On the final day of a federal election campaign that’s been overshadowed by the pandemic’s fourth wave, many Canadians are still asking themselves why the country is in an election at all. It’s a question that’s been at the forefront of the 36-day campaign and has shown no sign of subsiding.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s promise of meaningful debate on pandemic issues (the reason he said Canada needed an election) never materialized. Instead, the election was littered with the usual partisan mudslinging and empty rhetoric such as "moving Canada forward," most of which Canadians appeared to ignore. There were important issues on the table, including child care, climate change, and health care. But in a pandemic where the vast majority of Canadians are focused on keeping themselves and their families safe (many are still recovering from a brutal recession) those issues did not and could not receive the attention they deserve.
Trudeau’s hopes of regaining a majority government are dim. Public opinion polls suggest he barely has the support to maintain minority status. The Liberals face the possibility of winning fewer seats than they had prior to the election. Trudeau’s calculated risk, that he could win a majority on the combined strength of his government’s pandemic response and the Liberal party’s vision for the future, is looking increasingly like a bad bet.
The Liberals have been unable to overcome widespread criticism that calling an election during a public health emergency was nothing more than naked political opportunism. The election left important national initiatives (such as implementing proof-of-vaccine requirements for domestic air and rail travel and boosting immunization rates) on the sidelines until after the vote. Those delays could have far-reaching impacts.
The attempt to grab more power at the expense of governing during a crisis became more obvious as the fourth wave grew, especially in the West, where COVID-19 patients are piling up in hospitals. Few Canadians are in the mood for an election as they slip on their masks, double check their voting cards and head to the polling stations today. Trudeau grossly miscalculated that public sentiment.
It’s unlikely any of the 14 federal ridings in Manitoba will change hands this election. There is an outside chance Liberal incumbent Terry Duguid could lose the bellwether riding of Winnipeg South if voters there are turned off enough by his party’s self-serving election call. Conservative incumbent Marty Morantz in Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia-Headingley faces the dual threat of Liberal candidate Doug Eyolfson vying for his former seat and the potential erosion of the Tory vote by the anti-science, anti-vaxx People’s Party of Canada. Those factors could make that riding a close race.
Nationally, a political divide is expected between the East and the West, as occurred after the 2019 federal vote. Erin O’Toole’s Conservative party continues to poll well in the Prairies and on the West Coast. However, its popularity remains modest at best in Ontario and weak in Quebec and the Atlantic provinces. Trudeau’s Liberals enjoy relatively strong support in the East, but have never been popular west of Ontario. That’s not expected to change in this election.
So, what was the point of this exercise? The most likely outcome after the polls close tonight is Canadians will have another Liberal minority government, a divided country and an additional $610 million in federal debt (the estimated cost of holding the federal election). Worse, Canada will have lost precious time fighting the pandemic.
If Trudeau is unable to win a majority, questions about his status as party leader will almost certainly be on the table. A leader who wins back-to-back minority governments (after only one term of majority rule) and appears incapable of elevating his party beyond that, doesn’t have much future in an organization that aspires for more. If the bloom is off the rose for Trudeau — and it appears it is — this could be his last rodeo.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.