Sunny ways, my friends, sunny ways! It’s all felt so positive, so hopeful, these past few weeks, these stumbling days of the 2019 Canadian federal election, hasn’t it?! Sunny ways! After a painful and anemic campaign, Justin Trudeau held on for a second term, winning the unenviable right to lead a minority government. Gone, however, is much of the the sunny charm that wooed Canada in 2015, when the prodigal son led the Liberal Party to the greatest single–cycle seat increase in Canadian election history. In its stead is a feeling of reluctant acquiescence to the greater political reality. Trudeau’s voting bloc felt less like a group of Canadians enthusiastically supporting the man, but rather people who decided that propping him up sure beat the alternative. From the dizzying highs of 2016, when 72 percent of Canadians approved on Trudeau’s job performance, that number dipped to a low of 46% as the election approached. This was a man without the mandate or capability to further articulate a hopeful vision. He was just holding on.
One should be careful to be too bold in declaring that Justin Trudeau managed to eek out a minority because enough people opted for strategic voting and the widespread partisan regionalism that has swept Canadian federal politics ultimately helped the Liberal Party. Trudeau lost the popular vote. He only received 33% of the vote, yet retains 46% of the seats. The Conservatives received the most votes, at 34% and will get 36% of the vote. As you get deeper into these numbers, it’s clear that what is laid bare in elections like these, is that the electoral system is absolutely out of step with both the politics and people of this nation.
Take the NDP, who is still trying to figure out whether it had a bad night or not. Sure, they lost 20 seats, which is never good, but in truth the previous number of 44 was never going to be held onto in these circumstances. Leader Jagmeet Singh is under the sort of predictable pressure when numbers decline, but ultimately, continuity and stability in leadership is probably more important than forcing Singh into a reckoning for the disappointing results. That said, in a strictly proportional voting system, the 15.9% of the vote the NDP received would be good for 53 seats. The Greens, who ‘made gains’ (from 1 seat to 3), would have 22 seats thanks to the 6.5% of voters who went with them. Liberals would have 112, Conservatives 116. This is not a new point to make, but when an election returns a minority, the issue is that much starker. If we need some form of cooperation in order to prop up a government just so it can flirt with the notion of being functional, why not make these people run coalitions based on the popular will of the voters?
Anyone who spoke with friends and neighbours during this campaign will have met people who did not want to support either Trudeau or Scheer. However, many of those people were still deadset on either removing Trudeau from office, or preventing Scheer’s ascent to it. How would those people have voted free from such base strategic considerations? What does the popular political will of Canada really look like? And, if these parties could only retain viability federally through cooperation, what would our policy look like? To be sure, coalition governments around the world have their own set of problems and concerns, but maybe it’s time to try a politics with those issues, rather than the basic ones of legitimacy and strategic voting.
Of course, the lack of electoral reform, despite promises from Sunny Trudeau during the 2015 election campaign, stems from the narrow–minded view of power and politics that helps facilitate this frustration. Typically, the Liberals or Conservatives benefit from this arrangement, and depending on the election, one of them fares better with it than the other. Ultimately, neither want to bite the hand that feeds, and usher in a more honest reflection of the Canadian people in parliament. Trudeau’s promise to finally deal with this imbalance came in an election when the Liberals were sitting third behind the Conservatives and NDP. It is the perfect reminder of the hollowness of Trudeau’s supposed Sunny Ways.
Leading a minority government ought to be the perfect opportunity for Trudeau to recommit to reforming the way we elect our representatives. He could choose to be positive about the changes, hopeful in what it could create, sunny in outlook. But, Trudeau instead is comfortable in not being what he said he was, but rather being a more palatable alternative to just enough people than his Conservative opponents.
Electoral reform is an opportunity for real change in Canada. Likely far more real than the change that any hopeful and sunny candidate can bring. One thinks of the NDP surge that came when Jack Layton’s message became so effective. What if we didn’t need to be at the mercy of the charisma and effective campaign marketing of a particular candidate? What if you just voted for the people you felt best represented you? Likely, it would be a more significant shift than any leader or platform could possibly hope to bring to this country.
If you were looking for a fitting symbolic moment to close out the election, it came in the form of the Election Night speeches, delivered by Singh, Scheer, and Trudeau. Singh got started, was interrupted by Scheer, who was in turn interrupted by Trudeau. The image will be the lasting one of the 2019 federal election, three leaders talking at the same time, while the television cameras provide a picture, but cannot play the sound. Sunny ways! V