Canadians could make Trudeau pay for his gamble

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On the eve of the election, Trudeau’s hopes for an expanded mandate in a third term look to be dashed. The likeliest outcome, my colleague Amanda Coletta noted, may be that Trudeau’s Liberals emerge with a plurality of the 338 seats in Canada’s House of Commons, but not the 170 needed to claim a majority. The opposition to their legislative agenda in parliament will be significant. In polls over the course of the 36-day campaign period, the Liberals and Conservatives have been neck-in-neck, often within the margin of error. The Liberals and Conservatives are competing with a variety of national parties including the Greens, New Democratic Party, and Bloc Quebecois, which is left-leaning.

With the race so tight, the final verdict may not be known by day’s end.

“We’ll certainly have an idea of the likely outcome Monday evening, but we might have to wait another day for the final result due to a larger-than-usual number of mail-in ballots,” Felix Mathieu, a University of Winnipeg politics professor, told the Agence France-Presse.

The Liberals’ slide is, in part, a reflection of public exasperation with an arguably unwarranted election campaign amid a fourth wave of the pandemic.

“Whatever happens, Canadians will welcome the end of the election no one wanted,” columnist David Moscrop wrote. Over the last few weeks everyone has been a little more pessimistic, exhausted, and frustrated. Perhaps hopeless. Expect low turnout and another election within 18 months as the voting will continue until morale improves.”

That cynicism belies the genuine, substantive issues shaping the election campaign — including climate policy, gun control, housing affordability and the management of the pandemic.

“From the first day of the campaign, Trudeau has sought to make vaccine mandates a wedge issue,” wrote Coletta. “He backs mandatory vaccinations for federal civil servants and passengers traveling domestically on planes and trains.”

Trudeau’s main opponent, Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, is softer on vaccine mandates, calling instead for unvaccinated workers to take regular coronavirus tests. The prime minister has linked O’Toole to the mess in Alberta, whose right-wing provincial government presides over the worst covid outbreak in the country. Alberta’s political leadership took an initially lax approach, but this past week Premier Jason Kenney admitted the province is in the grips of a “crisis of the unvaccinated.”

Trudeau has also punched left, warning that a vote for NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and his allies is tantamount to a vote for Conservatives. “Despite what the NDP likes to say, the choice is between a Conservative or a Liberal government right now,” Trudeau said while campaigning in the Toronto suburbs Sunday. “And it does make a difference to Canadians whether we have or not a progressive government.”

O’Toole still poses the most credible threat Trudeau has yet to face to his stint in power. He tried to win the party’s control by using hardline rhetoric that was more common to people south of the border. But he continued to lapse into the mainstream on issues such as climate change.

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“The Conservatives have finally put out somebody who looks friendly and as though he won’t chew your fingers off if you try to shake hands,” said Robert Bothwell, a professor of Canadian history at the University of Toronto, to my colleagues. “They’re presenting somebody who’s a very nice old grandpa figure or a nice uncle — and that’s different.”

Trudeau’s own luster has faded. A political scion and son of famous Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau, his first win came in a 2015 landslide. Charismatic and energetic, he became the poster child of a new era of Western liberalism, a vision made all the easier by the rise of Donald Trump next door. Trudeau was a champion of Canadian multiculturalism, the need for refugees and proudly celebrated his feminist beliefs.

But his time in office has been dogged by damaging scandals, from embarrassing revelations of blackface photos to criticism of his government’s handling of allegations of sexual assault within the military to ethics violations surrounding his role in the settlement of a legal case with a Quebec-based engineering firm that faced criminal charges. The pursuit of Keystone XL, the billionaire Keystone XL pipeline also harmed his climate-warfare credentials.

Trudeau’s most bitter opponents may actually help him win a third term. The far-right People’s Party of Canada emerged in 2018 animated by nativist anti-immigration sentiment. But it’s now propelled by full-blown opposition to pandemic-era restrictions and polling at around 6 percent — a vote share that may not win it a seat in parliament but could eat away enough support from the Conservatives to give Trudeau’s Liberals an edge in certain contested constituencies. In a scene unfamiliar to Canadian politics, Trudeau was pelted with gravel by PPC supporters at a campaign stop earlier this month.

Some analysts fear that the passions unleashed by the PPC, still a fringe force, may be a harbinger of things to come.

“Until now, the populist tide that has swept the world has had little effect in Canada,” wrote Stephen Maher in Maclean’s. “So far it is more of a ripple — a disturbance below the surface — and it ought to fade with the pandemic, but it could be the start of something bad.”

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