Return of the … Minority Canadian Government for Trudeau

Well, he won. Not the 2015 landslide, but as predicted, just enough to get Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party over the line, with 156 seats – 14 fewer than the full 170 required for a majority in Canada’s 338 seat House of Commons. This means Trudeau will now govern Canada as a minority government. Happily, Canada is familiar with this set-up, having had four such minority structures since 2000, under Liberal Paul Martin and Conservative Stephen Harper. However, as witnessed in the UK and Europe, minority governments are tricky. They require cooperation with other parties, a careful corralling of policies, and a deft approach to public messaging. Otherwise, it all falls apart.

‘Progressive’ Canadians voted Trudeau emphatically into power in 2015, by equally emphatically voting Conservative Stephen Harper out. Trudeau has successfully played the generic progressive card throughout his first term, and his victory speech to his supporters in Montreal reinforced that message: “We seek hardship for none and prosperity for all, and if we unite around these common goals, I know we can achieve them”.[1] However, the progressive theme is beginning to fray, primarily because as an approach, it’s now holding together far too many irreconcilable policies.

Questionable green credentials ?

The most important of these policies is environmental. Having championed his green credentials on environmental protectionism leading up to the 2015 election, and in the years following, Trudeau has come badly unstuck. Alleging unstinting support for climate change by boldly instituting carbon pricing, he also undertook a governmental purchase of US-based Trans Mountain pipeline to the tune of $4.5 billion. The pipeline is essentially an expansion on the current system running 1150 kilometres between Edmonton Alberta and Burnaby BC, aiming to increase the capacity from 300,000 to 890,000 barrels of oil a day. Its purchase sparked outrage among environmentalists who viewed it as a federal mandate to continue fossil fuel dependency. First Nations communities meanwhile argued that the pipeline dissected their various communities and breached Trudeau’s commitments to redressing their role in the national conversation.

Economically, federal carbon pricing has also hit various the western Prairie provinces hard – particularly Alberta  – home of the notorious tar sands and a huge export actor. Last night, the pipelines came home to roost: not one Liberal MP was elected from any of the Prairies. The three-province region (Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba) appears to have listened instead to the call of Conservative candidate Andrew Scheer, who pledged to squash carbon pricing legislation and cut taxes. Trudeau also lost a key regional ally: Ralph Goodale – Saskatchewan’s only Liberal MP – failed to win his seat, again signalling the ongoing tension between local energy industry requirements and Ottawa’s environmental policy.

Multiculturalism and Foreign Policy: Never the Twain…

In terms of liberal values, Justin Trudeau has an impeccable pedigree. His father, Pierre Trudeau, Canadian Prime Minister during the late 1960s and 1970s enjoyed 16 years of Liberal dominance on the basis of multiculturalism at home, and good citizenship abroad. Swept to power in 1968, Trudeau Senior plugged Canada firmly into key international organisations on the precepts of peacekeeping and peacebuilding, norms, values and international law, as well as advocacy of NGOs and support for the developing world.

Trudeau Junior’s emphatic 2015 election over Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who had obliterated much of Canada’s international reputation as a solid normative power, seemed to herald the return of the maple leaf in key international fora. To some extent, this has happened. Trudeau has done well to reinstate in political, legal and economic forums Canada’s ongoing commitment to equity and justice, transforming international funding and immigration norms to ensure the country was receptive to the wider world, including receiving tens of thousands of Syrian refugees. The image of Trudeau, kneeling to greet a young Syrian girl at Toronto airport with the words ‘You are home’ resonated around the world, impelling and shaming states with a different attitude to immigration and asylum in equal measure.

But immigration from abroad relies upon integration at home. Trudeau has done less well to reboot the foundation that his father laid for a tolerant Canada, able to understand and support the ways in which communities change culturally, economically and chiefly – politically – when faced with the challenge of integrating new groups and individuals. Last night indicates that Trudeau’s progressive brand remains important for many Canadians. For others however, Andrew Scheer’s Conservative message struck home: immigration needs limits because local communities have their own ‘carrying capacity’ in terms of citizenship. This was particularly the case in those areas in Canada struggling to find a way through both passive xenophobia and active Islamophobia. Trudeau’s first government boasted the highest number of Muslim MPs, but this in itself doesn’t equate to the heavy-lifting needed to transform social attitudes, and rework public policy.

Trudeau Tokenism? 

Indeed, Trudeau’s problem now is over-brand. Trudeau struggles between initial and enthusiastic support for a given policy and then seeing it through in the long-term. When opportunities arise to actually nail his policy colours to the mast, Trudeau has more often than not, failed to carry through. Of course, te gets points for raising key issues like feminism, First Nations’ rights, and electoral reform. And as a global symbol of progressiveness, Trudeau – and indeed Canada as a whole – remain reliable and persuasive performers in getting these messages across, particularly against the backdrop of tribalism and xenophobia that have exploded since Trudeau first took office.

But even these three examples haven’t taken off. Trudeau’s reputation for mainstreaming executive gender balance for example was undermined recently by attempts to pressure Jody Wilson-Raybould, Canada’s first Indigenous minister to drop the prosecution of an engineering firm (SNC-Lavalin) in her capacity as attorney general on charges of overseas corruption. Trudeau stands accused of having treated Wilson-Raybould unethically by subjecting her to such pressure, and then subsequently of having pushed her – and cabinet minister Jane Philpott – firmly out of the Liberal caucus for not playing ball.

Under the heading of ‘improved governance’, neither First Nations rights nor Canada-wide electoral reform have seen genuine improvements in substance. While improved connections between Ottawa and Canada’s newest territory Nunavut (formed in 1999) have gone some way to redress centre-periphery governance issues, in terms of basic standard of living, literacy and mortality, northern communities remain blighted by a range of poverty, unemployment and health issues. It’s not a good advertisement for Trudeau’s commitment to reengage the north. Electoral reform promises bit the dust almost as soon as the 2015 election ended, and it’s unlikely to be resurrected for the 2019+ session.

Challengers to the Throne

Andrew Scheer’s Conservative messages ranged from reversing key Trudeau policies on carbon pricing legislation to renewed funding for the provinces themselves (always an easy win). Scheer was also able to capitalise on Trudeau’s foreign policy missteps, including the tension in government policy between robust support for Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu vs. advocating Palestinian rights, as well as condemning human rights abuses in Saudi Arabi amidst increasing weapons sales for use in Yemen, etc.[2] In such instances, Trudeau’s foreign policy was portrayed as all brand, rather than on message. Other parties also made attempts to engage with, or transform Canadian attitudes. The populist People’s Party of Canada, under Maxime Bernier, branded by many as outright xenophobic, and who campaigned on overtly anti-immigration policies, ultimately lost his seat, suggesting that the limits of Canadian multiculturalism still remain largely inclusive, not exclusive.

The Greens led by Elizabeth May, and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP) under Jagmeet Singh, both helped to split the liberal vote on environmental and social issues respectively, though the Greens weren’t able to capitalise on the initial bounce enjoyed by their campaign, taking only 3 seats in the end.

The NDP’s 24 seats will be particularly crucial for Trudeau, helping to plug the 14-seat deficit he now faces. His next step will likely be to set up a “confidence-and-supply” structure familiar in other parliaments, including the UK, where smaller groups agree to support the government on certain policies and subsequent pieces of legislation, instead of establishing an official coalition that works across the full spectrum of policy-making. This makes Singh himself a necessary ally for Trudeau. It also makes NDP priorities  – including environmental protectionism, human rights, and health and education funding – that much more central to Trudeau’s next four years. While Trudeau may find ways to support the latter, the lead story in the Calgary Herald confirms that Trudeau’s environmental protectionism is clearly heading for a collision course: “Even with a minority status, Liberals wouldn’t dare abandon TransMountain”.[3]