18 Oct Guide to the Canadian federal elections: the candidates, the key issues, the assessment of the Trudeau Government
A few days before the Canadian elections, we take stock of the electoral campaign in Canada. For the Liberals, the October 21 elections are also a referendum on the work of the outgoing Prime Minister. For conservatives to win would mean reasserting their own relevance. But the polls give the two main contenders to the heads-up and the smaller parties could be decisive.
On October 21, Canadians will go to the polls to decide whether to give the current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party a new mandate or give Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives the chance to define the country’s orientation for the next four years.
A few days before the vote, the polls give a head-to-head between the two parties, with the Liberals at 32.4% and the Conservatives at 31.7%. Relying on surveys is certainly an imprudent exercise, which risks being contradicted by the results, but it is certainly possible to outline some trends.
According to the voting intentions, the trend of which has not undergone great variations since the beginning of the electoral campaign, neither of the two main contenders has the numbers for a majority government and it is precisely in this sense that the smaller parties could be decisive for the Government formation.
In Canada, moreover, the elections are particularly unpredictable for various reasons.
- First of all, unlike what can happen elsewhere, for example in the neighboring United States, at least half of the electorate is not deployed a priori and therefore is willing to change its mind during the electoral campaign.
- Secondly, the vastness of the territory and its specificities mean that the voting intentions on a federal scale may not reflect in a specular way what happens at the regional level. Provincial and federal parties, even if they have the same name, are distinct entities, so mutual support is not obvious, although it is obvious that this may happen. Citizens can balance a vote at the provincial level with a different choice at the federal level, they are very focused on local issues for which the debate is oriented, motivated and stratified.
The shifts in preferences also vary with the different needs that are felt between the countryside and large urban agglomerations, and again between industrial, residential and suburban areas. For this reason, Canadians are particularly attentive to electoral debates.
THE ELECTORAL DEBATES
The debates were settled in Canada by an ad hoc commission set up precisely by the Trudeau government last year, to make these comparisons a useful tool for shaping public opinion and stability to refer to in the present and future election campaigns.
For participation in official debates, leaders must meet at least two of the following criteria:
1) the party must have at least one member elected in Parliament;
2) the party must have candidates in at least 90% of the constituencies;
3) the party must have obtained at least 4% of the votes in the previous elections or have a “legitimate chance of obtaining seats”.
In this way a partnership was created between various media that managed the two electoral debates that took place on 7 and 10 October:
- The debate in English took place on the topics: economic security, national and international leadership, indigenous issues, polarization of human rights and immigration, environment and energy.
- The debate in French took place on the topics: environment and energy, economy and public finance, foreign policy and immigration, identity, governance and ethics, citizen services.
The two events, of which a subsequent report to the Parliament was planned to improve any critical issues in view of future elections, did not preclude the possibility of other debates. There were two meetings: 12 September in Toronto, to which Trudeau did not participate and the one from 1 October hosted by Mclean’s and Citytv.
The debate on foreign policy (Munk’s debate) was canceled due to the failure of the PM to join.
Trudeau has received much criticism in this regard and if his absence on September 12 can be understood as a choice of strategic electoral caution aimed at not exposing the outgoing Premier too early to criticism of others, the cancellation of the debate on foreign policy was seen as an avoiding the verification of a certainly complex dossier, but which will affect the orientation of the country over the next four years like the domestic politics.
The Federal Election Leaders English-language debate at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau
Source: CBC News
THE PROTAGONISTS OF THE ELECTORAL CAMPAIGN
The Canadian electoral battle is a matter that basically involves Trudeau Vs Scheer.
Andrew Scheer, the challenger, did not enjoy the reputation of the PM, in fact he was relatively unknown as a leader only in 2017. However, his party has an already solid electoral base, around 25%, while the liberal one stands at 22%. Liberals are however more likely to attract votes, especially in a basin that is at the center of the political alignment.
Four other challengers are added to the two protagonists.
- The NDP (New Democatic Party) is 15% in the polls. The leader Jagmeet Singh, Ontario lawyer who took over the leadership of this leftist party two years ago, had some difficulty in raising funds, 1/3 of his caucus decided not to run again and the party announced slowly the list of candidates. However, during the election campaign, he appeared very lively and therefore could deny the initial predictions of some observers that the party will lose a significant part of the 44 seats.
- The Green Party, which got its first seat in 2011, is 9.9%, but its consensus, basically at the expense of the NDP, is increasing. The leader of the greens, Elizabeth May, is at her fourth election and her great battle is climate change. The party tries to position itself slightly outside the political spectrum, aiming for those who are willing to take risks.
Green Party, NDP and liberals are center-left parties and therefore can find a platform in an attempt to block the advance of conservatives. Of course, their weight in terms of seats can greatly influence the policies of the government that will be elected.
Two other formations that have participated in the debates are:
- The nationalist party Bloc Québecois was founded in 1991 after the failure of the Meech Lac agreements, a series of amendments to the constitution that were to “heal” the separatism of the eastern French province. The formation had been Québec’s largest party during the federal elections, reduced to 4 seats in 2011 and stood at 10 in 2015. The leader, Yves François Blanchet, is a former exponent of the Parti Québécois (separatist) and in recent weeks has increased the consensus (6.1%) to the detriment of the liberals, but also of the conservatives, and in fact, both have attacked it. The former claim that a regional party will not be able to handle federal issues, such as climate change, the latter accuse it of endangering national unity.
- With the wave of right-wing populisms that has manifested itself both in the USA and in Europe, this election will see the presence of the people’s party at national level, a splinter of the right led by former conservative minister Maxime Bernier, who from the beginning (the training is from 2018) has opposed immigration, multicultural policies and maintains a position of “denial” of the urgency of a global climate issue. The People’s Party currently stands at 2.8%.
This data indicates that also in Canada there has been a polarization of political positions. In reality the Canadian path to populism finds some obstacles in the fact that the Canadian trust in the good health of the institutions fundamentally does not cease. In other words, the European and American populist concept of a corrupt and global elite that attacks the values of an original culture cannot breed in Canada.
On the contrary, here the political and intellectual business elite is positively influential or at least not denigrated as elsewhere. In other words, there is no idea of a pure and exploited people, also because historically more cultures have confronted and clashed for control of the country. Probably it is more the considerations of opportunism than those of populism that led Bernier, who came second in the race to the leadership of the Conservative Party, to the foundation of a new political subject, with the hope that is to capitalize on the global rise of populism.
The beneficiaries of a populist vote could be the greens who would thus affect the Canadian political scene. The electoral successes obtained at the provincial level have encouraged the push in this election campaign. Some polls indicate that the favor towards the Green Party is not only on the part of the disappointed by the liberals, who would have addressed environmental issues with little determination, but also by fringes of the NDP and the Conservative Party, as if the Green Party were precisely the preferable option for those who are disappointed by traditional politics.
JUSTIN TRUDEAU: THE FIRST MANDATE BETWEEN CRITICITY AND SUCCESS
This election in Canada was presented by various observers as a sort of referendum on the Trudeau leadership and an evaluation of the results obtained during the previous mandate
In the 2015 consultations, the Liberals obtained 184 seats in the House of Commons with 39.5% of the popular votes, after the humiliating defeat of 2011. In 2015, the Liberal Party triumphed throughout the eastern part of the country, taking back consents in Québec and in British Columbia, and getting 2 seats in the conservative stronghold of Calgary. The Conservatives gained 99 seats (from 166) and the Stephen Harper decade ended.
This time the outgoing PM does not appear as in 2015 with the aura of novelty against a man of the past but proposes the results of the platform of the first mandate. Trudeau then needs to continue the journey started “stay the course”.
In four years much of the luster and enthusiasm he enjoyed has been lost.
The son of Pierre Trudeau, PM from 1968-79 and 80-84, “one of the most remarkable Canadian politicians of the twentieth century” (Bruti Liberati, History of Canada, 2018), in the summer of 2015, before the last election, was in third place in the polls, enough to ensure him a strong victory and a solid majority. Now, as is natural, it is influenced by the effects of real politics, when we go from the wording of the program to its implementation.
Moreover, in the last two years, some questions have overshadowed his work, which has begun to be increasingly the subject of close scrutiny by the opposition.
- In 2017 Justin Trudeau was found guilty of breaching federal ethics (Conflict of interest Act) having accepted, the previous year, a vacation offered by the Aga Kan philanthropist and spiritual leader.
- Also in 2016, a controversial trip to India, with few results on the business side and with an invitation to official events addressed to a Sikh separatist leader, caused a heated controversy at home.
- Then came the SNC Lavalin affair, a crisis related to the Cabinet’s alleged attempt at political interference with the judicial system, or the alleged pressure on a former attorney general to resolve a case of corruption and fraud against the company in question, a construction giant of the country, traditionally close to the Liberal Party. The crisis became public in February 2019, when it appeared in The Globe and Mail and cost the government two resignations (Butts first secretary of Trudeau and Minister Jane Philippot) and a reshuffle on the assignment of the former Lawyer General Wilson Raybould who then left the party and runs this election as an independent.
- Some critical issues have been added on the narrower level of political action: the approval of the construction of the Trans mountain pipeline which, beyond the costs, was not considered coherent with the energy / environment dossier and the fight against climate change.
- On the level of the values and principles that are the “good citizenship license of Ottawa”, respect for human rights and the rule of law, criticisms are instead related to the failure to cancel the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia.
- Finally, the credentials of the outgoing PM were damaged, as soon as the election campaign began, when photos considered racist and caricatures were published, in which the then young Trudeau appears with his face painted black during a masquerade party. He officially apologized for this, but the unfortunate time coincidence weighed on the credibility of the progressive leader committed against minority discrimination, in favor of welcoming refugees, supporting indigenous peoples, promoting and improving the status of women on an international scale. This initial negative effect seems to have been partly mitigated even if the opposition does not miss an opportunity, as happened during the debates, to emphasize that Trudeau’s mask is not only that of past photos, but is a characteristic modus operandi of his policy. Scheer recalled how the PM proclaims himself in favor of women, indigenous people, and environmental issues and then shows the true face by not carrying out any adequate policy in this regard.
Despite these critical notes on his political agenda, Trudeau has a significant political record on which to base his candidacy for the next 4 years and to warn Canadians of a return to the past of Harper’s policies, whose legacy is represented precisely by Andrew Scheer.
The first Trudeau mandate allowed the Liberal Party to implement most of the proposed program in the election campaign, including measures to foster inclusive economic growth, tackle climate change and orient foreign policy differently. It is in particular on the economy and climate change that liberals feel particularly strong.
THE ECONOMIC AGENDA
The tax reform
On the first issue, Trudeau’s agenda turned to improving economic security for the middle class, issuing a tax reform that reduced taxes for this segment of the population, but instead increased taxation for the upper classes.
However, the budget on the Trudeau Government’s economic results is certainly favorable. Data on the Canadian economy are positive. The unemployment rate is at 5.5% with an increase of 53,700 jobs in September.. Wages are up and interest rates are still from October 2018 to 1.75%, while the Central Bank has stated this month that the Canadian economy shows a good degree of resilience to any negative shocks. The PM has not failed to stress that this is the result of its investment policy in favor of the middle class.
Contributions to families and to the pension plan
The monthly aid plan for families with children up to the age of 18, Canada Child Benefit (CCB), is probably the most significant success of the Liberal Party, a measure that has taken at least 300,000 children out of poverty and which Trudeau now promises to increase 15% for families with a child under one year of age.
It is no coincidence that this is a measure that all opposition parties, if elected, ensure they want to maintain and improve. Conservatives talk about increasing benefits by at least 3% per year, NPD would commit $ 1 billion for childcare by 2020 with subsequent incremental increases. The Green Party would like a universal childhood plan with adequate spaces in the workplace.
On the opposite side of the demography for the third age, Trudeau has negotiated contributions to the pension plan with the provinces, increasing the quotas from 1/4 to 1/3 of the computable earnings.
The Public Debt
In this positive framework, one of the failed promises of the Liberal Party is the question of the deficit, a crucial element for the growth of the country. Among the commitments made in 2015 there was indeed the management of the deficit for a three-year period and then the break-even in 2019/20 as indicated in the mandate letter to the Finance Minister Monreau. This promise was abandoned and the three years required for the draw were replaced by an indefinite period. For the fiscal year, which ended March 31, 2019, the deficit stood at $ 14 billion.
The Canadian mentality, since the birth of the Confederacy, has always been distant from the concept of deficit. A consolidated attitude in the 1990s with PM Chétien and Finance Minister Martin, who fought the deficit between the difficulties of downgrading the economy, the falling dollar and a crisis in Québec concerning the unity of the country. However, Canadians have begun to understand that a balanced budget can be sacrificed on the altar of financing public infrastructure, transport, education and health care. This position is in fact reflected in the electoral platforms of all the candidates. Liberals, in case of victory, will increase the deficit to 27.4 billion next year and the figure will remain over 20 billion in the remaining three years of the mandate. Trudeau has not indicated a date to equalize it and has used the argument to attack conservatives who in the event of victory will govern the country in the name of austerity with measures that will slow down the economy and reduce services. Scheer has argued, instead, that his government will take five years to balance the deficit. The same position is of the Greens, while Singh counters, more generally, that the management of the NDP will be different.
The temporal prudence for balancing the budget indicates that the gap between the parties on the subject is reduced and that in any case it looks like a stimulus to the economy at least in the immediate future.
The theme of recession (if any)
The priority is to keep the country prosperous or at least outside a (possible) recession. In the political debate that has been held so far, the parties do not mention at all the possibility of a recession, for example due to the contagion by economies in Europe or the USA.
If the Canadian economy remains strong (among the top places in the G7 nations in the past two years), global trends are however at risk both for the Sino-American trade war and tensions in Europe always due to possible US duties.
In the 2008 election, Harper argued that Canada would not be involved because Ottawa was not closely tied to global economic forces, due to energy demand even though in a time of economic crisis it is precisely the demand for energy goods to fall. The recession argument, just mentioned in the debate in French on October 10, is one of those examples of interference of global issues in domestic politics, which must be faced in reality even if they are left for a couple of months on the margins of the electoral confrontation.
THE ENVIRONMENTAL AGENDA AND CLIMATE CHANGE
The other topic of internal and international scope is the environment.
Immediately after the election, before the international audience of the COP in Paris, Trudeau began with Canada is back, the declaration of intent that stood in contrast with the Harper government to demonstrate that the environment and economy were not incompatible and that the great northern country America had the credentials to show world leadership in this area.
Certainly, the climate issue will have its weight on the polls. In September, the climate conference held in New York with “the Greta Thunberg effect” further fueled the attention on the environment, an emblematic issue of globalization that irreversibly tarnishes the concept of sovereignty and boundary. Care for the environment will be among the criteria for choosing Canadian parliamentarians from the youth electorate. But even for the less young, a spring of intense floods in the eastern part of the country and a series of fires in the west were enough to fuel the emphasis on the future fate of the planet.
Trudeau has pledged to cut Canada’s emissions by 15% compared to 2005 levels for 2020 and 30% for 2030. He also promised $ 2.65 billion to projects in developing countries, a measure that Andrew Scheer criticizes strongly.
Carbon Tax and Pipelines
Internally, the PM has worked with provinces and territories to impose the carbon tax, a tax on each ton of fossil products imposed on the provinces that have not developed and introduced their plan to combat climate change. The carbon tax is $ 20 a ton this year and is expected to increase to $ 50 by 2022. Some provinces have opposed the introduction of the tax, but their claims have been rejected by the competent courts. Many economists believe that this is the efficient way to achieve emission reduction by encouraging virtuous behavior.
Despite these efforts to reconcile economy and environment has proved more difficult than expected. The government has in fact approved the construction of new pipelines to link the production of tar sands to Asian markets. The endorsement of the trans Mountain Pipeline (through British Columbia and Vancouver) is the element that constitutes the greatest contradiction in climate policies. The approach, despite the interactions with the subjects involved (the provinces, the territories and the First Nation), has attracted criticism from various parties, from energy producers, to indigenous peoples and environmentalists, all equally dissatisfied with the management of the project.
These criticisms on all sides seem to indicate a lack of leadership on the subject but, as Trudeau argued during the electoral debates, the transition to clean energy can only be progressive. Furthermore, Canada, like the USA, records per capita emissions among the highest due to various factors: high income and level of consumption, dependence on private vehicles, large distances, harsh winters.
The debate on the environmental theme feeds the contrasts between conservatives and liberals. The Conservatives accuse the Liberals of withdrawing from the pockets of Canadians, while Trudeau points out that the repayments will end up leaving the citizens in better conditions in the future.
For the Conservative Party, the carbon tax has a significant impact only on families and is not really effective. Their intention is to abolish it. Rather, they believe the provinces should decide to set the price on fossil energy. The aim is to invest in green technologies financed by those who pollute in high quantities and who do not reach the desired standards. This response seems to be lacking and does not indicate in detail how the measure moved could prove to be more effective than the tax currently in force.
NDP, on the other hand, agrees with the tax, but would like to hit more heavily on those who produce more emissions, because those who pollute the most have greater responsibilities.
The environment is naturally the workhorse of the greens who claim that the tax has been the mainstay of their claims for years, but they deem it insufficient.
Elizabeth May, in the October 10th debate, argued that the use of polluting energies must immediately cease, turning to clean energy and raising fears about the “destruction” of the Canadian economy with these claims.
The position of the Bloc Québecois, eager to fulfill the Paris agreement and cut subsidies for fossil fuel projects to promote clean energy, is above all aimed at vetoing the construction of new pipelines that cross the province.
The People’s Party believes that the carbon tax should be abolished and that the provinces should remain free to reduce emissions only if they deem it appropriate. All of Bernier’s concerns focus on Canada harshly recalling Scheer’s positions on the need for a global solution to climate and not national issues.
THE INTERNATIONAL AGENDA
The great absentee in the electoral campaign was international politics, whose problems were not placed at the center of any party’s programs. Which is not unusual for federal elections, as this issue does not move the Canadian vote. In contrast to the state of things and that is the globalized economy, the threats to security from states and non-state actors (cybersecurity and hybrid war in the first place) and a general geopolitical instability that make sure that Ottawa is certainly not protected from the more international dossiers.
Relations with the United States
There is also the question of managing relations with the neighbor and American ally in a moment of volatility for Washington between impeachment attempts, a bitter electoral campaign for the 2020 presidential elections and the effects on the credibility of the entire West struggling with the recent emergency in Kurdistan which further complicates relations with a NATO ally, Turkey.
Trudeau summarized the state of world affairs in the Montreal speech last August, highlighting that nations succumb to populism and nationalism and fall back on them, a movement in contrast with the values and principles of the Ottawa government.
Support for internationalism, a mantra of Canadian foreign policy, revived by the newly elected Trudeau in 2015 after the Harper government parenthesis, will be carried out in a possible second term. UN, NATO, G7, G20 are the pillars to respond to international crises by rebuilding and renewing multilateralism in full shipwreck.
The conservatives, who internally emphasize the issues of security and immigration, consider themselves closer to dialogue with the American administration. A test could be the renegotiation of the Safe Third Country Agreement in which, according to Scheer’s party, there would be a textual gap that would allow asylum seekers who do not cross the US-Canada border through official entry points to request status refugees in the North American country.
Scheer’s greater closeness to Washington’s moods, which also manifests itself in the will of the conservative leader to move the Canadian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem following Trump’s example, will not necessarily be the trump card in the eyes of the Canadian electorate who follows the story of the ally with a certain apprehension. Porosity in culture, business and bilateral relations between Canada and the United States should not shift to the level of political modus operandi. In other words, bringing the image of Scheer too close to the White House tenant could risk taking consensus away from conservatives. On the other hand, Trump did not fail to intervene on the political choices of friendly or allied states, such as the Brexit or the political figures of Netanyahu and Conte. An eventual position taken by Washington could have a lot of influence on the Candese vote, in a “prey” country of geography.
Trudeau’s virtues include the ability to not want to embody anti-Trump despite some initial pressure from his own Cabinet in this regard. Instead, it managed the relationship to the best of its ability despite the sometimes provocative behavior of the ally (as at the G7 Summit in Charlevoix). Foreign Minister Chrysta Freeland in June 2017, speaking in the House of Commons, defended liberal internationalism and an international system based on rules and called the US an indispensable ally, although tired of taking on the full weight and for this reason Canada and the allies will have to do their part.
Relations with China
The next government will have the delicate issue of relations with China on the table.
In the short term, the cases of Canadian citizens Spavor and Kovrig will be solved, who were arrested in retaliation for the arrest in Vancouver at the US request of the Vice President of Huawei, Meng Wabzhou.
In the long term it will be necessary to find an adequate orientation towards Beijing in an international system increasingly structured by the American Sino competition. If Washington is the neighbor, the partner, the friend and the fundamental ally is China, an important trading partner that will take on a progressively greater role in the world economy and politics and therefore in the economy and politics of Ottawa.
In an international system that remains heterogeneous, global, multipolar and complex, the new PM will have to prepare adequate instruments to deal with those international political dossiers that will be on the table of the new government immediately after the October vote
Waiting for October 21st
Canadians essentially vote on the basis of one criterion: who will be able to guarantee the prosperity of the country the most.
“Choose Forward” and “It ‘s time for you to get ahead” are the slogans of Liberals and Conservatives that in almost two months have not aroused great enthusiasm. In fact, the electoral campaign focused on the leadership qualities of the candidates rather than on the proposals for a truly alternative vision or political direction.
On the one hand the health of the Canadian economy, an electoral test, does not lend itself to head-on collisions, on the other hand, moderation is needed because the electoral system rewards the parties that move towards the center where, according to experts, there is a majority of the votes to be won.
The Liberal Party is known as the natural ruling party due to its greater presence at the helm during the 20th century. Trudeau claims to remain the best option for Canadians who want a progressive government, but can no longer present themselves as change. The attack of the Conservatives is very much focused on the multiple masks of the outgoing PM. No doubt those who have already been to the government have a great responsibility for a possible reappointment or defeat of the Party.
Leaders must have been able to measure the pulse of the country and determine whether the desire for change or continuity is more relevant in Canada. And considering that voting in Canada is not mandatory, participation in the polls will also be a useful indicator from which to start a budget.
THE CANADIAN POLITICAL SYSTEM AND COSTITUTIONAL ORDER
Canada, consisting of ten provinces and three territories, is a constitutional monarchy whose head of state is Queen Elizabeth II, currently represented by Governor General Julie Payette, who is appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister. The country is a parliamentary democracy with a Westmister model parliament, consisting of an elective House of Commons with 338 seats and a Senate of 105, appointed by the Governor General on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. Members of Parliament are elected in individual constituencies based on the first past the post system or those who get the most votes win, although this formula rarely translates into a majority. In general, a party has the majority of seats with about 38% of the votes.
The wishes of some minor parties, which would have appreciated a proportional representation, did not materialize, neither at provincial nor national level, and this option was defeated by the referendums held in British Colombia, Ontario and Prince Edward Island.
The election mechanism was further regulated by the recent Election Modernization Act of 2018 which defines the time limits of the electoral campaign, limits the amount of expenses in the period preceding the start of the campaign, and then predicts an increase once this is the case. election campaign officially starts, regulates the activity of third parties and pays attention to threats of external interference on the democratic process. On this particularly topical issue, the Cabinet Directive on the Critical Election Incident Public Protocol has been developed, a protocol that indicates the general principles and guidelines possibly aimed at informing voters of accidents that could alter the possibility for Canadians to have free and fair elections.
Cover Images courtesy of:
 K.Johnson “ Canada gains more jobs than expected in September , unemployment rate drops to 5,5%, Reuters October 11, 2019