Election 2019: What’s at stake for federal leaders?

Leadership shake-ups could be in the cards for parties that underperform in the fall election

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While voters wait on tenterhooks for the writ to drop, party leaders may be just as anxious for election night to decide whether they are long for their parties.

Business in Vancouver examines what’s at stake for five of the federal party leaders.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, leader, Liberal Party of Canada

The rookie prime minister has been suffering from image problems going beyond just this year’s SNC-Lavalin (TSX:SNC) scandal. Before that, Justin Trudeau’s bizarre trip to India raised eyebrows just as his lengthy honeymoon period with the public was waning.

If he were unable to form a majority or lead a minority government in the fall election, his future as the party’s leader would be in “serious trouble,” according to University of British Columbia political science professor Richard Johnston.

“It would be pretty tough for him to stay on. It’s not clear at the moment who the successor would be, but there’s some pretty strong individuals in the cabinet,” he said. “There’s a certain amount of simmering disaffection because of the spot he sort of landed the party. On the other hand, he got them there in the first place so there’s got to be some residual credit that accrues to the fact that he rescued the party from oblivion.”

Pollster Mario Canseco, the president of Vancouver-based Research Co., said the Liberals will find themselves needing to defend a significant amount of territory, especially new seats picked up in B.C.

But he added Trudeau’s days likely aren’t numbered even if the incumbent party underperforms.

“If we were to say for the sake of argument they lose the election, who do you go with [as the next Liberal leader]?” Canseco said.

“There hasn’t been a lot of effort in building up the team. Part of the situation: it has been all about Trudeau consistently. I’m not suggesting the ministers will not be capable of taking his job. But there’s not a discernible heir apparent.”

Andrew Scheer, leader, Conservative Party of Canada

Before taking over as leader of the Conservatives, 40-year-old Andrew Scheer served as either Speaker of the House or deputy Speaker from 2008 to 2015.

He narrowly beat out former foreign affairs minister Maxime Bernier in the Conservatives’ 2017 leadership race, but Scheer has had difficulty gaining traction with the public since then.

Canseco said his research reveals that about one in four Canadians is unaware of who he is, but that doesn’t mean the leader of the official Opposition will be toast if the party can’t form government.

“If it’s a [Liberal] minority, I don’t think it’s in the best interest of anyone to tender a resignation on election night,” he said. “[A minority government] could last a week, it could last a year, it could last a couple of years. It’s not going to be an easy decision in that sense.”

Johnston said one of Scheer’s biggest challenges will be separating himself from Premier Doug Ford, who leads the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario and has seen his support drop in the country’s most populous province significantly over the past year.

“Doug Ford seems to be poison; Andrew Scheer can’t avoid him, really,” Johnston said. “So to the extent that Ford has inserted himself into the campaign, that’s a problem for the Conservatives.”

Jagmeet Singh, leader, New Democratic Party

The first person from a visible minority group to lead a major political party in Canada, Jagmeet Singh sits as an MP in Burnaby South after getting his start in politics as an Ontario member of provincial parliament.

But he may  have onlythis next election to prove himself as leader.

“Their [NDP] chances in Quebec are basically in the toilet,” Johnston said.

“That was probably going to be true anyway, but a turban-wearing Sikh in a province which overwhelmingly endorses legislation that forbids such garb in provincial public service – it [isn’t] going to work. So right away there goes more than half his caucus.”

Canseco said much of his political future may come down to what Singh can negotiate out of the Liberals in the event the NDP is needed to prop up a Liberal minority. (Singh has already announced he won’t support a Conservative minority.)

But Canseco also agreed Quebec may be a lost cause for Singh.

“You go from almost Quebecer [Jack Layton] to Quebecer [Thomas Mulcair] to Jagmeet Singh from Ontario running in British Columbia,” he said.

“It’s not going to be that easy for him to connect.”

Elizabeth May, leader, Green Party of Canada

The environmentally minded party might be riding a wave of momentum – albeit, small – into the 2019 election.

Earlier this year it landed its second-ever seat in the House of Commons, with MP Paul Manly joining leader Elizabeth May in Parliament (both represent ridings on Vancouver Island).

“It’s similar to what we saw with Jack Layton back in 2011. That was his third election. He did a little bit better in each election,” Canseco said.

“She’s been very consistent in the message.”

But further gains may depend on how credibly Trudeau presents himself on environmental issues, according to Johnston.

That’s a more challenging prospect in B.C., where the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion remains controversial.

“They’re kind of the Liberals without ethnic minorities. Their policies are not so different,” he said. “But we might also see Elizabeth May is going to find herself a little less an object of adoration than she has in the past.”

Maxime Bernier, leader, People’s Party of Canada

After losing the Conservatives’ 2017 leadership race, Maxime Bernier moved swiftly to form his own People’s Party of Canada.

Since then the right-leaning party, known for its anti-immigration policies and an antagonistic take on climate change, has been struggling to gain traction in the polls.

“The odds are against him,” Johnston said. “There’s the question of money, candidates and all of that. I think he really needs to get into a [leadership] debate and at the moment he’s excluded from the official debate.”

He added that most people still don’t know who Bernier is, and they likely won’t get a chance unless he’s included in a national forum.

Canseco said the political future of Bernier and the party will likely remain up in the air until election night.

“If it turns out to be a one-person circus or nobody wins, then you have to think about what’s going to happen to the party down the road.”