The election is over, but it isn’t, really. Justin Trudeau is still the prime minister, but not the same one he was after the campaigns of 2015 or 2019.
Welcome to the complicated saga of a Canadian federal election during a pandemic. It’s not a neat and tidy movie, but more of a sprawling miniseries. Stay tuned for the next episode.
Trudeau was on his way to keeping his job in the early vote counts on Monday night, but only as a minority government leader – yet again – after a campaign that did not yield widespread approval of business as usual in Canadian politics.
This will prompt some reflection for Trudeau, but also for Conservative leader Erin O’Toole.
All the parties who were vying to grow their support in this election were held back from their loftiest goals. The leader who will most acutely feel that gap between hope and reality is Trudeau, the man who gambled that a majority was in easy reach.
Nothing about this election campaign was easy for the man given a third term in this strange election. A tight Liberal-Conservative fight, massive lineups at the polls, combined with thousands of mail-in votes – all told the story Monday night of an election that would not be settled easily.
One minority government can be dismissed as a fluke; plain old bad luck. Two minority mandates in three tries would be a strong sign that Canadians want this particular prime minister’s power to be held in check.
Not only should Trudeau consult more with opposition parties to get anything done with this new mandate – he will be feeling pressure to consult with rank-and file-Liberals, too.
As far as I can tell, Trudeau did not do much consulting when deciding to spring this election on the country.
If Trudeau ever imagined the campaign as an easy romp to a majority, his political instincts – and/or those of his team – were out of sync with the mood of the country.
That isn’t just a problem in terms of election strategy. It’s a governance issue too, if the party in power is misreading the electorate. Day after day, Trudeau said in the election campaign that big decisions need to be made about the post-pandemic future.
Will he base those decisions on better instincts than those that led to his election call?
Another division heightened in this election was the one between leaders and the rest of their parties. Populism may be in fashion in some quarters, but most of the parties conducted the election as an extremely top-down exercise. It was, on reflection, an incredibly leader-centric campaign.
Trudeau became the lightning rod for everything from vaccination protests to the fact that Canada was in the middle of an election – his call entirely. It was abundantly clear, as late as July, that the timing of the election call was not a matter on which rank and file Liberals were being consulted.
O’Toole, meanwhile, put his own face on the cover of the Conservative platform and routinely neglected to showcase candidates at his stops along the trail. “I’m the leader,” he would answer when challenged how his campaign had parted ways with the party record or even its platform.
The NDP unabashedly hinged their hopes on Jagmeet Singh’s “likability” as the main selling point for the party, while the Bloc Québécois changed the course of the polls in Quebec with one perceived insult to leader Yves-Francois Blanchet.
And Green leader Annamie Paul never did manage to get out from under the perception that her leadership was challenged.
Little wonder that Canadian political observers are getting ready to switch their sights from election coverage to leadership challenges in the days immediately after voting results are finally known.
Liberal commentators were already reading the early election results as an instruction to “get back to work.” They may be getting ahead of themselves.
Trudeau has been sent back to work through the vote count, but the campaign was a series of instructions to do that work differently. This isn’t a movie with a neat ending. The election drama of 2021 is a long-running series.
Susan Delacourt is a National Affairs writer.