts it, Canada is an “administrator’s nightmare.” With twenty percent of the population part of a culturally dissimilar French-speaking minority, a set of traditionally conservative provinces in the West, a border reaching up to the North Pole, and provinces sharing a significant proportion of power with the federal government, governing is no easy task. Yet, Canadians manage to do it rather unentertainingly.

The debates were attended by a quiet crowd and moderated by a rigid CBC host, the Bloc Quebecois (although the 3rd most popular party this election) was ever so present with its Quebec-centred rhetoric that is somewhat fallacious for the rest of Canada, and party leaders’ speeches dragged on for longer than anyone needed to listen. And we still ended up with a feeble Liberal minority government.

Canadians often express a gloomy sigh at the thought of a minority government. It means more opposition in the Commons and a higher chance of having another round of elections right around the corner. Progressives might have hoped for a coalition with the New Democrats (NDP), but that option was quickly dashed because it would ostracise the centrist voters the Liberals narrowly managed to keep this election (plus, coalitions rarely take place in the Canadian parliament). In the days following Justin Trudeau’s re-election, media outlets alluded to his father’s agile handling of a minority government in the early 70s. Having surrounded himself with skillful advisors to gather support from the regions he was alienated from, Pierre Trudeau later managed to regain a majority.

Trudeau Jr. has finer lines to tread than his father did, however, and that is both because of his successes and his let-downs. He cannot appease the West’s oil workers without outraging the (growing number of) climate policy supporters. He cannot flaunt his feminist inclusion as easily after the alienation of Jody Wilson-Raybould. A call for unification will not suffice to counter the 32 seats the Bloc won in Quebec, as French-Canadian separatism has been set aside from the Bloc’s main priorities for the time being. The quality of the balancing act Prime Minister Trudeau must perform will dictate his long-term political acumen.

The popular vote having gone to the Conservatives has hushed the calls for election reform. Either way, it was unlikely to happen because a party would not change the system that put it in power in the first place. People’s focus will now be on the Trans Mountain pipeline project, which Trudeau has been arguing will help boost the Alberta economy as well as fund future sustainable energy initiatives. Many countries have backed this approach of taking a step in the wrong direction to get to the right place, but nothing proves it will function. Luckily for the PM, the project is in line with conservative objectives, meaning he will unlikely have to fight in the House for its completion. Ironically, as divided as the election was, one of the key policy schemes concerning the current administration is one the opposition is likely to cooperate with.

But as millions move to the streets to manifest discontent with their ruling institutions in Chile, Lebanon, and Hong Kong, Canadians can find contentment in that their dissatisfaction amounts to business as usual.

Although less ferocious than our southern neighbour’s concert-like debate atmosphere, this election was an aggressive one by Canadian standards. The feeling of democracy waning amid the irregular tone of politics in traditionally liberal strongholds like the US and Britain, combined with the urgent need for climate action, make things feel like a constant state of panic emergency. But as millions move to the streets to manifest discontent with their ruling institutions in Chile, Lebanon, and Hong Kong, Canadians can find contentment in that their dissatisfaction amounts to business as usual.

The country is divided. Whether it is by ethnic or political lines, by economics, or by geography, it’s simply something we’ve all seen before.

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