Analysis: What the Canadian election means for each party leader

Justin Trudeau has his second straight minority government as questions swirl around the fate of Erin O'Toole, Jagmeet Singh, and Annamie Paul

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      The Conservatives needed the NDP to have a stronger leader and the Liberals needed their own party to have a stronger leader.

      Those are just two of the conclusions from the federal election, which resulted in minimal changes in the seat count from the 2019 election.

      Below, you can read my other observations.

      Liberal leader survives

      Prime Minister Justin Trudeau still has a commanding lead in the overall seat count, falling about a dozen victories short of winning his second majority government.

      On the upside for the Liberals, they can seek the support of either of the two largely left-of-centre parties in Parliament, the Bloc Québécois and the NDP, to remain in power. Neither the Bloc nor the NDP will want another election soon after already tapping their donors for as much money as they were willing to give. So Trudeau is in the clear—for now.

      The downside for the Liberals is that they will continue to have a minority on parliamentary committees. This leaves Trudeau vulnerable to ethics investigations, damning televised hearings (like the one that did in former finance minister Bill Morneau), and blistering reports whenever the opposition parties decide collectively that they want to embarrass the prime minister.

      For Trudeau, this election was a draw. He won enough support to beat back any challenge to his leadership. There’s zero chance in the next couple of years that former central banker Mark Carney, deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland, former industry minister Navdeep Bains, former environment and climate change minister Catherine McKenna or anyone else will mount a serious challenge for his job.

      But Liberals know that they may never win another majority with Trudeau at the helm. That’s because he’s demonstrated in two consecutive elections that he can’t keep the Bloc below 30 seats.

      Trudeau needs to mostly run the table in Quebec to win another majority—an impossible dream as long as Yves-François Blanchet remains at the head of the 30-year-old sovereignist party.

      Moreover, Trudeau’s support for three oil pipeline projects and a large liquefied natural gas plant in B.C. offers an opening for the Bloc to paint him as a climate quisling.

      As a result, Trudeau is looking more like former Liberal prime minister Lester Pearson, who won two consecutive strong minority governments in 1963 and 1965, than his father, Pierre Trudeau, who won three majorities in five elections.

      It’s far less fun heading a minority government than a majority, which might hasten Trudeau’s decision to leave federal politics should he fall short of a majority in his next campaign.

      Erin O'Toole tried to portray himself as a compassionate Conservative, but it wasn't enough for him to increase the Conservative seat count over the 2019 election.
      Erin O'Toole

      Conservatives woo Blue Liberals

      The right wingers in the Conservative caucus were taken aback by leader Erin O’Toole’s move to the centre in the recent campaign. After all, he portrayed himself as “True Blue” in securing the leadership in 2020 over another centre-right opponent, former cabinet minister Peter MacKay.

      While the results on September 20 weren’t what O’Toole desired, he may have succeeded in his gambit to modernize a party that has traditionally been the home of social conservatives and climate-change-denying libertarians.

      In his first campaign, O’Toole helped rebrand the Conservatives as a more climate-friendly party that doesn’t despise the LGBT community.

      Admittedly, there was some sleight-of-hand: O’Toole still tolerated caucus members who support LGBT conversion therapy and he endorsed the Northern Gateway pipeline project.

      Yet several social conservatives in his caucus appeared to go down to defeat, including Kenny Chiu, Tamara Jansen, Alice Wong, and Nelly Shin in the Lower Mainland. Perhaps the party will nominate pro-choice candidates in their ridings in the future.

      By declaring unequivocally that he’s pro-choice, O’Toole showed that he was serious about winning over the so-called Blue Liberals—fiscally conservative yet socially liberal voters who flip between Canada’s two major parties. He has room to grow the Conservatives’ support in a future election with younger right-of-centre voters if he isn’t ousted in a party coup.

      O’Toole’s caucus still has a significant share of social conservatives, including former leadership rival Leslyn Lewis, who was elected in the Ontario riding of Haldimand-Norfolk. So it’s still not a slam dunk that he’ll be leading his party into the next election—especially if former prime minister Stephen Harper’s cronies decide that they want to toss him aside.

      In this campaign, O’Toole’s efforts to project himself as a mainstream politician were undermined by his refusal to demand that all of his candidates get vaccinated against COVID-19. This, and O’Toole’s opposition to vaccine passports for air and train travel, helped Trudeau portray the Conservative leader as being weak in beating back the pandemic.

      The failure of right-of-centre provincial governments to contain the fourth wave also doomed O’Toole’s prospects. As a result, Canadians weren’t prepared to trust the Conservatives on such an important public-health measure.

      But that doesn’t mean that O’Toole didn’t make inroads in making his party more palatable to Blue Liberals and suburban voters in a future national election.

      The Conservatives would be wise to give him another chance rather than throw him under the bus, triggering yet another civil war in their party. He’s articulate, presentable, and cool under pressure.

      Will New Democrats allow Jagmeet Singh to lead them into a third federal election?

      NDP stalls under Singh

      The biggest loser on election night, apart from Green Leader Annamie Paul, just might have been the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh.

      A few days prior to the election, CTV reporter Annie Bergeron-Oliver asked him why he wasn’t able to “move the needle” in growing his party’s popular support during the campaign.

      Singh swatted away the question, but this reality remains: he gained only one seat across the country from the 2019 election, when the party’s seat count fell by 45 percent.

      The NDP has fewer than one-quarter of the seats that it held at its high-water mark under former leader Jack Layton in 2011. Plus, the NDP has failed to put a serious dent in the Liberal fortresses of Toronto and the Metro Vancouver suburbs under Singh’s leadership.

      His party can’t even win seats where Sikh voters form a substantial segment of the electorate, such as Brampton, Surrey, and South Vancouver.

      Granted, it was a tough slog for any third-party leader in a close election, when voters tend to cast ballots for the front-running party that they hate the least.

      Trudeau’s Liberals also benefited from the exceedingly weak Green Party of Canada. Trudeau won over many of its traditional supporters with a climate plan endorsed by former B.C. Green leader and climate scientist Andrew Weaver.

      But Singh’s decision to run a campaign rooted in taxing the ultra-rich rather than placing a sharper focus on the climate crisis undermined the chances of NDP candidates in reasonably wealthy ridings.

      Singh was simply not very interested in discussing the nuances of climate policy, including the flaws in the Liberal plan.

      By not seriously challenging the Liberals’ support for carbon capture and storage head-on and by refusing to condemn the Trans Mountain pipeline-expansion project or the LNG plant in Kitimat, Singh became very vulnerable on one of the most compelling issues for progressive voters.

      Singh didn’t help himself by continuing in the federal NDP tradition of not making deals with the federal Greens to enable its candidates to run unopposed in winnable ridings.

      All of this came together to sabotage the chances of four NDP candidates who would have put the climate crisis in the spotlight in Parliament: Jim Hanson (Burnaby North–Seymour), Anjali Appadurai (Vancouver Granville), Avi Lewis (West Vancouver–Sunshine Coast–Sea to Sky Country), and Laura Dupont (Coquitlam–Port Coquitlam). It's conceivable that Appadurai could triumph after all the votes are counted, but she's not leading in her riding this morning.

      To be fair to Singh, the B.C. NDP government didn’t help him much. Premier John Horgan’s support for fossil-fuel projects and the fracking of natural gas immediately put the federal NDP leader on the defensive. And Trudeau exploited this to the hilt.

      Pre-campaign photos of Justin Trudeau eating lunch with NDP premier John Horgan certainly didn't help federal New Democrats in this election.
      Justin Trudeau

      Horgan also posed for chummy pre-campaign photos with Trudeau after the Liberal government coughed up cash for childcare.

      However, Singh’s overall weakness on climate policy still undermined the party’s prospects in Quebec, where greenhouse-gas emissions are near the top of the priority list in federal elections. The Bloc’s Blanchet is a former environment minister who’s very conversant on this issue.

      Singh didn’t even bother bringing out one of his party’s credible climate hawks, such as Lewis, to counter the assault from the Bloc and the Liberals on the NDP climate policies.

      As a result, I expect that Singh will face a challenge to his leadership, just as former leader Tom Mulcair did after losing the 2015 election.

      Mulcair was tossed aside for being too fiscally conservative whereas Singh is vulnerable for not going beyond sloganeering on the climate crisis.

      However, because the NDP is one of the parties holding the balance of power in a minority Parliament, Singh may be able to beat back an internal challenge if he can obtain some major legislative concessions from the Liberals.

      Mulcair never had that opportunity because his defeat coincided with a Liberal majority being elected.

      People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier inspired tremendous devotion from his followers.

      People’s Party idiocy

      What can you say about a party that sent out a flyer to voters in Vancouver Quadra urging the immediate arrest of provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry? A party with a riding president who allegedly picked up gravel and threw it at the prime minister? A party whose leader, Maxime Bernier, refuses to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and holds what appears to be a super-spreader event on election night?

      Former publishing baron Conrad Black might think that Bernier’s climate-change-denying platform offered the best program to Canadians, but hardly anyone else agrees with him.

      The People’s Party of Canada is the modern incarnation of the Know Nothings, an anti-immigrant and xenophobic 19th-century U.S. party intent on defending the country against Catholics.

      “I know nothing,” is how its party members replied when asked about its policies.

      The same could be said by some PPC members when asked about the risks of airborne COVID-19.

      The Know Nothing movement petered out within a few years before the U.S. Civil War.

      For the sake of those who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 due to compromised immunity, let’s hope that its modern equivalent meets a similar fate once Bernier fades into obscurity.

      Annamie Paul is the first Black Canadian and first Jewish woman to lead a federal party with MPs in the House of Commons.

      Perish the Greens

      To nobody’s surprise, former Green leader Elizabeth May retained her seat in Saanich–Gulf Islands. But her party was slaughtered virtually everywhere else, not even mustering a third-place finish in Victoria.

      In 2019, the Greens came second in Victoria with more than 21,000 votes. This time, the Green candidate, Nick Loughton, had only 6,602 votes by the end of the night on September 20.

      It’s conceivable that this might be May’s last election after four consecutive victories in her riding. Leader Annamie Paul conceded before the election that she’s considered stepping down. She’s probably finished as a federal politician.

      This offers a clear path for federal New Democrats to rebrand themselves as a party of climate action and win over some who supported the Greens when May was the leader. But that will require a serious, fully costed climate plan and a willingness to expose the Liberal and Conservative (and B.C. NDP) charade of carbon capture and storage as a solution to the crisis.

      In addition, the New Democrats may have to say goodbye to some blue-collar voters in order to win over the growing number of climate-conscious young urban and suburban residents.

      It’s safe to say that the Greens are in serious trouble. Whether Paul stays or goes, the party will have difficulty raising money in the future, given the dismal results in the 2019 and 2021 elections.

      The Greens are probably better off in the long run focusing on electing politicians to municipal councils and provincial legislatures. Real change comes from the bottom up.

      Going in this direction would be good news for the Trudeau Liberals, but only if the New Democrats continue letting them off the hook on the climate, the most compelling issue of the 21st century.

      That’s because without a livable climate, we won’t have much of an economy, let alone communities not at risk of wildfires, sea-level rise, and deadly heat waves.