The stakes are high in every election. But in this highly competitive federal campaign now entering the critical stretch, the stakes are highest for Justin Trudeau and the Liberal party, for the wrong outcome may doom their party's long-term survival.

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This article was published 12/9/2015 (2197 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.


The stakes are high in every election. But in this highly competitive federal campaign now entering the critical stretch, the stakes are highest for Justin Trudeau and the Liberal party, for the wrong outcome may doom their party's long-term survival.

This may seem preposterous at this particular moment. Based on the campaign, things have been going relatively well for the Liberals. Trudeau, charismatic yet inexperienced, has not committed a serious error to date, and the party is not experiencing the sort of torpor that brought it to a historic-low seat count in 2008 and then worse off, to third-party status in 2011.

But for the Liberals, this election campaign should be seen as an all-or-nothing proposition. They must win the most seats and form the next federal government. If they fail to do this -- and especially if they fail to leap past the NDP and, instead, win the second-highest number of seats in the House of Commons -- they are in danger of being pushed further to the margins as the Conservatives and NDP seek to erode their support.

The three parties will be locked into a tight battle right up until ballots are cast on Oct. 19. However, the real struggle begins after the votes are counted. The aftermath of this election will likely bring major changes to all three parties (and I will go through these in future columns). But today, the focus is on the Liberals, who have the most at stake.

Unless there is a significant change between now and election day, we are likely to end up with a Parliament in which none of the three parties has a majority. Even though seat projections may change the calculus at any given moment, the odds are that the two parties most likely to win the most seats are the NDP and Conservatives. Our first-past-the-post election system rewards regional concentrations of support over broadly distributed national support, so based on regional-level polling results, the NDP is likely to capture many seats in francophone Quebec and the most populous areas of British Columbia, while the Conservatives should count on still winning large swathes of Western Canada and rural Ontario.

For the Liberals, who have more evenly distributed support throughout the country, the path to victory is much narrower. The most important thing they must do is win the majority of seats in urban Ontario, especially around Toronto. That's a difficult outcome to predict since a number of these races are genuine three-way contests.

In addition, they must sweep Atlantic Canada and anglophone Quebec as well as pick up enough seats in urban centres in Western Canada, particularly Winnipeg, to have a shot at forming a majority government (which is the best-case, though most unlikely, scenario) or to have a higher share of seats than either the NDP or Conservatives -- say, 145 out of 338 seats. In this case, they would be the party the Governor General would turn to if the Conservatives were unable to hold the confidence of the House.

But let's say the NDP wins the most seats in a minority Parliament, the Conservatives finish second and the Liberals, third. Since the Conservatives would not have to turn over the keys immediately, the NDP and Liberals would be under immense pressure to vote out the Conservatives at the earliest opportunity in the House of Commons and form a coalition government of some form.

If the Liberals agree to this -- and indeed, many of their supporters likely want this to happen -- they are potentially putting their party on the path to irrelevance. The Liberals should know coalition governments do not work out well for the junior partner.

Federally, they were able to use the NDP's support from 1963 to 1968 and again from 1972 to 1974 to take many NDP policy ideas, run on them and use them to win eventual majorities. But in the provinces, and in most Westminster democracies during the past century, Liberal support for a NDP/centre-left government usually means eventual absorption. In 1999, Saskatchewan's governing NDP broke a tie in the legislature by governing with the support of three out of four Liberal MLAs. In Manitoba, the NDP's breakthrough win in 1969 came because one of the Liberal MLAs, Larry Desjardins, crossed the floor.

This scenario could cut the other way, too. Even if the NDP wins more seats, the Conservatives will have the time and resources to potentially secure enough Liberal support to continue governing. This may not take the form of abstaining from votes or the other tactics the Liberals used to prevent an election when the Conservatives last had a minority government, but depending on the math in the House of Commons it may precipitate a split where some of the Liberal caucus could join the Conservatives in a coalition to keep out the NDP.

Now, some will say all of this is speculative and premature. But as Canadians think about which party's candidate to vote for, it is probably just as important for them to think about what could happen after Oct. 19 than what the results will be on that day.

And for those who may be considering voting Liberal, the long-term future of their preferred party may make the choice especially difficult.


Curtis Brown is the vice-president of Probe Research. His views are his own. Twitter: @curtisatprobe