Election results reflect a divided nation

Under the guise of a minority victory for Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, Canadians have given themselves a Parliament that better reflects their deepening divisions than a common national purpose.

If anything, the election stands to exacerbate rising tensions between parts of the federation.

In each and every case, the capacity of Canada’s main parties to speak for the country has been diminished.

That starts with the re-elected Liberals.

Their caucus is less the sum of Canada’s parts than the one they took into the campaign and the mandate Trudeau has been given is, at best, a conditional one.

He owes his re-election neither to his statesmanship in office, nor to his government’s record, but rather to the shortcomings of his main opponent.

Trudeau’s victory is at least as much, if not more, the product of a failed Conservative campaign than a successful Liberal one.

He would not be continuing as prime minister if a critical number of progressive voters had not belatedly decided to hold their noses and support his party out of the conviction that the Conservative alternative was definitively worse than a few more years under Liberal management.

As expected, Prairie voters massively deserted the Liberals. With no Liberal seat in Alberta, that province will spend the next few years looking on federal power from the Opposition benches.

At the same time, Quebec has bunkered down and sent to Parliament Hill its largest contingent of Bloc Quebecois MPs in more than a decade.

It will be hard for a minority Liberal government, dependent on the goodwill of either the NDP or a resurgent BQ for its survival, to balance the conflicting aspirations of Canada’s regions.

But the Liberals are hardly the only ones to have been damaged by the campaign.

Scheer consistently failed to impress.

The world has changed since Stephen Harper lost the 2015 election; one would have been hard-pressed to find any evidence of that reality in the Conservative platform.

It read as if the party had spent the past four years in a time warp.

Some losses are more damaging than others. On Monday, Scheer could not keep intact the bridgehead Harper had managed to build in Quebec over the past 15 years. His Quebec caucus was reduced by almost half.

If there is one issue that is not going off the radar over the next months and years, it is climate change.

The Conservatives have spent the past two years all but inviting voters who worry about the planet’s top-of-mind environmental issue to shop elsewhere.

Over the next days and months, the party will have to decide whether Scheer is the person best-placed to rebuild the bridges burned on his watch in time for the next election.

Whoever has that task will also have to contend with the fact that Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party will still be around to attack the party’s right flank.

By comparison to the bad place it was in at the start of the campaign, the NDP had a decent enough night. It held on to official party status and finished ahead of Elizabeth May’s Green party.

But beating low expectations is not the same as expanding one’s tent and the New Democrat tent is a shrunken one.

Looking at Canada’s map, the New Democrats are basically back where they stood in pre-Jack Layton era, with only two seats east of Ontario.

Where does federal politics go from here?

At first glance, Trudeau should be able to run a viable government, at least for as long as it takes the NDP, the Greens and the Bloc Quebecois to replenish their empty coffers.

There is no reason, given its configuration, for this Parliament to not go on for at least 18 months to two years.

In the last Liberal term, the biggest challenge came from south of the border with the election of Donald Trump.

In the upcoming one, the storm clouds have already accumulated on a provincial front manned by a majority of Liberal-hostile premiers.

Quebec and Alberta were already on a collision course over pipelines before the election. Its results have strengthened both Francois Legault and Jason Kenney’s hands.

It may take political management as deft as the Trudeau government displayed on the Canada/U.S. file to avoid a unity crisis.

Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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