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Canada election 2021: Trudeau's third term

Canada election 2021: Trudeau's third term

The result of the early elections in Canada. Internal and international challenges and the major issues still open for the next mandate: climate, post-Covid-19 recovery, reconciliation, foreign policy.

by Laura Borzi,
Analyst at the Centro Studi Italia-Canada,
Arctic and canadian foreign policy expert.

In mid-August, in the same week that Kabul returned into Taliban hands and put Afghanistan back at the center of world attention, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced early elections for September 20 in Canada. The new Governor General, Inuit Mary Simons, dissolved the 44th Parliament and began a short 36-day campaign, the minimum period allowed by the Canada Election Act.

New elections in Canada: in search of a majority

The challenge of the leader of the liberal party was the search for a majority. The voters had denied it in 2019 and now it seemed justified by the search for a strong mandate, capable of leading the country out of the pandemic to take the path towards economic recovery.

But the challenge has been lost. If Trudeau was in any case confirmed at the helm of the country, it is clear that the political landscape that emerges at the end of 2021 is essentially not dissimilar to what had emerged in the previous election: a minority government.

As with the previous government, opposition parties will have to rely on, probably the New Democratic Party (NDP), the most progressive formation, to push through legislation, budget and management of the epidemic.

What changes?

Something is changing.

Trudeau has eroded, if not political capital, at least the good faith and support accumulated in the course of managing the pandemic. There are many crises to be faced back to work:

  • the impact of climate change
  • high housing costs
  • the abuse of opiates
  • deficit management
  • government debt.

The 2019 election response showed a widespread lack of long-term vision, sometimes a gap between the priorities of the electorate and the debates between the contending political forces and, finally, some convergence on irrefutable issues, such as climate change and post-pandemic economic scenario.

In particular, there is the realization that the deficit, which hit the record of 314.00 Canadian dollars in fiscal year 2020/21, will begin to shrink to 24.6 billion dollars only in 2025-26 (0.8 of GDP).

At the time of the dissolution of Parliament, the approval for the Trudeau government was high, also as a result of sensible management of the pandemic and comforting economic data. In fact, after a very uncertain start, Canada found itself among the leading countries in the administration of the vaccine, with 70.5% of the population over 12 years fully covered.

The economy remains strong

In terms of the economy, the forecasts of the International Monetary Fund indicate growth of 6.3%, above the average for rich countries (attested at 5.6%). For 2022, the economy will remain strong as containment measures are relaxed and immunity to the virus is achieved. The recovery of the Canadian economy reflects the outcome of monetary and fiscal stimulus policies, as well as significant growth in the US (5.9%).

This also justifies the misunderstanding and irritation, which emerged throughout the election campaign, of having to return to the polls while a fourth wave of pandemic was underway. Meanwhile, the Delta variant forced some areas such as Alberta to a state of emergency, where Premier Kenney apologized for the management of the pandemic, after recklessly easing the containment measures of the contagion and decreeing the opening for the summer in July.

This emotional state of the country also emerged during the two electoral debates which were held in French and English and which saw the confrontation between the leaders of the competing political parties. The Premier inevitably appeared on the defensive, repeatedly accused of political opportunism. The same majority of Canadians, a people notoriously intolerant of politicians who do not interpret the common sentiment of the voters, did not understand the ratio for an early electoral round.

The electoral geography of 2021

The moments of protest, even violent, which are uniting many Western countries on issues such as climate change, social issues, justice, and, lastly, the vaccine, have also occurred in Canada, a society less accustomed to expressions of discontent in an extreme form, which is may be indicative of deeper divisions in the country.

Trudeau's reconfirmation owes much to the health crisis and the political situation resulting from the pandemic and reflects, in some respects, a trend observed worldwide: voters turn to establishment parties in response to uncertainty.

Moreover, even the Canadian elections at the provincial level, which were held from September 2020 to March 2021, have returned solid majority governments (New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, Newfoundland, Labrador). Only in the case of Nova Scotia, which voted in late August, was the outgoing Liberal government defeated.

The electoral geography of 2021 left unchanged the evident, often harsh divisions between the two main liberal and conservative parties, but also between east and west, between cities and rural areas.

In Vancouver the votes are mostly liberal and NDP, Montreal remains a liberal fortress, like Toronto and surrounding communities, while rural areas and the central part of the country are anchored to the conservative vote.

The verdict of the elections

The composition of the 450 Parliament does not differ, if not by a few units, from that of the previous one.

Of the 338 seats assigned with the first past the post method, for which the majority is 170

  • Premier Trudeau's liberals get 159 (two more seats than in 2019)
  • the Conservatives, with the new leader Erin O’Toole, 119 (lose two seats)
  • the third party, Bloc Québécois, with leader Yves François Blanchet, a formation formed in the early 90s to defend Quebec's interests, increases by one seat (from 32 to 33)
  • earns a seat and reaches 25 the NDP of popular leader Jagmeet Singh, at the head of the left wing formation born of a movement of workers and farmers in the late 1980s
  • the Green party, also with a new leader (Annamie Paul), get 2 seats, one less than in 2019.

In general, no winners have emerged, but rather, as a consequence of the planetary pandemic shock, it is noted that the convergence on certain issues, such as climate change, the economy, and relations with indigenous peoples are beginning to be not only electoral moves to gain sections of the electorate but awareness and points of no return.

Therefore, no formation is able to obtain the result it had set itself.

The strategy of the Conservatives and the new leader Erin O’Toole

The mood and preferences of Canadians changed over the five weeks leading up to the vote: the election during the pandemic saw the Liberals lead in the polls, then the preferences went to the Conservatives who ended up losing ground again.

On the one hand, O'Toole tried to transform the electoral consultation into a referendum on Trudeau, on the other hand he managed to “reinvent itself in progress” and move the party towards the center of the political arc showing itself more sensible.

The change of strategy aimed to win over a more moderate electorate such as that of cities, the electorate that had eluded his predecessor (Andrew Sheer) and focused on issues closer to the working class and more aware of the challenges of climate change, including the possibility of not abolish, in case of victory, the carbon tax of the liberals.

These moves probably shifted some of the electorate towards Maxime Bernier's People's Party of Canada (PPC) populists, who rode the "anti-vaccine protest." Even if they have not obtained any seat in the House of Commons, they still contribute to the dispersion of the vote and are the signal of a profound malaise in a part of the population.

Erin O'Toole, elected a year ago to replace Sheer who had failed to beat the Liberals in 2019, has repeatedly stressed that the Conservative Party must not look to the past, except to refer to the Mulroney model (Prime Minister from 1984 to 1993), arousing, for this reason, discontent in his own party which, now, must consider how to rework the next electoral campaign in terms of leadership.

Trudeau's strategy

On the liberal side, Trudeau has put hope in waiting to be rewarded for managing the pandemic.

In Vancouver, in a clumsy communication on the subject of the mandatory vaccine, he presented the prospect of the return to power of the Conservatives as a regression with respect to the policies of his work of the last six years in terms of gender equality, approach to climate change, policies towards childhood and poverty reduction, nation-to-nation equal dialogue with indigenous peoples.

According to Trudeau, there was no shortage of references to the era of conservative Stephen Harper (2006-2015), especially on climate issues.

The topics of the 2021 Canadian election campaign

During the two televised electoral debates in English and French, the major issues brought to the attention of voters were the classic ones: leadership capacity and credibility, climate change, reconciliation (with indigenous peoples), purchasing power, the economic problems, the recovery from Covid-19.

Climate: the energy transition and heat waves in Canada

On the climate, first of all, the debate was very different from that of 2019, certainly not only because of the turn of the Conservatives on the advantages for consumers of carbon emissions taxes..

In the background remains, the latest United Nations climate report published in August, which highlights how rulers and governed have about two decades to de-carbonize the global economy, except to witness the rise in temperatures of 2°C, with the catastrophic consequences of climatic stress such as to make some areas of the planet unlivable for man, including cities.

This code red for humanity made every party pay attention to climate change.

Canada has already experienced the dramatic consequences of extreme weather episodes. In July 2021, the sensational fires in British Columbia, an area with an oceanic climate, fell victim to a “heat dome”. Temperatures reached 49 ° C resulting in the destruction of forests, cities and hundreds of deaths among the most fragile population.

It is impossible not to pay attention to the reduction of greenhouse gases: in the previous electoral round about two thirds of the Canadian vote went to parties inclined to some formula of carbon pricing. Hence the promises of the parties on the subject:

  • The Liberals have proposed cutting emissions by 40-45% below 2005 levels for 2030
  • Conservatives have aimed lower (30% for 2030 as per the Paris agreement)
  • NDP and Green Party indicated 50% and 60% respectively for the same date

There was a heated discussion on how to deal with the energy transition of an energy giant like Canada, the fifth largest oil producing country in the world.

Economy: support in terms of anti-crisis

On the subject of the economy, none of the contenders could have contested the multiple measures that have supported businesses and households to mitigate the economic effects of the pandemic such as subsidies to wages and individuals. However, the approaches have been very different, such as with regard to the very high income brackets of the population (see the electoral platform of the NDP).

The economic subject was fundamental in terms of the anti-recession induced by the pandemic.

If it is true that the substantial deficit has always represented the Canadian mindset (a serious fear, net of any political variety and sensitivity), the attitude has inevitably changed with the pandemic, and government programs to support all categories of citizens in difficulty have received widespread support.

The Conservatives themselves, in their election manifesto Secure the Future: Canada's Recovery Plan, have proposed an increase in spending, albeit with a view to tackling the deficit over the course of a decade. After all, the recovery from Covid-19 is a delicate and central issue. There is a need to partially slow down the expensive programs to support the economy but it is equally necessary to call for caution, in the perspective of new closures if cases should increase, with the uncertainty due to the non-uniform application of the vaccine passport to provincial level for the most vulnerable sectors.

The programs will therefore have to be extended and will need further support as the recovery picks up faster.

Indigenous peoples

A third issue to put under the lens for observers was that of the situation of indigenous peoples.

Here, too, the Liberals have come under attack for the promises of Trudeau, who did not reach the goal of total access to drinking water for the First Nations, whose deadline was to be March 2021.

However, the Liberals have had the North of the country among their priorities since the beginning of the first mandate (2015) and have the merit of having developed an innovative Arctic Strategy (2019), written together with the indigenous peoples and to which the current Governor-General Mary Simons, appointed special representative of the former Minister for Northern Affairs and Indigenous Peoples, Carolyn Bennet, participated in the preparatory phase.

Results were also achieved through legislation aimed at protecting the local language, child health care reform and investment in infrastructure.

Reconciliation with Indigenous peoples remains, despite the progress, not an easy path to follow.

The months preceding the elections revived the very serious wound that represents a past of cultural genocide throughout the country: the discovery of the remains of about a hundred native children near preschools (Residential schools) first in British Columbia and, subsequently, in Saskatchewan, it provoked a wave of reproach in the national public opinion that moved, together with the weight and political embarrassment of having to "remedy" the horrors committed, in the televised debates.

However, the brief election campaign did not place indigenous affairs in a dominant position.

The international scenario and Canadian foreign policy

Finally, almost as a paradox, it is imperative to mention a theme traditionally and dangerously absent in the Canadian elections: the world panorama.

Indeed, foreign policy is rarely the subject of electoral debate, but, this time, it quickly entered the scene - and just as quickly came out - through the Afghanistan dossier, a country in which Ottawa's combat role had already ceased to July 2011 and military training in March 2014.

The various parties have expressed themselves in favor of welcoming refugees with a variety of numerical formulas (40,000 liberals, 20,000 conservatives), but this modality replicates what had already happened during the 2015 electoral campaign, in conjunction with the crisis in Syria: reaction and reception of refugees.

The impression is that Ottawa continues to be merely reactive in a world scenario that continues to get complicated.

Relations with Beijing, for example, are in a critical state, with a negative view of China on the part of Canadians which, like in the rest of the liberal democracies, has reached high levels.

The recent release of two citizens detained by Beijing since 2018, Michael Kovrig and Michale Spavor, released shortly after the US reached an agreement to release Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of the Chinese communications giant Huawei, held in Canada, shows the impossibility of conceiving any national security issue without the indispensable ally, Washington..

Ottawa appeared, in this case, to be the victim of the China-US confrontation, a competition that is intensifying.

The recent trilateral security pact concluded by Australia, the United Kingdom and the USA (ANKUS), after the cancellation by Canberra of the order for submarines in Paris, fits into this scenario. The agreement includes cooperation between the three countries also in terms of cybersecurity and artificial intelligence, the latter emphasized in 2017 as an essential element of the capabilities of the Canadian FFAA.

Canada is also a member of the Five Eyes (FVEY), an information sharing surveillance pact to which the three of AUKUS are members, along with Canada and New Zealand.

Canada, as stated by Prime Minister Trudeau, during the last days of the electoral campaign, is not interested in the nuclear submarine market, but it is clear that this new alliance in the function of anti-Chinese containment leaves its neighbor and US ally on the sidelines, at least for the part where FVEY and AUKUS “overlap”.

Climate change, large-scale movements of people around the globe, coupled with the decline of democracy in many states should be enough to move foreign policy from an inappropriate and outdated secondary role in the Canadian election campaign.

In this sense, a majority government would have been preferable also for Washington, also due to the possibility of drawing up foreign policy agreements capable of producing multilateral commitments and capable of achieving concrete results.

Conservative leader O'Toole, an air force veteran, stressed the need to reinvigorate the relationship with Washington, citing, for example, the modernization of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and the response to Russia and China's aggressive attitudes in the Arctic as a priority.

The Liberal Party, albeit with an internationalist tradition, has recently failed to secure a seat on the Security Council - a sign of international commitment in a broad sense.

Along the longest undefended border in the world, without hiding some divergences in terms of economic relations (buy American policies) and with little consideration for the strong economic integration between the 2 countries, President Biden and Trudeau have, on paper, the possibility of a good understanding in the space of two terms almost coincident in time.

Despite the AUKUS deviation on the landscape of global challenges they are unlikely to be out of sync. The Canadian government's ability to engage on an international scale will be limited by the lack of a majority when Ottawa urgently needs to devise a vision and strategy capable of dealing with the tides of a stormy world.

Trudeau's third mandate between internal and international challenges will not be easy to manage.


[Cover: source]

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