Justin Trudeau’s Anaemic Victory Shows The Limits Of Centrist Politics

On Monday night, Canadians delivered a fractured and ambiguous election result.

Justin Trudeau, the country’s scandal-ridden Liberal prime minister, watched his parliamentary majority evaporate—but will nonetheless return to power at the head of a minority government.

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer secured the single largest number of votes—courtesy of landslide victories in Alberta and Saskatchewan—but not enough seats to dislodge Trudeau.

Jagmeet Singh impressed on the campaign trail and now holds the balance of power in the House of Commons—but still saw his tally of centre-left NDP MPs cut in half.

And even the Bloc Québécois, which tripled the size of its federal caucus, was only provisionally successful—in the 1990s and early 2000s, the party regularly sent up to 50 representatives to Ottawa; in the next parliamentary session, it will send just 32.

Canada’s electoral map is now radically divided.

The Liberals are dominant in urban areas; the Tories control the Prairies and much of rural BC; the NDP are competitive in Metro Vancouver and parts of Ontario; and the Bloc are making gains throughout Quebec.

So what, if anything, does this tell us about Canadian politics in 2019?

Maybe not very much: Canada is vast and diverse and has always had—or claimed to have—a commitment to institutional moderation and constitutional flexibility.

(Two days before the election, the rallying cry of Jean Chrétien, one of Trudeau’s predecessors as prime minister, was—and I kid you not—“Let’s be reasonable.”)

But two things I think we can take from the result is that Trudeau’s victory was utterly unconvincing, and that the Liberal governing strategy was deeply flawed.

Trudeau didn’t just lose his majority four days ago, he lost over a million individual votes—and that was in the face of a lacklustre challenge from the Conservatives and some broadly favourable economic headwinds.

In fact—ironically—one reason Trudeau managed to survive at all is that, after assuming office in 2015, he ditched a pledge to overhaul Canada’s grossly disproportionate first-past-the-post electoral system.

(For reference: the Liberals won 46 per cent of federal seats on Monday with 33 per cent of the national vote—the Greens, by contrast, got three seats in exchange for 1.1 million votes.)

Yet electoral reform was just one of many issues Trudeau U-turned on during his first term.

Despite casting himself as a “global leader” on climate change, he spent $4.5bn bailing out a pipeline project which, once completed, will double the amount of diluted bitumen Canada exports to the world.

Despite amplifying Canada’s reputation as a benign actor on the international stage, he sold $15bn worth of military equipment to Saudi Arabia—including 900 armoured vehicles—even as Riyadh intensified its devastating war in Yemen.

Despite promising to pursue a programme of deficit-financed spending, he launched a massive private finance initiative that now threatens to transfer large chunks of the country’s infrastructure over to corporate oligarchs.

And despite relentlessly talking up his feminist credentials, he sacked his attorney general—Jody Wilson-Raybould, the first indigenous woman to hold that office at the federal level—for refusing to drop a prosecution case against a major Canadian construction firm.

In other words—even before the blackface scandal erupted over the summer, shattering his intricately constructed image as an ultra-woke reformer and champion of progressive causes—Trudeau’s record in government was defined by a series of compromises and concessions: to the fossil fuel industry, to the arms industry, to the private sector, and to the right.

And these concessions were costly.

You can actually chart the collapse of Trudeau’s popularity, in almost perfect linear fashion, over the course of his premiership.

In January 2016, the Liberal leader had a net approval rating of roughly 30 per cent; by January 2019, he had a net disapproval rating of roughly 20 per cent.

The more Canadian voters saw of Trudeau, and the more they realized how empty his progressive posturing was, the more they grew to dislike him.

As a result, Trudeau returns to office massively weakened both at home and abroad, a liability to his party rather than an asset, and faced with the reality of having to horse-trade his way through the next few years in parliament.

His most likely legislative partners will be the NDP who, having endured a tough election night of their own, will aim to extract a high political price for their cooperation.

But even then, Trudeau could find his second spell in power sharply truncated.

Canadian minority governments have an average shelf life of around 24 months.

Trudeau may or may not survive that long.

Either way, his rapid fall from grace illustrates the limits of centrist politics.

You win nothing, in the long term, by “playing it safe.”

Comments (12)

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  1. Jo says:

    I think he was punished for his hypocrisy on a couple of issues and his dishonesty in that prosecution business (he was lucky to survive that).

  2. vera says:

    Centrist? More like loony left. I still remember his eulogies of Castro.

    1. Daniel Raphael says:

      Like it or not, Castro was Cuba’s George Washington. Unless, of course, someone is loony enough to still sigh for dear Mr. Batista’s Mafia state.

      1. john learmonth says:

        Wasn’t Washington elected and then replaced after 4 years in power?
        No such luck with Castro……

        1. john burrows says:

          He was president for eight years. You waste peoples time asking questions you could easily answer yourself.

          If you have a point to make about tyrany, make it. Castro, Chavez, Ortega were all opponents of oppression. The fact they imposed their own versions afterwards is entirely beside the point. At least they didn’t legalize slavery.

          The US didn’t abolish slavery until the enactment of the 13th amendment in 1865. Washington himself owned slaves. The ultimate form of human oppression.

          Useless distraction. Neither example is relevant to the subject matter of the article. The troll has triggered the responses required to justify its existance.

          I’m with Alasdair on this.

          1. vera says:

            Yeah, Stalin was an opponent of oppression too, no doubt, serving his youthful time in a monastery. The question is what happens after people get power. A lot of folks can’t handle it. Neither could Castro. Comparing him to Washington, riiight…

            Am I for Batista and his Mafia (or vice versa)? What kind of a silly argument is that? If someone was against the Bolshies, does it mean they were for the czar?

            Castro was a good strategist, he was brave, and I think he wanted good things for Cuba. But what he became is a bigger part of the story. And what he became was a dictator who ran Cuba on fear and abuse of dissenters, supported by even worse dictators from the Soviet Union. He was also a puppet on the string of an ideology that just brings more and more corpses into the world. Dictators do not deserve eulogies in my world.

    2. Justin Trudeau as “Loony Left”?

      Did you read the article?

      1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

        ‘Vera’ is a troll. Do not feed trolls.

        1. vera says:

          Alasdair makes it up as he goes.

  3. john burrows says:

    The cache of Trudeau is very much associated with his father. Nostalgia was very much in play during the 2015 election. As was fatigue for conservative rule under Harper.

    The recent election is very much a reflection of the reality of the younger Trudeau’s naivity.

    Like Obama, he could talk a good game, but he too failed to deliver on his rosy promise. Slipping easily into cosy partnership with business interests is the Liberal Party’s modus operandi, when in government.

    Despite the loss of significant ground by the NDP, they hold an enviable position of forcing the government along a more coherant, progressive path.

    Vision combined with pragmatism is the only way forward for any nation to prosper. Modern Conservatism is a dead end. Across the world it represents those who deny basic reality, have a mean spirited disposition, and are particularly marked by their covetous and grasping nature.

    The latter have been shut out of government in Canada and I for one applaud the Canadian people for their wisdom. I only wish similar sanity could prevail in these lands.

    Unfortunately for us all, their counterparts here will continue along the path of forcing civil unrest, to maximize gains in their national casino.

    Constructing their very own Macau of the North Sea, while culling the heard of its “useless mouths” in the most callous and cruel ways it can contrive.

    Why are British Tories such irredeemable shits?

    The level of stupidity of ordinary people is truly astonishing when you consider how many support these criminals wrecking the well being of their nation.

  4. Me Bungo Pony says:

    Its easy for those politically active on the “wings” of the political spectrum to point out the inevitable contradictions of a “centrist” govt in situ trying to govern in the best interests of everyone while keeping them all on board. Its not so easy for them to point to a successful, popular govt in situ that adheres to their own specific policies du jour. I can’t think of one strictly Left Wing govt that has not wrecked the economy of its state or repressed its people lest they grow restless; or a Right Wing govt that is not abhorrent in its attitude to the weakest in society and those “less wealthy” (and therefore less important) than the “elite” in charge.

  5. Al says:

    “For reference: the Liberals won 46 per cent of federal seats on Monday with 33 per cent of the national vote—the Greens, by contrast, got three seats in exchange for 1.1 million votes.)”

    I have no idea how many seats 46% is, or how many votes 33% is, so the fact 1.1m votes resulted in only three seats could either be lot, not very much, or very little. Might have been better to stick to vote numbers, or percentages, but not a confusing mish mash.

    With regard to the article in general. Is this really an issue of “being too centrist”, or more of an issue of failing on election promises and making the wrong concessions?

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