In Canada, Trudeau Battles His Past as Elections Loom

7 MINS READSep 24, 2019 | 09:30 GMT
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses the media in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on Sept. 19, 2019, regarding photos and video that have surfaced in which he is wearing dark makeup.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses the media in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on Sept. 19, 2019, regarding photos and video that have surfaced in which he is wearing dark makeup. Trudeau will have to battle himself and Andrew Scheer's Conservatives if he is to win again.

(JOHN WOODS/Getty Images)
  • A bribery affair and a racism scandal have taken the shine off Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, but they might not have that detrimental an effect on the ruling Liberal Party in Oct. 21 elections, which will focus on the cost of living and the environment.
  • The main opposition Conservative Party has pulled slightly ahead of the Liberals in polling figures, but projections still suggest that Trudeau's party is likely to capture the most number of seats in Parliament.
  • The dead heat between the Liberals and Tories could pave the way for a minority government that is unlikely to last much more than two years.

It's an election in which health care, affordability and climate change are foremost on everyone's minds, but when Canadians go to the ballot box on Oct. 21, the polls might as well also be a referendum on the performance — and personality — of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a media darling at home and abroad. Trudeau won elections in 2015, marking the first time his Liberal Party had secured a majority since 2000. In February, however, he became embroiled in a scandal amid accusations that his office acted improperly in preventing the prosecution of Quebecois engineering giant SNC-Lavalin over allegations of bribery in Libya. And on Sept. 18, the prime minister received a bigger blow to his image when decades-old pictures surfaced showing him in blackface at a number of parties. For a leader who publicly prides himself on being inclusive, the revelations will undoubtedly hurt his image and potentially derail his chances of besting the opposition Conservative Party in a race that's currently too close to call. 

The Big Picture

While anti-establishment politicians have made serious inroads in much of the Western world, Canada largely bucked the trend in 2015, electing a young centrist who was the son of the country's most famous postwar prime minister. Yet Justin Trudeau will be hard-pressed to win as easily as he did four years ago amid personal scandal and a resurgent Conservative Party. And with most polls putting the Liberals and the Tories in a dead heat, Canada could be looking at a minority government come Oct. 21.

According to aggregated polling numbers updated by state broadcaster CBC on Sept. 23, the Tories have a whisker-thin lead over the Liberals at 34.4 to 33.6 percent, putting the country's two largest parties far ahead of the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Greens at 13.2 and 10 percent, respectively. But despite the deficit, the Liberals will take heart from such figures — if for no other reason than they are not further behind as a result of the SNC-Lavalin affair and the blackface scandal. Nevertheless, the math of Canada's electoral system still gives the Liberals the best chance of winning on Oct. 21 — meaning Trudeau's biggest enemy until election day might be himself.

If Trudeau Returns to Glory

With the NDP and the Greens not likely to be anything other than kingmakers, either the Liberals or the Tories will form Canada's next government. At present, the numbers favor the Liberals, since it is not voting percentages that determine a party's seat count in Canada's House of Commons, but rather the number of ridings (the name Canada uses for its electoral jurisdictions) that each party wins — and Trudeau's Liberals appear likely to capture more of those than their chief rivals. 

If the Liberals manage to put the scandals behind them and retain their majority in the 338-seat House of Commons, Canada would get more of the same. Trudeau's government has performed strongly on trade, signing a raft of deals, all while tiptoeing in his efforts to balance between the country's critical oil sector and strong environmental concerns. Indeed, Trudeau's Liberals have supported the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline, which will transport more Albertan oil to Vancouver on the West Coast for export, against robust opposition — particularly in the westernmost province of British Columbia, where the Liberals are battling each of the Tories, NDP and Greens for seats. But at the same time as the Liberals have fought to expand the pipeline (a major infrastructure project also backed by the Tories), Trudeau has also implemented a carbon tax system in an effort to battle climate change.

And though Canada’s relative remoteness means that it hasn’t taken as many refugees and immigrants as have some European countries, Canada under another Trudeau government would likely continue to pursue a relatively open immigration policy — a stance that could especially benefit the country's technology sector at a time when the United States is gradually restricting the number of H-1B visas it offers.

Given the dead heat between the Tories and the Liberals, however, Canada's next government could well be a Liberal minority, rather than a majority. Because formal coalitions are rare at the federal level in Canada, the Liberals would need to depend on the support of some opposition parties to pass critical legislation. For Trudeau, the only realistic partners in such an arrangement would be the NDP, which appears on course for major losses in its seat totals in spite of its efforts to siphon off progressive votes from the Liberals, and/or the ascendant Green Party. And since both the NDP and the Greens champion environmental issues, such a minority government would likely create a tougher atmosphere for Canadian energy producers. 

Scandals have so far failed to torpedo Trudeau's chances of reelection, although they might dent his hopes of securing another majority.

A Conservative Triumph?

While the electoral arithmetic currently favors the Liberals, a Tory majority or minority government is a distinct possibility. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer doesn't command the spotlight like Trudeau, but his promises to, among other things, repeal the government's carbon tax has struck a chord among some voters concerned about Canada's gasoline prices. If the Tories thus win a majority, energy companies and energy-rich provinces like Alberta will benefit from a much easier regulatory environment. In terms of foreign policy, Canada is likely to adopt a position on China that more closely mirrors that of the United States. So far, Ottawa has honored a U.S. request to detain the deputy chair of Huawei, Meng Wanzhou, on charges that the company violated U.S. sanctions on Iran, yet a Tory government would take a harder line on the firm and other Chinese tech companies in the domestic sector. And, in contrast to Trudeau, a Scheer administration would tighten regulations on immigration — although any new laws would still be far more liberal than those in force in Canada's southern neighbor.

If the Conservatives are to win, however, they're likely at best only to helm a minority government. Such an administration would have no natural allies to reach a majority, given that none of the NDP, Greens or the separatist Bloc Quebecois are likely to support a Tory administration. The only possible ideological fit would be the populist, anti-immigrant People's Party (itself headed by a former Tory foreign minister who quit the party over disagreements about Scheer's leadership), but the new movement will struggle to win any seats, let alone enough to give the Conservatives the balance of power. As a result, a minority Tory government would have to proceed on a case-by-case basis in an effort to pass critical legislation. Naturally, such administrations are unstable, but not necessarily untenable; indeed, the last Tory to hold the premiership, Stephen Harper, spent the first five of his 10 years in the office as the leader of two minority governments. But if recent Canadian history is anything to go by, no minority government — whether Liberal or Tory — has ever lasted longer than two and a half years.

As with every other post-Confederation Canadian government, either the Liberals or the Conservatives will win the most seats come Oct. 21. Amid the debates about climate change, energy policies and the cost of living, Trudeau and his past activities will be front and center as Canada enters its last four weeks of campaigning. Scandals have so far failed to torpedo Trudeau's chances of reelection, although they might dent his hopes of securing another majority. But whether the Liberals manage to narrowly defeat the Tories or Scheer's Conservatives overcome seat projections to capture a victory of their own, Canada could be headed for a minority government — which means it could be going back to the ballot box sooner, rather than later.

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