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Eugenia Israelyan

PhD in History, Leading Researcher at RAS Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies

Natalia Viakhireva

PhD in Political Science, RIAC Program Manager

On October 19, Canada held its 42nd general election to the House of Commons which brought a stunning victory to the Liberal Party, a party whose leaders and new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have already formed the Cabinet and are now are busy establishing their national priorities. What have been the changes to Canada's political landscape? Why were the Conservatives defeated? What socio-economic and international policies can we expect from the new government?

p>On October 19, Canada held its 42nd general election to the House of Commons which brought a stunning victory to the Liberal Party, a party whose leaders and new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have already formed the Cabinet and are now are busy establishing their national priorities. What have been the changes to Canada's political landscape? Why were the Conservatives defeated? What socio-economic and international policies can we expect from the new government? Will liberal values and traditions make a comeback? This piece offers a detailed commentary for readers to navigate the emerging partisan and political environment of Canada, a country that plays a major role in global economic ties and international relations.


Election Campaign Surprises

The biggest surprise was the overwhelming victory of the Liberal Party which gained a majority of the vote (39.5 percent) and an absolute majority of seats (184 out of 338) [1]. In contrast, during the 2011 federal election, this party received only 18.9 percent of the vote and 34 seats. A leap of such scale is unprecedented in the entire history of Canadian democracy. Never before had the third largest parliamentary party, as was the case with the Liberals before the October 19 polls, received a mandate to establish a majority government. The Liberals also won in almost all provinces except for Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

This was the second surprise the Liberals presented to their electorate over the past five years. Although Canada boasts over a dozen political parties, its political system hinges on the alternate rule of the Conservatives and the Liberals. From time to time these parties update their titles but their cores remain unchanged since each has its own social bases, ideologies and platforms. For the first time since 1867 when the Constitution Act was adopted, the two-party tradition misfired in 2011. The Liberals were decisively defeated and replaced by the New Democratic Party (NDP) as the official opposition. As a result, their leader Michael Ignatieff resigned, while the party elite had to urgently develop a new strategy and search for a new top man. The 2015 election outcome only proved that these amendments were correct, as the Liberals revenged upon their defeat through a landslide over their rivals.

One more October surprise was the end of the presumably prolonged Conservative rule under the premiership of Stephen Harper, whose political longevity in this role almost reached ten years, more than any other Conservative leader since John Macdonald (1867-1873 and 1878-1891). Mr. Harper headed a minority government in 2006 and 2008, and in 2011 he won a majority to form his own cabinet. Having lost 67 seats in October, the Conservatives moved into the official opposition, while Mr. Harper resigned.

The NDP’s performance in October was somewhat predictable, since it failed to repeat its 2011 triumph, when the only North American social democratic party for the first time in history received 103 parliamentary seats and became part of the official opposition. In 2011, their victory was in fact brought about by francophone Québec, where the NDP gained over a half of its seats thanks to the downfall of the Bloc Quebecoise that struggled for the province's sovereignty as well s because of the dynamic campaign of then leader Jack Layton.

REUTERS/Chris Wattie
Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper and
Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau pause
after laying a wreath during a ceremony to
commemorate the October 2014 attack on
Parliament Hill, at the National War Memorial in
Ottawa, Canada October 22, 2015

However, the New Democrats' success was short-lived, as they failed to grow into an influential political force that could offer a left-of-center alternative to the conservative ideology. Gradually shedding its most radical leftist attitudes, the NDP moved the center, losing the support of its traditional electorate which was dissatisfied with the party's indecisiveness and frail election campaign. The Liberals skillfully made use of the situation by putting forward pledges close to those of the NDP (higher taxation of high profits, lower taxes for the middle class and the disadvantaged, and larger social benefits) and recaptured leftist votes. As a result, last October the NDP lost 59 seats across the country and more than 40 seats in Quebec. The newspapers wrote that the "orange breakthrough in Quebec" was replaced by a "red wave," proceeding from the parties' colors: the NDP flies orange and Liberals – red. The NDP occupied its habitual third place in the national political hierarchy.

The 2015 campaign also became the turning point for the Bloc Québécoise which won only ten House seats, slightly more than the previous election (when it won four), although the defeat was still devastating. Interestingly, Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe lost his own district where he had run for the last 20 years. The party elite recognized the need to update their slogans and policies, since the idea of French Canadian sovereignty has decayed, and Mr. Duceppe chose to resign.

The past election also featured an extremely high turnout of 68.5 percent, a record figure since 1993, which points to the importance of economic and security issues which were central to the pre-election debates.

The results seem to suggest the following conclusions. First, the post-2011 political system consisting of a rightwing majority and leftist opposition was unbalanced and brought about a regrouping toward the traditional Conservative-Liberal arrangement. The bold experiment of 2011 was transitory but sufficiently important in becoming part of Canadian political history as a stage for the renovation and transformation of the partisan and political mechanism, the advance of democracy and overall expression of free will.

Second, there have been radical shifts in the electoral preferences of Canadians who have vigorously supported the Liberal program. Third, Canada is going through a process of the formation of the new political elite, with the older generation making room for the newcomers. Fourth, the emerging style of governance will differ from the Conservative practices. As such, Mr. Trudeau has said that leading means uniting people rather than creating wedges, as politics cannot be made with a baton.

Leadership with a Baton?

Summing up the record of Mr. Harper, pundits stress that the Conservatives have something to be proud of, since in 2003, the ex-PM managed to unite the divided conservative factions, i.e. the Progressives and the Canadian Alliance into a single Conservative Party, and effectively revive its clout and bring it to power. The Tories successfully materialized many of their conservative approaches, such as reducing the role of state in economy and achieving lower taxation, less regulation of businesses, and less interference in provincial affairs. What seems especially important is that they alleviated the negative impact of the recession of 2008-2009 since Canada turned out to be better prepared for the slump than other Western countries. In foreign affairs, Mr. Harper is usually lauded for numerous economic and trade accords including the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the European Union of October 2013 and the Trans-Pacific Partnership of October 2015.

Then why were the Conservatives defeated? What explains the astounding U-turn in popular opinion?

First, Mr. Harper was let down by economic trends. Canada, a major energy supplier, has suffered from the drop in the oil price, reliant on alternative energy sources and shale oil successes. The IMF forecasts are far from comforting, indicating lower economic figures. Due to the downturn, the electorate chose to vote for the opposition in the hope that a new government would bring about a recovery sooner.

Second, voters wanted changes. Democracy means a rotation of government. Hence, the extended rule of one party usually generates discontent, which was exactly the case with Canadians who became “bored with Harper” with progressively more finding him “dull and not sufficiently effective.” With the recession underway and Mr. Harper violating ethic norms, these opinions evolved into open rejection. Notably, before and during the election campaign, about 70 percent of the electorate supported changes in policies. These trends notwithstanding, the Tories insisted on stability and the extension of their proposals, while the Liberals and the NDP incorporated these shifts of the mass consciousness into their platforms. Their slogans were practically identical: the NDP chose Ready for Change, and the Liberals picked up the Real Change motto.

Third, some strongest irritants for the Canadians must have been Mr. Harper’s authoritarian style, secretive decision making, violation of democratic norms in communicating with the public and the media, and rudeness toward political opponents.

Many analysts agree that Mr. Harper’s personal traits were the key reason for his failure, since the vote was in fact anti-Harper. In reality, he recognized this fact in his post-election address: “The disappointment you also feel is my responsibility and mine alone”. The Harper era is definitely over, with prolific data available to conduct a profound analysis of the triumphs and failures of Canada's 22nd prime minister.

Will Liberal Traditions Prevail?

Mr. Trudeau has declared his commitment to liberal values in his very first speech after his dazzling victory, citing Liberal PM Wilfred Laurier (1896-1911) who had chosen the “sunny ways” understood by him and consequently by Mr. Trudeau as a combination of such pillars as patriotism, justice, reconciliation and compromise, respect of minorities’ rights, and consolidation of races and faiths. Liberalism is also Mr. Trudeau’s family tradition, as his father Pierre Elliot Trudeau, the legendary prime minister of 1968-1984, is remembered for his founding role in multiculturalism and bilingualism, steps to weaken Canada’s dependence on the United States and many other momentous transformations.

At 43, Justin Trudeau is a relatively young prime minister, running second only to Joe Clark, who won the high post in 1979.

On the one hand, one may have cited Mr. Trudeau's inexperience since he has headed the Liberal Party only starting in 2013. However, his political career began back in 2000 through his deep involvement in youth politics and was at the same time advanced quickly in the fields of citizenship and immigration. Pundits have stressed the exactitude and efficiency of his campaign, a fact only proven by the strong team he has chosen.

On the whole, Mr. Trudeau is a highly educated and versatile personality. In 1994, he graduated from McGill University, one of Canada's most prestigious institutions, where he studied literature. He then received a Bachelor of Education degree from the University of British Columbia. He has taught French, English and mathematics, explaining his choice through his intention to contribute to the social progress of his country. In 2002-2003, he studied engineering at École Polytechnique de Montréal, and in 2005-2006 – environmental geography at McGill University. In 2007, Mr. Trudeau was elected to the House of Commons in Québec.

Alongside politics, Mr. Trudeau has been engaged in social activities, among other things as a snowboard instructor, and also has launched a massive avalanche warning program, following the loss of his brother who was killed in such a disaster. This initiative is still significant for Canadian society where winter sports are very popular and safety is everybody’s concern. The new prime minister took part in many environmental projects and is married with three children.

Mr. Trudeau ran under the slogan of change and proposed concrete steps that became more attractive than those from the NDP, which also demanded renewal. Notably, for many decades the Liberals supported the state regulation of economy, a stronger national capital and improved social equality, stressing that they were the party that laid the foundation for comprehensive free healthcare and the effective pension system. Their 2015 platform runs along the same lines. In contrast to the Conservatives and the NDP who promised a balanced budget, Mr. Trudeau chose to increase outlays for modernizing infrastructure through a budget deficit that will be kept during three years at CAD 10 million annually.

The Liberal’s taxation policy was also distinctive. The Conservatives wanted to maintain the taxes at the same level, except for small businesses which were promised some relief. Instead, the NDP wanted to cut small business taxes but raise the corporate tax level to 17 percent. The Liberal scheme fell in between but was clear-cut and acceptable for the majority. The party proposed higher taxes for those who earn above CAD 200,000 a year up to 33 percent in order to ensure relief for the middle class. Now, medium-income Canadians will pay only 20.5 percent rather than 22 percent of their income. Low earning families will receive subsidies.

These Liberal proposals perfectly fit into the Canada for All concept, which is a key component of the Canadian liberal tradition. We should recall Mr. Trudeau Sr. is remembered for the 1982 patriation of the Canadian Constitution, i.e. the transfer of the authority from London to the Canadian Parliament and its incorporation into the Charter of Rights and Liberties. Mr. Trudeau Jr. has skillfully exploited this human rights rhetoric, among other things in the debate on niqab, a Muslim face veil worn by women. The Conservatives attempted to make the issue central to the campaign by proffering a ban to wear niqab for public servants. The Liberals countered that nobody could regulate ladies’ wear and won the battle. Along with a promise to repeal the C-24 or the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act, which enables the authorities to deprive persons with double citizenship of Canadian citizenship on suspicion of terrorism, this stand helped Mr. Trudeau to win the immigrants' votes. The majority of immigrants voted for the Liberals, as well as eight out of ten immigrants-dominated districts.

Mr. Trudeau’s foreign policy also reflects the liberal tradition. Canadian governments are known both for continuity and dissimilarity. Liberals tend towards ethics-based argumentation, soft power and negotiations, internationalism, a penchant for the United Nations and participation in multilateral peacekeeping operations and development assistance programs. At the same time, they have used force, for example in Kosovo and during the early stages of the Afghanistan crusade. The Conservatives prefer the North American wave and hard power.

During the election campaign, both Liberals and New Democrats condemned Mr. Harper for his failure to preserve Canada's hard-fought reputation as a dynamic UN member, peacemaker and mediator in conflict resolution. Among other things, this concerned Ottawa's defeat during the elections for the UN Security Council non-permanent members in October 2010, the first since World War II. The Conservatives were also accused of excessive militarization and a bias towards the U.S.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau look and Minister
of Innovation, Science and Economic
Development Navdeep Singh Bains

Mr. Trudeau Sr. left a distinctive mark in history thanks to his drive towards the Canadization of the country’s foreign policy which was aimed at diminishing its dependence on the United States and at diversifying international ties. Only time will tell if his son follows suit. Either way, his son’s initial steps in foreign affairs seem to imply some courage along the Canada-U.S. vector and a desire to lessen the militarist component. He has confirmed a pledge to withdraw from air attacks on ISIS in Syria and Iraq, although with supporting continued Canadian efforts in training the Iraqi army. There have also been reports about the possible refusal from buying the costly and problem-ridden F-35 American fighters.

As for Russian-Canadian relations, Mr. Trudeau’s rhetoric ix hardly inspirational. Judging from the pre-election debate, all of the candidates were equally hostile to Russia, calling its policies as aggressive and unpredictable. The Liberal legacy indicates that it was Mr. Trudeau Sr. who in the midst of the Cold War opened a new chapter in Soviet-Canadian relations by visiting the USSR in 1971 and signing a series of critical bilateral agreements. The Liberal government of Jean Chrétien bolstered the legal base for Russia-Canada cooperation, which might suggest some disposition towards alleviating Ottawa’s current rhetoric on Moscow.

In the context of the Liberals’ traditional multilateral diplomacy, Mr. Trudeau will soon attend the G-20 summit in Turkey and meet Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin and other leaders, followed by the APEC gathering in Manila. These and other moves should provide some more clarity to the new government’s domestic and foreign priorities.

Mr. Chretien, Canadian prime minister in 1993-2003, has expressed hope that Mr. Trudeau will successfully establish a dialogue with all world leaders including Vladimir Putin. "Mr. Trudeau can talk to anybody because he has kept his independence," he said. Paul Martin, the Canadian prime minister from 2003-2006, expects Canada to "shed its standing as a less important player on the global stage.” “I can tell you under Justin Trudeau, it’s not going to be [that way] for long,” he said.. has interviewed former Canadian diplomats about their advice to the new prime minister (Seven Foreign Policy Wishes for Canada’s New Government), among them ex-Ambassador to Russia Christopher Westdal, ex-Ambassador to Syria and Afghanistan Glenn Davidson, ex-Ambassador to NATO David Wright, et al. In a nutshell, they do expect Canada to take up a more significant role in the world, giving up the militarist foreign policy and becoming more visible in international institutions. Stressing the need for diplomatic service reform, these veterans want to see a pro-active Canada guided by national values and interests.

1. A parliamentary majority does not require a majority of votes. Canada uses a majority system, where candidates are elected in districts by a simple majority. A party may receive less than 25 percent of the national vote but can win in every district and then receive all of the parliamentary seats.

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