Tough choices await still-minority Liberals after $600 million election interruption

Third time, not so lucky.

Justin Trudeau bet on himself Monday, practically dared the country in the throes of the pandemic to deny his bid for a majority government, and for a time it looked like an act of extraordinary hubris that would humiliate him.

The results, nearly identical to those in 2019, conferred neither punishment nor the prize: a second minority Liberal government with NDP support that this time will be steep to buy.

For Conservative Erin O’Toole, this was a defeat snatched from the jaws of victory that only two weeks ago appeared to be one snatching victory from certain defeat. O’Toole presented a more moderate public face of the Tories, but Canadians ultimately rejected his version of centrist prescription.

And his supporting cast cost him: candidates who he wouldn’t insist get vaccinated to campaign, and his premature defence of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s pandemic recklessness and late-campaign declaration of an emergency, earned him nothing early and lost him lots later. A mid-campaign, platform-rewriting, flip-flop on gun control was a painful distraction of sub-competence. What seemed miserly as a platform on child care after months of Liberal largesse was baffling.

If it could have been a catastrophe for the prime minister, he is fortunate it wasn’t a referendum on his foibles, because they offered a winnable feast for a coherent opposition. But after a brutal start in which the majority government objective was shelved, Trudeau effectively made the pandemic an issue to wedge voters away from change, made enough of them wary of it in Conservative hands, and O’Toole had little beyond his own lesser-known persona as a response against a leader with an international brand.

Trudeau never offered any rationale for the election nor vision for his next mandate these last five weeks, and did not offer one Monday night, but sometimes you go with the devil you know.

If he has learned anything now from tempting fate, Trudeau will not think – as he suggested days ago – about soon calling the country back to a $600-million-plus vanity event.

“I hear you,” he said on that ill-tempered election call issue that would not dissolve when he dissolved Parliament. All acceptance speech, he kept saying “I hear you,” as if to admit, “I haven’t.”

Had the result been much worse, the #trudeaumustgo Twitter hashtag would have become a Liberal email signature. As it is, he can keep his job long enough to determine if he wishes to try again to get his party’s blessing to run a fourth time and risk a third straight shortfall.

In his deliberation he would be wise, too, to recognize that his campaign did nothing to unite the country and much to contribute to divisiveness. He ran against some citizens, not just politicians, like never before. To the extent he has remaining credibility to heal, he will want to apply it; he certainly cannot run again successfully without restoring his brand.

O’Toole, despite exceeding expectations, has his own challenges now by virtue of moving the party vigorously into territory more familiar for Liberals. Many Conservatives in his 2021-onward caucus will view his failures in Ontario to break through and in Quebec to revive – even here in British Columbia to build – as evidence the country wants a more defined two-party choice to govern.

His concession speech resembled a stump speech on policy and did little to congratulate, but he pledged to continue to broaden the tent and pursue “the courage to change.” He made clear his determination to “continue this journey” and his commitment “to lead this Conservative party to victory.” It is never a leader’s call, of course, as Trudeau will also find.

The Bloc Québécois, the Conservatives and the Liberals all lost a seat, so that made the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh with only something to show for the election only Trudeau wanted. (BQ Leader Yves-François Blanchet correctly termed it Monday “an interruption of my barbeque.”)

Singh’s two additional seats in preliminary counts preserves his position with all the benefits but none of the responsibilities of government. His speech had more of a victory feel to it, loaded with what felt like plans on a smorgasbord of social and economic pursuits as if he were PM. For someone who appeared only two years ago to be playing out a short-lived leadership string, he has to be the happiest camper.

Starting Tuesday, he and Trudeau go into couples therapy to renew their vows of partnership. They certainly looked like a relationship on the rocks all campaign. A few billion dollars will smooth it all over, and this will be a progressive and active government, but Trudeau will presumably be governing when the pandemic recedes and the economy stabilizes, when more attention will be paid to the bills to be paid. That will be a miserable time for any government because it will mean exceptionally hard choices on taxing and spending. Let’s see how many big-ticket programs get kicked down the road.

Where we are today is where we were five-and-a-half weeks ago, only in need of the federal government to reapply itself to the ministering of our health and to the wounds that this campaign needlessly revealed and opened. Trudeau is correct in claiming the fight with the pandemic isn’t over, but what voters made clear Monday was that there was never a reason for him to take a break from it. The best he can say today is that it could have been worse.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.