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Hard lessons and awkward truths from Canada’s 44th federal election

By Bruce Cameron, Black Press Political Columnist
Liberal leader and prime minister Justin Trudeau in Iqaluit. Trevor Wright/NNSL photo

By Bruce Cameron, Black Press Political Columnist

Now that we are “back to the future” with a parliamentary makeup that is eerily similar to the last parliament, the Canadian electorate needs to consider a few hard lessons and awkward truths.

Canada at its core is a progressive nation, with a strong but smaller conservative opposition. Well over half of the electorate voted for parties with progressive agendas. The combined vote total for the Liberals (32.2 per cent), NDP (17.7 per cent) and Greens (2.3 per cent) is 52.2 per cent. If the left-leaning Bloc Quebecois is included, 60 per cent of Canadians chose a more progressive option.

To his credit, CPC leader Erin O’Toole ran a smooth “progressive” conservative campaign up until the last week, when he tried to shore up his right flank with a reversal on gun control policy. That move, combined with his awkward silence over support for Alberta Premier Kenney and his ill-fated pandemic polices, had disastrous effects for his party in Canada’s three largest urban centres: Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.

In B.C., Vancouver helped the Liberals maintain government. Three CPC incumbents were defeated by Liberals in Vancouver ridings (Steveston-Richmond East, Cloverdale Langley City and Richmond Centre), where the margins of victory were smaller than the total votes cast for the People’s Party. Much was written about the Liberals having to fight a “two- front” war with the Conservatives on their right and the NDP on their left—only late in the campaign did the outsized impact of the PPC vote on the Conservatives become apparent.

A hard lesson with potential long-term implications for the CPC is this: a far-right fringe party like the PPC siphons off enough conservative support (about five per cent on average this election) to lead to Liberal and NDP victories in close races. Tacking to the right (to fend off the PPC influence and keep the CPC base happy) could alienate the more centrist voters the Conservatives need if they want to win a majority government in Canada.

The NDP also has some tough lessons to take away from the election. Throughout the campaign, momentum seemed to be building for the NDP and it had a good shot at winning close to 40 seats nationally. Polls had NDP support hovering around the 21 per cent mark, yet some of that vote melted away on election night, back to 17.7 per cent. Ending up with less seats than the Bloc is disappointing for the NDP, but that result had less to do with Jagmeet Singh’s performance and more to do with the reality of strategic voting in close races where some NDP support went Liberal to hold off a perceived CPC surge.

The complexities of Canada’s electoral landscape also saw the NDP benefit from PPC vote-splitting in B.C., leading to NDP wins in Skeena Bulkley Valley (a 2,100-vote victory over the CPC with the PPC getting 2,800 votes) and Nanaimo Ladysmith (a three-way race narrowly won by the NDP over the CPC by one per cent, with the PPC getting five per cent).

For the Liberals, the hard lesson is it could have been worse. Due to PPC vote-splitting and a small drop in NDP support in the last week of the campaign, they comfortably held on to seats all around Vancouver. But the irritation Canadians felt about an early election call never really dissipated during the campaign, unlike when John Horgan held a pandemic election to gain an NDP majority in B.C. in 2020.

Despite disappointment for all parties, the Liberals won the biggest consolation prize of all: remaining in power for the next two years at least. Meanwhile the Conservatives will endure a litany of self-inflicted attacks from within their ranks over whether the move to the center by O’Toole helped or hurt their electoral chances.

The night was full of hard lessons for the Greens, whose support dropped from eight per cent in August polls to two per cent on election night. Green stalwart Elizabeth May, who was handily re-elected in Saanich Gulf Islands, noted that Canadians prefer minority governments to majorities that can be won with less than 40 per cent of the votes, and she nailed the final awkward truth that this election revealed: Canadians like minority governments more than their elected officials do.

Black Press Media’s election analyst Bruce Cameron has been a pollster for over 35 years, working initially for Gallup Polls, Decima Research and the Angus Reid Group before founding his own company, Return On Insight. He is a frequent media commentator in print and broadcast media.

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