Surprises, Absurdities, and Visions for the Future: Canada’s September 2021 Election
All too soon, Canadians are going back to the polls. On September 20, 2021, their vote will determine the Prime Minister and the composition of the Parliament. It feels like it was called just yesterday. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave Canadians only four weeks to deliberate on the future of our country; but, that is the nature of snap elections.
Even the governing Liberals were unprepared. Their platform was just released at the start of September. Conventional wisdom states, and Justin Trudeau seems to bet on, that the governing party faces little competition to winning a majority in Parliament during a snap election. The course of this election flies in the face of that wisdom.
Recent polls show that the Liberals and the Conservatives are almost neck-and-neck, with the Conservatives leading. This is a precipitous drop for the Liberals, compared to when they called the election with a comfortable plurality, as Trudeau’s strategy to increase his presence in Parliament has backfired into a real challenge to his incumbency. On policy, campaigning parties have addressed issues that Canadians are concerned about, the most pressing being the COVID-19 pandemic and economic recovery, the housing crisis, and climate change. Policy’s substantive impact on Canada’s future makes it an important element of consideration. But what was even more interesting to observe during the election was the Liberals’ surprising decline in the polls—and the absurdity of Trudeau calling a snap election despite there being an act against it, only to face a Conservative leader more progressive in some areas than himself.
Officially, the snap election began on August 15, when Governor General Mary Simon approved Trudeau’s request for an election. Although the Governor General has the formal discretion to deny such a request, in practice, the ceremonial position acts essentially like a rubber stamp. True power would be distressing, with an appointee-for-life holding veto power over the democratically-elected Prime Minister. This time was different. Tens of thousands of Canadians petitioned, and NDP Party Leader Jagmeet Singh wrote a letter pleading with Simon to refuse Trudeau’s snap election request. It must have been overwhelming for Simon, considering that she was appointed Governor General only one day before receiving Singh’s letter. Her predecessor, Julie Payette, resigned following harassment reports. Ultimately, Simon accepted Trudeau’s request and called the snap election. That was probably a good thing, considering the onerous precedent it would have otherwise set—of the Crown interfering in partisan matters. In fact, the last time the Governor General denied a request to dissolve parliament, the 1926 King–Byng affair, the position itself was called into question.
Many observers have pointed out a law on the books mandating fixed-term elections: the 2007 amendment to the Canada Elections Act. (In typical government fashion, the amendment’s title is quite a bureaucratic mouthful: An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act.) The amendment adds a section fixing elections to a date four years following the previous one. After all, the power to determine election dates carries the potential for abuse. As then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated, “fixed election dates prevent governments from calling snap elections for short-term political advantage” (soon after the amendment passed, Harper dissolved Parliament, triggering the 2008 snap election). Unfortunately, the amendment itself is ineffective, since constitutionally, the power to dissolve parliament rests with the Governor General—and the Prime Minister, by proxy—mere legislation cannot change that.
Unlike previous prime ministers, who called snap elections based on “parliamentary dysfunction,” Trudeau at least tried to justify his motives on more noble goals. According to him, our method of recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and recession needs to be chosen by the Canadian people, refreshing the government’s democratic mandate. As he put it, “Canadians need to choose how to finish the fight against COVID-19.” But there are other considerations motivating his snap election call. The NDP-Conservative tag-team has been using parliamentary powers of inquiry to scrutinize Trudeau’s minority government. Recall that the WE Charity scandal, and subsequent parliamentary hearings, happened during the minority government. While the NDP and Conservatives were cooperative during the pandemic, they are returning to their old tactics, with Trudeau resorting to suing the House Speaker to prevent documents related to the firing of two scientists from being released to Parliament. Even without such bothers, Trudeau has an incentive to capture his rally-around-the-flag boost in popularity while it lasts.
Snap elections typically favour the incumbent. Some commentators early into the election were going so far as to suggest that the outcome of this election was predetermined; Canadians prefer the stability of majority governments over the infighting of minority governments, the incumbent would be expected to call the snap election at a convenient time, and because it is unexpected, opposition parties have less time and ability to present themselves.
The past few weeks have been a major upset to these complacent expectations. When Trudeau called the election, CBC’s poll tracker average placed Liberals’ support at 35% and Conservatives’ support at 29%. Around two weeks later, Conservatives caught up at 33.8%, beating the Liberals’ 31.2%. Now, the Liberals and Conservatives are neck-and-neck. The NDP, Greens, and PPC polling averages have remained stable. Unfortunately for the Conservatives, simply winning the popular vote is not enough. Considering projected seat counts, the Liberal Party is still ahead by a small margin. The Liberals are projected to win 140 out of the 338 seats in Parliament, which is more than the Conservatives’ 133. The same thing happened in the last election, when Trudeau lost the popular vote but won on seat count, due to the first-past-the-post system—a system he ironically campaigned to replace with proportional representation in the 2015 election.
All opposition parties have accused Trudeau of being irresponsible for holding an election in the middle of the pandemic, which landed saliently with Canadian voters. Another bigger factor, however, is the unexpected success of Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole. The fresh face managed to jump into action, holding virtual town halls and aggressively campaigning to make up for his lack of name recognition. O’Toole is also far more progressive than his predecessors, potentially courting away dissatisfied liberal voters. He is the first Conservative leader to support abortion rights. He’s proposed his own carbon tax, which is more interventionist in the economy and personal lives of Canadians than Trudeau’s. His carbon tax proposal also stands in stark contrast to his predecessor, Andrew Scheer’s unsuccessful nearly single-issue campaign against the carbon tax last election.
More surprising were O’Toole’s statements on protecting animal welfare by banning puppy mills and cosmetic testing on animals. You would not expect O’Toole to be more of an animal-lover than Trudeau, given their affiliations. If you were worried that the liberals have kidnapped the real O’Toole and put one of them in his place, don’t fret. He still pays homage to his base when it comes to social issues, such as his statement that it is possible to integrate both reconciliation and patriotism, and his denouncement of the “woke crowd.”
Turning to more substantive issues, economic reopening takes the most air time. According to O’Toole, Canada is “on the road to recession” if Trudeau continues governing. Erin O’Toole assured that he will balance the budget—though “without cuts.” The housing crisis is also a hot button issue; as every party has proposed measures to combat the increasing unaffordability of houses. On this issue, O’Toole vowed to ban foreign investors from buying homes if they do not live within Canada, and to repurpose federal office buildings. Similarly, Jagmeet Singh plans to build public housing on federal land. But O’Toole promised a deferral on real estate capital gains to incentivize the construction of housing, meanwhile, Sigh advocates hiking capital gains to punish speculation and house-flipping. True to style, Trudeau took the middle road and promised an anti-flipping tax on houses held for less than twelve months.
Healthcare policy is yet another highly debated issue. O’Toole asserts that offering private options to public healthcare would synergize and invigorate the healthcare system. Trudeau insists that mental healthcare should be funded and recognized as comparable to physical health issues. Singh goes further, arguing that in addition to mental health care, dental and pharmacy costs should also be universally covered. All party leaders offer alternative visions, but they notably agree on maintaining the underlying publicly-funded, universal healthcare system.
As in every election, there have been scandals involving individual MP candidates. A Liberal candidate campaigning in Vancouver has flipped 41 homes since 2005—a particularly bad look considering the housing crisis in which Vancouver is one of the epicentres. The Conservatives are not free from such issues. One Conservative candidate ran a YouTube channel featuring one video fearing a Liberal “climate lockdown” and another displaying an image of Trudeau being hanged. That incendiary rhetoric is only worse in light of the disruptive protests that accompany Trudeau along the campaign trail. For his part, O’Toole made sure the videos were deleted and denounced the aggressive protesters, maintaining that harassment and intimidation do not belong in a healthy democracy.
Of course, discussion about any election cannot ignore the minor parties. For the NDP, Singh has revolved his campaign around portraying Liberals as both unenthusiastic and underdelivering on their promises. The Bloc Quebecois has recovered from their four-year power struggle and united under Yves-François Blanchet. They pose a threat to a Liberal majority as Quebec is considered a Liberal stronghold, so a Bloc strong performance could take seats away from incumbent Liberal MPs. In contrast to the Bloc’s unity, the Green Party was caught unprepared in an acrimonious power struggle of their own. When the snap election was called, the Greens were in the midst of a protracted legal battle after the governing body voted to oust their leader, Annamie Paul. Given how they were animated by Elizabeth May’s spirit, this conflict might spell the end of the Green Party.
This election has been anything but uneventful and predetermined; instead, it has been one of contradictions. A snap election has been called, despite a law on the books fixing election dates. The Conservative leader, Erin O’Toole, is an animal-lover with his own carbon tax. And Justin Trudeau’s ace card of relative charisma has faded as his “sunny days” seem to be behind him. Along with the normal civic motivation, one thing is for certain: there is even more reason to vote in this election. Although all parties agree on some issues, such as the carbon tax and universal healthcare, the result of this election will determine the course of our nation—and the future of its individual parties.
Conventional wisdom states, and Justin Trudeau seems to bet on, that the governing party faces little competition to winning a majority in Parliament during a snap election. The course of this election flies in the face of that wisdom.