Canadian Elections 2015: A Reflection

Back in the heat of the election campaign I wrote an article urging Canadians to go out and vote. Well, election day came and went and Canada saw the best voter turnout in over twenty years. I don’t mean to brag but you’re welcome. While a little over 30% still didn’t go out to vote, around a quarter of the people who stood out in 2011 came out in droves on election day. This increased voter turnout ended up being fantastic news for the Liberal Party of Canada. There was a significant portion of the electorate that felt fatigued by the government of Stephen Harper, a government that had lasted over nine years and went from scandal to scandal while using divisive politics on issues like west-east regionalism and Islamaphobia to consolidate their power.

There was a distinct and palpable desire for change since before the election began in August and that block of dedicated anti-Harper voters were ready to place their support with the party that had the best chance of delivering us a post-Harper Canada. For the majority of the election campaign that party appeared to be the NDP with the party polling at nearly 40% in late August, enough to possibly earn them a majority government. The party had skyrocketed to the top of the polls thanks to its stance against the surveillance bill C-51 earlier in the summer. Around this time is when Conservative strategists had a “brilliant” idea, one of many they had during this election cycle. The NDP’s base of power was Quebec, the New Democrats had such a lead in the province that it skewed national polling in their favour. Much of that Quebec support was built on a coalition of various political groups and much of it had been former supporters of the Bloc Quebecois. Like the NDP, the Bloc Quebecois is a social democratic party with significant support coming from labour organizations and left leaning intellectuals. Unlike the NDP, the Bloc is a nationalist party, specifically Quebec nationalism and Quebec Nationalism isn’t free of the xenophobia that plagues any other form of ethnic nationalism. When Stephen Harper and his Conservatives pressed the NDP on its position to allow Muslim women the right to choose whether or not they want to wear the niqab face covering during citizenship ceremonies he unleashed what many believe was the killing blow to the New Democrats chances of winning the election.

The NDP’s position was not only unpopular with the general Canadian and Quebecois electorate, it was unpopular among those who would’ve likely voted for them in the province. A significant portion of that former Bloc vote returned to the separatist fold and some even went to the Conservatives. Precious little went to the Liberals who agreed with the NDP on the issue. It looked like Harper’s team had successfully gutted the New Democrats and by late September it was a three way race once more. The only chance the Conservatives had of winning was to keep the left-wing vote split and they appeared to have done it. 

With the flagging poll numbers in Quebec the NDP stopped looking like the sure bet to beat Harper but now the Liberals were poised to capitalize on this and capitalize they did.  They stressed parts of their platform that sounded more “progressive” claiming that New Democrats and Tom Mulcair had more in common with Harper than they did and that only the Liberal Party and Justin Trudeau could provide “Real Change.” It should amuse anyone with a sense of irony that the party that has governed Canada for the majority of its existence and that’s led by the son of a former long serving Prime Minster is offering “Real Change.” Indeed, on most policy issues of note the Liberals are barely distinguishable from the Conservative Party. That said, the Liberal plan to run three straight deficits in order to fund infrastructure was well received in Ontario where they contributed to the coming “red tide.” Ontario, especially Toronto, is in desperate need of infrastructure spending particularly in the form of public transit. The Liberal surge in Ontario began to influence the rest of the country including Quebec where many voted Liberal out of the desire to back a winning horse capable of beating Harper. This isn’t to discount the fact that Justin Trudeau was the right leader at the right time. The fact that he’s relatively young and a Trudeau plays a significant role in his victory. His youth was very much seen as a positive attribute in his ability to bring new ideas to the fold, the number of times I heard the words “fresh face” to describe him is innumerable. Even still he’s a fresh face with an old name. The name “Trudeau” is the closest thing Canada has had to the name “Caesar” in terms of reverence. For better or worse, it’s a name that’s been glorified especially since Pierre Trudeau’s death. It’s also a name that symbolizes the opening up of Canada to multiculturalism and the “Just Society,” all things that Stephen Harper had placed himself in diametric opposition to during the campaign and while in government. Justin Trudeau not only symbolized a new step forward but also the nostalgia of better days past. That is a powerful combination in any election but for this one it made all the difference. 

For the NDP it was a disappointing loss. Historically, forty-four seats would have been considered a fantastic performance, it’s the party’s second best, but during an election where a majority was in sight it’s a very bitter pill to swallow especially when a great deal of their star MPs lost re-election and old strongholds like Halifax and downtown Toronto came tumbling down. The one bright spot is solace in knowing that most Canadians that jumped ship to the Liberals didn’t necessary vote against them but thought it necessary to vote Liberal. In addition to that, winning back sixteen seats in Quebec and coming in second in the popular vote there has cemented them as a player in the province. And while the niqab issue may have played a role it the party’s fortunes, I don’t think a single New Democrat would disagree that it was the right stance to take. After all you can’t claim to be the party of principle and not take principled stands and the New Democrats, as they always do, ran a principled campaign. As for the Conservatives, there’s going to be a lot of soul searching ahead. Not only had they galvanized the political left against them, they lost considerable support from moderate conservatives who just couldn’t bring themselves to support Stephen Harper any longer. The new Conservative leader will have to be a unifier in order to win. Stephen Harper was a divider and while he’s often been referred to as a master strategist his strategy came up short. His niqab gambit backfired, his relentless negative ads against Trudeau backfired and the extended campaign cycle spectacularly backfired allowing a Liberal majority to sweep into power. Had the election been the standard length we would likely have an NDP minority right now. In many ways Stephen Harper made Trudeau the success he is now, luxurious hair and all. 

The election is over but politics certainly isn’t. We have four years until the next federal election and until then it’s up to us to keep the Liberals and Justin Trudeau accountable, especially since the other parties will have little to no pull in a majority government. The Liberals made countless promises from reforming our electoral system to better environmental standards to amending C-51. None of that can be done if we don’t stay engaged. Majority governments, no matter the party, have a distinct ability to let power go to their heads and so we, the everyday people, become one of the few that can keep them in check. One way to do that is to stay informed. A non-partisan group recently launched the TrudeauMetre to keep track of all the promises and progress his government has made. One thing is for sure, while we still wait and see how much change “real change” really is, Canadians sent a strong message that the politics practiced by Stephen Harper aren’t long tolerated in Canada.             

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