Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a snap election on August 15th. Canadian voters go to the polls September 20th to decide whether to re-elect the incumbent Liberal government. A snap election is not surprising. Trudeau’s Liberals lead a Minority Government elected in 2019. This means the Liberals are the largest party but do not have enough seats to hold a majority on their own, and must recruit other parties to pass legislation.
Past Canadian Prime Ministers and Provincial Premiers call snap elections to transform their minorities into majority governments, but not always successfully. The idea of a 2021 Federal snap election entered Canadian political discussions because two Provincial Premiers in British Columbia and New Brunswick won majorities through snap elections in 2020. The Coronavirus pandemic initially boosted the polling numbers of almost every incumbent government on the planet, including those in charge of lower-level administrations. Both Premiers leveraged this desire for stability to expand their minority governments into majorities, before any potential failures convinced the electorate another party would better handle the ongoing crisis. Their success suggested the Federal Liberals should follow their example. The Government however preferred to wait until the Liberal’s had guaranteed goodwill from a successful mass vaccination rollout, which meant delaying the call for a snap election until this weekend.
Federal Canadian politics operates under a three-and-a-half party system. These parties are: the incumbent Liberals, the opposition Conservative Party, the smaller New Democratic Party, and the Bloc Québécois which only contests seats inside Quebec. Canadian elections are fought in first-past-the-post single-member constituencies. Usually this election law encourages consolidation into two rivalrous blocks, but not in Canadian Federal elections. Consolidation instead occurs at the constituency level. Most Canadian Parliamentary seats end up contested by two (three in Quebec) of the major parties, with the others receiving negligible numbers of votes.
Canadian parties are best understood as coalitions of different provincial demographic groups that unite to win specific seats but cannot compete everywhere. Trudeau’s Liberals presently are the only party with a path to a majority in the 338 seat Parliament. Despite only polling in the mid-30s, the Liberal vote is efficiently distributed. The party can win a majority of seats and waste few votes in the seats not needed for a majority. It is not yet clear if the Liberals will win a majority of seats or waste public goodwill on an election that returns another minority government.
If the Liberals are guaranteed to prevail, blame must first fall on the Canadian Conservative Party, the main opposition. This means the Conservatives have failed in their main role as an opposition, which is to challenge the government and force it to defend their policies and record in front of the electorate.
Contrary to common assumptions, the Conservative Party does not have an ideological disadvantage when compared to Canada’s other parties. Former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper governed Canada for nearly nine years and had a Conservative Party majority government before the 2015 election. Provincial Conservative-aligned parties tailor their policies to each province’s electorate and now control eight out of the ten Canadian Provinces after the Nova Scotia election on Tuesday August 17th – including the electoral giants of Quebec and Ontario.
The Federal Conservative’s problem is both demographic and geographic. Canada is an urban country. 17% of seats are inside the city boundaries of Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, or Montreal, and all but one seat is unwinnable for the Federal Conservatives. Quebec has another 18% of the seats with all but a handful in the Quebec City suburbs off limits to Conservative candidates. The Conservatives had an opportunity in 2019 to capitalize off the emergence of the brand-new Conservative-aligned CAQ provincial majority and expand the electoral map, but the party failed to make adjustments to accommodate the unique French-Canadian identity. The Conservatives allowed the Bloc Québécois to brand themselves as the CAQ’s federal liaison for French-Canadian exceptionalism, returning the Bloc to political relevance after two failed federal elections and the disappearance of Quebec separatism as a meaningful issue. The Conservative path to government is always narrow because of these unwinnable areas and the significant number of suburban and urban sprawl seats that tantalizingly remain just out of reach.
The modern Conservative Party of Canada began its life in the oil-producing plains of Alberta, and it never discarded this identity for something more appealing to the wider electorate. The coalition of farmers, miners, the religiously devout, and those that work in or adjacent to the oil industry is great for winning seats in Canada’s rural west. The Party won support from the Toronto suburbs to triumph under Harper, but today one or another faction of the Conservative base is intolerable to the identity of the suburban electorate. In 2019 the Conservative Party won the popular vote but lost the election by 30 seats, because they won safe seats in the west by more than 70%. This western base additionally revolts whenever their federal party attempts to expand the party’s coalition. The emergence of the Alberta Independence movement, partially in reaction to the ascent and policies proposed by the Conservative leader, Erin O’Toole, demonstrates prairie Conservatives opposition to compromise. The Conservatives are currently trapped with their base and cannot position themselves for victory. The party has the potential to improve their position during the campaign, but victory requires more than just Conservative success – the Liberal campaign must fail.
Enemies on all Sides
Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party are gambling on the Coronavirus pandemic. The Canadian government’s initial Coronavirus vaccination rollout began anemically, but now the Canadian population is among the most vaccinated in the world – 73% one shot, 64% fully vaccinated. Vaccination success boosts the incumbent administration, producing a consistent polling lead. The congregation of the small anti-Vaxxer minority around the opposition, despite dissociation from the Conservative Party, hurts them and helps the Liberals by association.
All Canadian parties have plans for a post-Coronavirus economic recovery, but the Liberal government is the only one with the power to begin enacting its plans and point to successes. The Canadian government pursued a policy of extreme deficit spending and debt accumulation to protect the economy from a pandemic recession. Now the government is working with the provinces to expand child care access so more families can reenter the job market. By contrast, the comparative failure of specific conservative-aligned provincial governments to handle the crisis, such as the Alberta United Conservatives, weakens the Federal Conservative’s position on post-Pandemic economic policy.
Their hope is that a new, fourth, Delta variant-driven Coronavirus wave will not threaten the Canadian population during the one-month campaign window. Holding an election during a pandemic with rising hospitalizations would devastate the government’s reputation. Voters never appreciate an unnecessary election, as can be seen by the immediate decrease in the Liberals polling lead after the announcement of a snap election.
The Coronavirus pandemic gives the Liberal Party a polling lead but secondary issues may deny the Liberals a majority. The Liberal Party’s quest for a majority requires framing their campaign against all other parties, not just the opposition Conservatives, and these other parties are vocal when it comes to prominent non-Coronavirus issues.
Canada’s relationship with First Nation (Indigenous or Native peoples of Canada) communities was thrust into the center of public discussion this summer after the discovery of mass graves of First Nation children in western Canada. These graves were an atrocious product of Canada’s residential schools – schools run by clergymen in the early 1900s to forcibly remove Indigenous children from their communities and integrate them into White society. Abuse, rape, malnourishment, disease, and suicide were all common occurrences. The discovery of these hidden graves revealed just how little Canada has done to acknowledge its maltreatment of the First Nations.
British Columbia is currently aflame with wildfires caused by record-breaking temperatures in the province’s interior. The smoke from the fires is visible as far away as Kansas in the U.S. and Winnipeg in Canada. Ash from the fires has turned the British Columbian sky orange. In voters’ minds these fires are a sign of the urgent need for preventative environmental policies to combat climate change.
The youth-oriented, labor-aligned, and reformist New Democratic Party (NDP) is polling higher than in 2019 because it dominates the discussion of both issues. The NDP are the preferred party for many First Nation groups and are the most proactive defenders of First Nation interests. Despite the existence of a Canadian Green Party that advocates for environmental concerns, the NDP is the loudest party pushing action to prevent climate change.
The NDP is a much smaller party than the Conservatives, winning only 24 seats in 2019 under leader Jagmeet Singh. The NDP does best in urban centers, university towns and cities, First Nation majority seats and in coastal British Columbia – the places where Conservative Party support is negligible at best. When in past elections polls suggested a close race, the NDP base proved fickle. If the race appears tight – as initially in 2015 – progressive voters will side with the Liberals to stop the Conservatives from gaining power. When the race is less competitive, the “anyone but Conservative” – ‘ABC’ – vote dissipates and the NDP percentage rises. If the NDP takes urban seats from the Liberals then the path to a majority narrows.
A Snapshot in Time
Justin Trudeau and the Canadian Liberal Party called this snap election to win a majority government. Anything less is a failure. The Liberals must hold or expand their polling lead in the crucial seats and not within their base areas. They must pick up seats from the opposition parties – mainly the Conservatives – and fend off challenges from the NDP, Bloc Québécois, and the collection of opportunistic minor parties.
There is the possibility of a dramatic change in fortunes over the month-long campaign. Multiple simmering crises threaten the incumbent government, and electorates have upended larger polling leads than the Liberals present advantage. A 5 to 8-point margin between the Liberals in the mid-30s and the Conservatives in the high 20s is not insurmountable. Stephan Harper started from behind in 2006 but won control of government for the new Conservative Party. The NDP’s best ever election result – second place in the 2011 election with 103 seats – started with the party polling a distant third. United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May famously called a snap election in 2017 to expand her Conservative majority, but ended up with a minority government and an opposition united against her Brexit policy.
The August 17th Nova Scotia election offers a example of what might happen if things do not go as Trudeau and the Federal Liberals plan. Provincial Premier Iain Rankin called a summer election to take advantage of the electorate’s desire for stability and transform his Liberal Minority Government into a Majority. The Liberals led in polls by over 25%. However a serious of blunders and electoral miscalculations allowed the well-messaged Progressive Conservative (The name for the Provincial Conservative Party, or PC for short) campaign to present themselves as a viable alternative. The PCs will now form a Majority Government, the first PC government in over twelve years.
The PCs are not the Federal Conservatives. The Nova Scotian party actively ran against their supposed Federal ally on numerous issues, including their key proposal of expanding rural Healthcare. The Federal Liberals will likely win a plurality of Nova Scotia voters in September. The takeaway is that polling leads are tenuous, and Trudeau’s Liberals could easily succumb to overconfidence just like their Nova Scotian counterparts.
This perilous gamble is less advantageous to Liberals than it appears. The snap election is a battle between the Liberals and all the other parties, and the incumbent Liberals will be held to a higher level of scrutiny. Many Canadians may vote for an opposition party they do not desire in government simply to prevent a majority. In this context a voter can mentally justify their vote as one solely against the Liberals rather than in favor of the Conservatives or NDP, something similar to what happened to Theresa May in the UK. If the party loses it’s image of competence then the Liberal campaign will founder and a majority will be impossible. If everything goes as Trudeau plans though, the Liberal Government will win reelection – likely with their coveted majority.
Ben Lefkowitz (@OryxMaps) is a Contributor to Decision Desk HQ.